Women silenced across ranks: LSE’s mishandled sexual misconduct investigation into professor

Content warning: Sexual assault, sexual harassment

By Amadea Hofmann

In September 2023, Taylor Sherman, a professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, resigned after working at the university for over ten years. In her three-page resignation letter, Sherman attributed her departure to LSE’s systemic mishandling of a sexual misconduct case. 

The LSE investigation commenced after four formal complaints of sexual assault and harassment were made against an LSE faculty member. By July 2022, a total of five formal complaints and nine informal allegations against the accused individual were brought to the attention of LSE. Multiple accounts were submitted by the individual’s former students. 

Following the investigation, an LSE disciplinary panel did not uphold the allegations and the accused individual returned to teach at the university. 

In an interview with The Beaver, Sherman said, “The complaint system [at LSE] seems to be set up to protect the faculty, and does not just let these abuses happen, but discriminates against the people who complain. 

“The very top levels of the school were completely unwilling to address discrimination, victimisation and abuses of power.”

The departmental culture experienced by two postgraduate fellows caused them to permanently leave LSE in early 2023. In a statement obtained by The Beaver, one of them described the atmosphere in the department as “extremely toxic, evidenced in meetings and exchanges where colleagues’ proposals to improve EDI [Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion] goals were treated with derision and contempt.” She requested to transfer because she “did not find LSE conducive to [her] research and well-being.” 

Many of the women who made formal complaints declined to comment because they did not wish to relive their experiences. Several people also expressed concern that commenting on the department’s culture could lead to victimisation from within LSE or legal action by the accused individual. 

The eight women who spoke to The Beaver are current and former staff members and students predominantly from the department. Collectively, their accounts detail an investigation and aftermath that allegedly did not adequately protect those affected, citing perceived failings of the appointed investigator, the disciplinary panel, and the people at the highest levels of LSE leadership. 

A “deeply flawed process”

When Leila* began her PhD under the supervision of the accused individual, multiple women privately warned her about his pattern of behaviour. Despite the absence of formal complaints at the time, the individual’s conduct seemed to be an open secret among women in their academic field. Feeling unsafe and concerned, Leila opted to change supervisors. 

“If you stir up a fuss as a PhD student, there’s a very long road you have to travel to get from the PhD to landing a job, to securing tenure, to becoming a professor,” Sherman explained, “and all along that track, there are people who write confidential recommendation letters that are supposed to support you, but who could torpedo your career.”

Jane*, a PhD student, recalled an encounter with the accused individual at a weekend-long trip for staff and students in the department. The individual allegedly showed her his hotel room and attempted to kiss her while engaging in unwelcome physical contact. 

Ultimately, four women, including Jane, submitted formal complaints against the individual between March and May 2021 through LSE’s Report It Stop It portal. The process would span a year before the disciplinary hearing concluded, although notably, the women involved did not receive a formal notification signalling its end. Jane described it as a “deeply flawed process from start to finish.”

When the LSE investigation was launched in October 2021, the accused individual was suspended with pay. LSE also assured the women that the investigation would be overseen by a professor with expertise in handling matters of sexual misconduct. These steps were seen as “encouraging” by Leila.

However, it did not take long for the first cracks in the process to appear. 

Two months after the accused individual’s suspension, the affected women contacted LSE to express their concern and confusion with the individual partaking in public events while maintaining his affiliation to LSE, which LSE had previously assured them he could not do while suspended. Only several months later, when similar grievances were raised to LSE again, did the university inform them that the individual was in fact under a “partial suspension.” 

The accused individual also allegedly breached his suspension by attempting to interact with Jane and Leila on social media. After they informed the university of his breach, LSE assured them that the individual “[would] be warned that the consequences of [attempting to contact the women] could be disciplinary action.” 

Issues also emerged within the investigation itself. The appointed investigator was an LSE professor who lacked “appropriate training” and “didn’t know how to deal with the matter in line with best practices,” according to Leila. 

Jane described the quality of the minutes from the investigator’s interviews as “shockingly poor.” The women who were interviewed recorded the meetings and then cross-checked the minutes against their recordings. They identified discrepancies that omitted “vital points” and contained factual errors leading to “constant contention” with Human Resources, according to Jane. In response to these concerns, the investigator chose to save two versions of the minutes, rather than one mutually agreed-upon record. It remains unclear to the women which version(s) were ultimately shared with the accused or considered within the investigation.

The investigator also allegedly failed to interview a number of witnesses. This includes people that the women had identified as having knowledge of previous unreported allegations against the accused individual, as well as the people who could substantiate the women’s accounts. 

Ultimately, the affected women submitted a list of 13 alleged incidents of sexual misconduct involving the accused individual, four of which were submitted as formal complaints. The women anonymised the list and informed the investigator that it would be possible to establish contact if they were willing to investigate the additional information sensitively. Even though current sector guidance recommends that anonymous testimonies should be considered alongside a formal complaint, the investigator never followed up on the nine outstanding incidents. 

Moreover, LSE also “never really provided [the women involved] with any clear terms of how this investigation was going to be conducted,” according to Leila. Initially, the women were told that LSE would investigate the matter as potential gross misconduct, which would potentially result in the accused individual’s dismissal. 

However, a letter sent by LSE’s legal representation instructed the affected women to “refer to Part III, Section 13, Bye-law 3” of the Academic Annex, which outlines the procedure for a “matter [that] is more serious but falls short of constituting possible good cause for dismissal.” The maximum sanction under this procedure is a written warning that is disregarded after two years, subject to satisfactory conduct and performance.

In October 2022, the affected women heard rumours that the accused individual was being reinstated in his position. It was only after the women’s barrister, whom they had crowd-funded by incurring a cost exceeding £10,000, requested clarification from LSE that the women learned that the investigator had recommended two of the four complaints to the disciplinary panel. They were then notified that the panel did not uphold any of the allegations and that the accused individual would indeed be returning to LSE. 

The affected women were not informed about what was included in the investigator’s report, nor why or how the panel’s conclusion was reached.

Jane did not receive an outcome letter outlining her options for appeal until 6 February 2024, 16 months after the disciplinary procedure had concluded and five days after The Beaver sent LSE a request for comment. At least one of the affected women has still not received a formal outcome letter.

According to Leila, it was a “very difficult and frustrating” process for the affected women, who “put so much faith into a process, into their institution to protect them” only to have “no access to that report [and unable to] see their own evidence and how it’s been narrated or portrayed by this one investigator.”

“You want to trust your institution to take these sorts of things seriously. I think it was just such a difficult reality to comprehend,” Leila added. The ordeal resulted in her having to take six months of medical leave for anxiety, stress, and depression.

The aftermath

Once the investigation concluded, the accused individual sent a message to other LSE staff members criticising the actions taken against him. In an email obtained by The Beaver, the individual condemned the “bullying campaign of rumours that has been waged against [him]” and invited the “opportunity to discuss the toxic and hostile work environment [in order to] stop rumours.”

In September 2023, following the investigation and an unrelated leave of absence, the accused individual returned to LSE. According to Sherman, he “started victimising the women involved” by gathering “several allies [who] shouted at junior colleagues in meetings [targeting] anybody who was not white, all the junior women, anybody who had a reputation for supporting EDI initiatives of any kind.”

Before the investigation, four female faculty members in the department, including Sherman and an advisor to one of the complainants, gathered to revamp a first-year module. Current and former members of staff recall a Zoom meeting in November 2022, where the revised syllabus was one of the agenda items. Only two of the four women who participated in revising the syllabus were present at the meeting. 

Despite the accused individual not being on the initial email invitation with the Zoom link, he joined the meeting. Maya*, a former postdoctoral fellow, describes how he led a “very vindictive, revengeful … attack” by “shouting” at the woman listed as the teacher responsible for the course. 

As Maya describes it, the attacks were “couched in intellectual disagreements,” but the subtext was clearly about airing “bitterness” regarding the investigation. The “people who had the power to stop him [the heads of the department that were present] didn’t, and his supporters jumped on the bandwagon,” Maya said. “It was deeply unprofessional and uncalled for.”

Even though the minutes of the meeting initially noted that the syllabus was a “revision of a course revamp that had already been approved,” the discussion ended with the approval for the revised syllabus being withdrawn and subjected to further revision. 

Following this meeting, Maya recalled thinking: “I can’t survive in this department … I felt incredibly unsafe as a young woman of colour … nobody was there to protect me.” She left LSE shortly after. 

As all of this was unfolding over six months, Sherman filed two formal complaints to Minouche Shafik, the Director of LSE, arguing that the accused individual’s conduct was “victimisation and discrimination,” as defined by the Equality Act 2010. After seven months of Sherman’s follow-ups, Shafik responded, suggesting “informal conciliatory measures” and that mediation should be explored and exhausted to minimise “complaints or misunderstandings between staff,” in accordance with Part VI of the Academic Annex. A spokesperson for LSE added that Shafik acknowledged this was already ongoing, “which she hoped would reassure … the matters raised were being looked at and considered fully.”

The internal mediation was undertaken by two members of LSE senior staff. Sherman described their efforts as “utterly disastrous,” because “they didn’t do anything to stop the abusive behaviour.” The two members allegedly instructed staff concerned about the department’s culture not to respond “if somebody makes an offensive statement or discriminatory statement in a meeting,” according to Sherman. In addition, Sherman was “personally told to stop making formal complaints about violations of the Equality Act.” 

Sherman added, “So when you talk about workplace culture at LSE, the informal mediation silenced those who were working for a more inclusive culture.”

Discussions with formal mediation to create a departmental code of conduct began in May 2023. However, “the formal mediation process didn’t seem designed to address the core issues,” Sherman said. The workplace environment remained unchanged and she formally resigned a few months later. 

In November 2023, an open letter written and signed by 27 current and former PhD students raised concerns about the departmental culture, including worries about the state of the department’s commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion.

“It’s just been really, really difficult to see LSE’s protection of one individual who has sexually harassed women and students in our community,” Leila said. “LSE has really failed all of us in so many different ways.”

The long road ahead

Women’s professional and personal lives have been derailed. Accomplished women, who joined LSE to attain doctorates and teach students, stated that they have been traumatised and silenced by the very institution that was supposed to protect them. 

The issue of sexual misconduct seems to extend beyond one department. Johanna Thoma claimed that several women in a different LSE department have alleged that they were subjected to sexual misconduct by a senior staff member, but have not felt comfortable formally reporting their allegations to LSE. A former master’s student in the department said that she did not report because she had “doubts about the process” and was “pessimistic that any meaningful action would be taken.” 

When asked to speak to how LSE handled the investigation, an LSE spokesperson commented, “LSE is committed to a working and learning environment where people can achieve their full potential free of all types of harassment.  We take any reports of harassment extremely seriously and any member of the LSE community who has experienced or witnessed this is encouraged to get in touch with a trained Safe Contact for information and support, use dedicated online portal Report it Stop it or report via other means.

“The School recently set up a group to review its  approach to  sexual  harassment and  sexual  violence, to further develop and maintain a supportive culture. This process included wide-ranging discussions with experts from within our community, the Students’ Union, as well as external specialists. LSE subsequently put in place a range of actions to strengthen our processes around and support our community further. This includes specific training for a diverse group of staff,  including senior leadership, to build understanding of  sexual misconduct and violence  in a university setting and to make sure any investigations, adjudication and sanctioning are trauma-informed. 

“Alongside this, in close working with the Students’ Union, LSE has employed a specialist member of staff with expertise in sexual harassment and violence, to provide a consistent point of contact from disclosure through to any other university or criminal processes.”

As it stands, the accused individual continues to teach at LSE. Sherman, widely recognised as a support system for women in the department, with a #MeToo sign prominently displayed on her office door (which was anonymously torn down after the individual returned to the department), has left LSE.

In addition to the three academics who permanently left the department, Leila and her colleague both resigned from their editorial positions at an academic journal where the accused individual serves on the board.

The affected women have resorted to a final recourse by filing an appeal with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA), the regulator for the higher education sector in England. In emails obtained by The Beaver, the OIA has noted that LSE had repeatedly failed to respond to the OIA’s information requests despite an extended deadline, which was labelled a “compliance issue.” An LSE spokesperson has denied this and claims the university has complied with all information requests. The women are still awaiting a decision.

Still, as Maya observed, many still fear retribution for speaking out. She claimed that due to his position and connections in academia, he “can destroy your career without it ever being traced back to him.” And yet, many women have been courageous enough to speak out about their experiences in this article, refusing to be silenced.

“The LSE is actively protecting him,” Maya said, “and he is vindicated by the process and out for revenge.”

*Names in this article have been changed to preserve anonymity.

If any of these issues have affected you, please know you are not alone.

You can speak to a Safe Contact, an LSE staff member who is disclosure training and can offer confidential singposting for staff and students: www.info.lse.ac.uk/Making-a-choice/Safe-Contacts

A full list of support from the LSESU is available here: www.lsesu.com/support/checkin/supportandresources/

Help you can get outside of LSE:

The Havens: helps those who have been raped or sexually assaulted in the past 12 months. Available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for an initial assessment. Provides forensic medical examination. Gives follow-up care including counselling, testing and treatments.

Phone: 020 3299 6900

Note: counselling service has a long waiting list. So, it might take a while for victims to receive emotional support.

Sexual Assault Helplines

National Rape Crisis Helpline: 080 802 9999 (open from 12-2:30 pm and 7-9:30pm every day of the year)

Survivors UK: support for male-identified victims of sexual violence – https://www.survivorsuk.org

Galop: LGBT+ anti-violence organization that provides support for LGBT+ people who experienced sexual assault or violencehttp://www.galop.org.uk/ 

A look at the LSE complaints procedure and wider culture that has reportedly silenced female students and professors


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