HKU Main Building

HKU to launch ‘universal’ online course to fight sexual harassment

April 11, 2017 / by / 0 Comment

[Update (29/6/2017): the story has been updated to take into account of the Review Panel on Residential Hall Education and Culture, announced on June 26th 2017.]

Two residential halls at the University of Hong Kong have come under fire last week for alleged incidents of inappropriate behaviour. Speaking to hKUDOS, HKU president and vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson said he was concerned about hall activities being “harassing of individuals,” and that he plans to pursue reforms.

“I don’t want to dictate hall culture, but I do think hall culture should conform to the same values and the same norms as the rest of the university,” Mathieson said.

Mathieson also voiced his support for a new online course on preventing sexual harassment, which he expects to be required for all HKU student and staff in the long run. It is in production now and is due to launch this September for the upcoming academic year.

Mathieson further acknowledged that HKU’s Equal Opportunity Unit, which handles complaints of sexual discrimination and harassment, faces problems in its work to support victims of gender-based violence, and made a commitment to more data-collection and transparency.

Mathieson: hall culture should “conform to same values and same norms” as university

Peter Mathieson, HKU president and vice-chancellor

Peter Mathieson, HKU president and vice-chancellor

Mathieson was interviewed on April 3rd, and when asked about the incident at St. John’s College, he said he was not aware of it at the time and could not comment specifically. (The incident at St. John’s College was first reported on April 2nd, while the incident at Simon K.Y. Lee Hall was first reported on April 5th.) Mathieson’s office did not respond to further requests for comment.

In separate statements, neither of the halls has classified the incidents as cases of sexual harassment or assault. An investigation is ongoing.

In the interview, Mathieson stressed his disapproval of any kind of sexual harassment or violence, and said even though he didn’t want to “dictate hall culture,” activities in residential halls are a source of concern for the HKU administration.

“We don’t want to stop people from doing things that they’ve done for years, where they enjoy themselves and they think have got some value. But we are concerned about the risk of those things being harassing of individuals or making people feel uncomfortable,” he said. “Even if it doesn’t border on violence, there are plenty of activities we prefer not to happen.”

Mathieson pointed to newer colleges on Lung Wah Street, which he said were deliberately designed to accommodate one-third local, one-third overseas, and one third mainland students, with a roughly even split between undergraduates and postgraduates.

“My understanding is that that integrated environment works well, and is not so susceptible to some of the practices which go on in some of the older halls, where they are very Cantonese-based, very local-student-orientated, and based on some aspects of tradition which are perhaps a little old-fashioned now,” he said.

Mathieson said his goal was to “engineer structures that make bad behaviour less likely,” including reforming the admission process of residential halls. He said he was talking actively about reforms with Ian Holliday, HKU’s vice-president of teaching and learning, but could not provide policy specifics or a timetable of implementation.

On June 26th, a Review Panel on Residential Hall Education and Culture was announced via mass email. Established in May, the Panel is led by Holliday and includes Eugenie Leung, dean of student affairs; Henry Y.K. Lau, warden of University Hall; Aaron Chan Hei-long, HKUSU internal vice president; Tony Ho Kin-tung, chair of RC Lee Hall Students’ Association; and Judith Ng, assistant registrar.

The Panel will explore how residential halls contribute to 4 “key HKU values”, and submit findings and recommendations to the senior management team. It is inviting online feedback through to the end of July, and plans to organize “close to 20″ semi-open town hall meetings in September.

Mathieson: sexual harassment prevention course should be “universal”

Terry Au Kit-fong, VP of Academic Staffing and Resources

Terry Au Kit-fong, VP of Academic Staffing and Resources

Terry Au Kit-fong, HKU’s vice-president of academic staffing and resources, has been leading a team to create an “online sexual harassment course” since last November. The course is “geared towards staff and students,” and the student version is expected to launch this summer.

According to Au, the half-hour course will include short video skits that show interactions in a university setting. After watching the video, participants will be asked questions such as: In this situation, do you think there is sexual harassment? If you encounter this situation, what actions would you take? If you take a particular action, do you know what is the consequence?

The objective of the course is to help students “better protect themselves and their friends,” and to encourage bystanders to speak up and support victims. All course materials will be produced by HKU internally in order to tailor it to a local context. When asked about whether the latest incidents have any effect on the contents or implementation of the course, Au’s office declined to comment.

Au said the course will be in soft launch this year, which means it will be optional for students.

“When students log onto [e-learning platform] Moodle, there will be an invitation to take this course. There will be a short introduction, like a movie trailer, and a test of their current level of knowledge. [...] We plan to give a semester’s time for everyone to take this half-hour course and then the students will take the test again, to see whether this course actually helps them understand sexual harassment and how to handle it,” Au said.

If the course is shown to be effective, and after going through “levels of approval and getting student buy-in,” Au said it will become a required training. In the final version students will have to take the course before getting access to their e-learning accounts, in effect making it mandatory.

Mathieson said he was aware that making the course mandatory may attract controversy, but he stands by the decision of it being “universal,” because it should be “part of the universal culture of HKU.”

“I do believe that part of coming to HKU, whether you’re student or staff, should be that you believe in equal opportunities. I have no problem with asserting that as one of the characteristics of the university,” he said.

Mathieson: HKU Equal Opportunity Unit “under-resourced and understaffed”

HKU Equal Opportunity Unit

HKU Equal Opportunity Unit

The Equal Opportunity Unit at HKU is responsible for handling complaints of sexual discrimination and harassment. However, Mathieson said he is aware of criticisms that the EOU is “under-resourced and understaffed” and has “relatively rigid procedures,” and he admitted those criticisms are “probably true.”

The EOU now has 1 Equal Opportunity Officer and 5 members of supporting staff. It was founded in 2000 as a two-person unit, and it was not until 2015 that the office was gradually expanded. Wendy Lin, the current Equal Opportunity Officer, agreed that there are difficulties for EOU to handle complaints, due to “an increasing need of EOU’s services” which she attributed to better awareness of equal opportunity issues.

As for criticisms regarding its procedures, Lin said formal complaint procedures tend to take longer to resolve, which may account for the criticism of inefficiency. She estimated that cases take about three months to a year to be resolved under formal procedures.

When asked about the residential hall incidents, Lin said the EOU was not in a position to comment on individual cases.

As for transparency, the EOU regularly publishes data in mass emails titled “EO Alerts.” The data includes the number and type of complaints received, but not how the complaints are resolved. HKU also does not publicize data on complaints that do not go through the EOU.

Mathieson said that, as long as the data is anonymized, he is supportive of more transparency on cases of gender-based violence at HKU.

“I think we should collect more data than we do, and for the data we collect, I don’t see any reason to keep them private,” Mathieson said. “The overall figures we collect on gender issues—and this doesn’t just apply to sexual harassment, but also to appointments and promotions, and all the rest of it—personally, I would make all of that public.”


Law and literature student at HKU.