The Protector of Citizens, Zoran Pašalić, was a guest on the show "Uranak" on K1 Television.
Is there a so-called epidemic of sexual harassment at faculties? That is the question that is being asked by the media today. Pandora's box was opened by the case of the Faculty of Architecture, where currently, complaints of students against professors for misconduct just keep coming in. The administration excluded the accused from examination duties. The Protector of Citizens launched an investigation against the Faculty of Architecture and he is also my guest this morning, Zoran Pašalić. Good morning and welcome! Thank you very much for coming to discuss this topic.
- Thank you for your invitation!
So, how it all started, I want you to tell me this…
- Well, in the majority of cases, we launch investigations based on information from the media. This is how this situation also came to be. As soon as we saw the publication in the media about the specific testimonies of female students who experienced what they experienced, I will not prejudge what happened, that is, after all, the job of the prosecution, we reacted immediately and asked the Faculty of Architecture to give us certain information that we needed so that we could continue our work.
Okay, I won't interrupt you much, but I'm interested, when you say you contacted the Faculty of Architecture, does your office go for an interview, or sends a memo, a letter? I want you to explain that procedure to me. Who did you contact specifically?
- In the beginning, a letter is sent to the administration of the Faculty of Architecture, as well as to every institution that we address, so, to their administrations. And we asked for certain information. The first piece of information is whether they have knowledge that there has been sexual harassment at their faculty among employees and students. So, we do not exclude other employees. Then, if there has been harassment, how they acted in such situations. And it is also important how familiar students are with the rights that they have according to the rulebook, which was adopted by the Senate of the University of Belgrade and whose contents rely heavily on the Law on Prevention of Harassment at Work.
You sent that on Monday.
- That's right. Also, since there is a commissioner who practically protects primarily all students, but also all employees...
At the faculty itself?
- At the faculty itself, so what are the actions that he undertook in case there were such situations.
Okay, so you sent that. Did you get a reply?
- We always give a deadline. The deadline used to be longer earlier. Now, according to the new law, it has been shortened to ten days, and we expect to receive that information within ten days.
So, no one from the Faculty of Architecture has contacted you yet.
- No one has contacted us yet.
Well, the dean came out to the media yesterday. We called him to come to us both yesterday and today. He apologized to us for today and said that he had obligations during the morning. He tried to find us another interlocutor from the faculty but was unsuccessful. We simply wanted to hear that side as well, given that yesterday in the program we had a first-year student who was personally present when the recording was made that ended up in the media, I don't know if you saw it.
- No, I did not see it.
- Not. There was no time for such a thing yesterday. And after all, we now want to focus on practically all faculties, not only the Faculty of Architecture in Belgrade, but all faculties in the Republic of Serbia, regardless of whether they are, popularly called, state, or popularly called private faculties.
And why? Because it is said that even today if you were to talk to people from any faculty, they would tell you the same thing, and that is that at every faculty there is someone who is just like that. Colleagues may say, he is different, he has his own methods. And have we actually gotten used as a society over the years to the fact that there is always a professor who can be a bit freer, who has some rules of his own?
- Our basic question, and observation is that there is no room for tolerance there. So, there is zero tolerance. No one can be like that, regardless of whether it is known about him or not, and that should be stopped. Because, simply, first of all, that absolutely insults the integrity of students and other employees who are sexually harassed by someone.
Can I ask you to watch this video with me?
Here, now I don't know how clearly you can see, but it is a lecture and this photo is explicitly shown at that lecture. There is also an audio track. It is in the middle of the lecture.
- You see, on social networks, most often on Instagram, you can see recordings and photos posted by even individual docents, professors.
What kind of photos?
- Photos that may not have content such as this one, but you can see where their thinking goes. I don't know if you know this, but we also work on the basis of anonymous reports, so based on them, we looked at certain contents which pointed us to certain, let's say, university workers, professors, docents, assistants, and we saw in which direction their thinking goes. And when you see that, then you don't have proof, but you have roughly an indication of the direction you're going to go.
At which faculties?
- At many faculties. I mean, it would be pointless to list them now, because it is not a small list. Something reaches the public, something doesn't.
And what reaches the prosecution? What reaches the competent authorities?
- You have to ask the prosecution that, because really, I repeat again, it is not our job and the law has limited our ability to interfere in the work of the prosecution and the court.
Okay, so what do you do with that information? Let me ask you this way. So, when something comes to you, that is, when you launch an investigation, we think that this is simply enough, which may be a complete mistake, and that you, as an important body in our country… Are you a legislative body? You are not, aren’t you?
- We are not. I see where you're going. What is the goal of the investigation? Try not to understand the goal of the investigation directly, but conditionally. We exert pressure on those who can specifically act in that situation, that is, those who can process that.
And that is the prosecution.
- The Prosecutor's Office, the disciplinary authorities at the university itself, that is, the faculty. And equally important is, perhaps even the most important, to free those who have experienced it and reported it. And in doing that, we always limit ourselves, as it is said in the statement, since we do not want to cause that secondary victimization and re-traumatize the victim, because those people really are victims, and also, we will protect their complete identities. After all, the Law on Personal Data Protection obliges us to do so.
Okay, but to be honest, when you tell me that there are many such cases, at many faculties, many anonymous reports, that sounds quite worrying to me. Which of all those cases was brought to an end? What was tested? What was processed? So, we don't know, and nowadays, it appears in the media that it happens at some universities. We are shocked by what we saw was happening at the Faculty of Architecture and we saw it on Facebook and on those social networks where that group that you saw was founded.
So, is there a case that is ongoing at any other faculty? What do you do with the information you receive?
- Well, what I’ve told you. The essence is that when we have knowledge, we then try to bring the investigation, which is within our competence, to an end, that is, to the disciplinary procedure. And what makes this very difficult is that these are mostly situations where it is word against word, so to speak, on the basis of which it is hard to file criminal charges. It is very difficult...
Have you filed any so far?
- No, because it is very difficult to make them. That is the problem with such, let's say, actions, that is, with such behaviour.
- Proving it is the biggest problem.
Okay, but has any of the faculties ever excluded any professors, docents, assistants from lectures exclusively because of your findings?
- To my knowledge, no. First of all, the Senate of the University of Belgrade adopted the Rulebook on the prevention and protection from sexual harassment.
That was in 2001?
- That's right. The bottom line is this. We checked which other faculties, that is, which universities, adopted such regulations besides Novi Sad. Niš did not, Kragujevac does not respond to our call. I expect an answer today, because that is the basis. That is the basis of protection, the primary protection at the university. There should be a person there, the so-called commissioner, whom the students can turn to. There is also a problem in that rulebook, which has about 18 articles, and we will try to influence a change of certain norms in it. This refers to Art. 11, which covers the situation where practically someone who has experienced that kind of harassment turns to the commissioner. The commissioner has the possibility to confront the harasser with those who survived, who experienced something like this. According to us, this is inefficient, because it represents secondary victimization. And there is also a subjective feeling of fear, because these persons are dependent. If you are enrolling in a university, or you are at it, or you are about to complete graduate, master's or doctoral studies, you depend on your mentor and professor. I'm sure you know and the public knows how many people gave up on further studies, people who were solid or good students, because they couldn't pass that one step. Or they didn't want to.
Well, I know and we all know everything and still nothing.
- Well, it's not nothing. Do you see? What I'm saying, the most basic part of our job...
I don't mean you specifically, don't get me wrong. But I am trying to say that the system is simply, the system is more powerful than any individual and that is clear to us all. But why does the system protect abusers?
- Well, I don't think the system protects abusers, but I do think that the system must absolutely create such a climate in society, that when something like this happens to someone, they should be completely free from the fear of reporting it to the competent authority, and it is known who is supposed to process it and that the final epilogue is the court. And the ultimate epilogue, should it be proven, is the punishment. Not only dismissal from the faculty, ban, suspension, disciplinary action, but a specific punishment that can also be a prison sentence.
What does the dean say? He says, as far as I learned from the media, that the prosecutor's office has initiated proceedings and that the police authorities will come to investigate. This is the moment when the faculty administration has the mandate to suspend a professor while the investigation is ongoing. He said that in the meantime, a decision was made to exclude the professor, who is actually a docent, against whom there are the most accusations of sexual harassment, from all pre-examination and examination duties, which will be performed by the commission instead of him. So, the students say that this has been going on for years, and that this is nothing new. That it is not just about sexual abuse and harassment, but also about humiliation. That we are talking about, let's say, insults on a racial basis, on a national basis. So, all the things that according to the rulebook that we had the opportunity to see yesterday, are illegal. Those insults should also be sanctioned by the faculty, right?
- That's right. You see, when it comes to insulting on the grounds that you mentioned, it is mainly our jurisdiction, because we protect precisely those, so to speak, groups that are the least protected.
And what is your mechanism?
- It's a relationship with you know who?
- With students with special needs, or to be more precise, with disabilities. We have had countless appeals from them and we have asked that those students be enabled, first of all, the most rational thing, and that is access to faculties without having to humiliate themselves, having to meet special conditions in order to be present at the faculty, and to eliminate insults towards them on the basis of their disability. We have very good cooperation with the association of those students, but the thing that the public focus is currently on is sexual harassment.
Okay, and what about insults on religious and national grounds?
- This applies to all kinds of insults, not only on religious grounds...
Okay, and how is it sanctioned? So, when you say it's your jurisdiction, what do you do then? What does that procedure look like?
- The procedure is as follows. When such a thing is determined on our side, in such cases, the procedure is well-known, because it is the same...
Which is it?
- The procedure is, simply put, a court procedure, a whole range of actions that must be performed, so to say.
Someone will say, and I will also say, that everyone knows everything, and if you gave a survey to the majority, or to the people who are employed at the faculties, promising them that it would be anonymous, that they would remain anonymous, they would tell you everything. And everyone is silent. So, no one wants to create problems for themselves. I want you to explain to me, if everyone's hands were tied until now, then...
- It's not that their hands were tied. Do you know what the question is?
- The issue is addiction and fear. It's not just at faculties. You have that in certain companies too, so to speak.
I mean at the faculty. So, the faculty and the dean, and that authority at the faculty cannot do anything if they do not receive a report, or they can react, if they learn about something.
- Wait, let’s not say it like that. Excuse me for saying so. There is a rulebook, albeit only at the University of Belgrade and Novi Sad. You must introduce the students to that rulebook, that was an obligation. If you remember the Law on Prevention of Abuse at Work, the employer was obliged to inform his employees in a very short time about their rights and obligations. Well, that's the first step. Then, there is the establishment of that commissioner who must watch over that problem if it exists, not a concrete claim, but indications that it could happen, in order to have absolute insight into the whole story. Now, will they follow the policy of non-resentment, non-confrontation, which is most often the case...
Which is currently the case, isn't it?
- Which is the case.
We can't say that anything is different. Okay, and now, what does your entire procedure look like in this particular case? You asked for answers to the questions you sent. When you get the answers, whatever they are, if you get the answer that one lecturer is suspended until the end of the procedure that is probably being conducted now within the faculty, what do you do then?
- It doesn't end there. Because then we go wider. We are going wide to see the extent of this phenomenon and how much of it is there at other faculties as well.
Okay, let's just focus on this specific case. You establish the current situation, get the answers and then what do you do?
- In that case, if we are satisfied with the answer, if the answer means that certain procedural actions, that the law provides, have been carried out, then the case is left to those who should continue, which is the prosecution. And the prosecution will be the last to announce whether there is a criminal offense or not.
So, the prosecution has initiated an investigation at the Faculty of Architecture?
- Then it is left to the prosecution to complete the procedure. That is, to the prosecutor's office, then to the court.
So, let's go back to the beginning. By exerting pressure, you actually want to alarm the entire system to respond to certain reports.
- That's right. I mean, I don't like the term pressure, but it is exactly that, a phenomenon that is, shall we say, in the shadows, is completely illuminated by those who are victims and those who need to react according to the law and according to the procedure.
According to your information, how many lecturers, professors, docents and assistants that have committed sexual harassment are there at the Faculty of Architecture?
- Not only at the Faculty of Architecture. I'm not going to say the number, because that is, please understand, something I wouldn't want to speak publicly about without concrete evidence.
Because there are stories in the press about four lecturers.
- We have knowledge of the situation at other faculties as well. After all, it is publicly known that not one, but a large number of faculties were marked as places where, I can freely say, systematic abuse and harassment is performed, call it whatever you want, on that basis.
And? Well, I mean, it was in the media, that happens. This will be news for a few days. You will complete your procedures. And what will happen to those young people?
- What happens most often is that the phenomenon is in the media for a few days, it becomes interesting in the media and then it goes into oblivion.
- And then, even if someone is legally convicted, it will be accompanied by a piece of news that no one notices. But if you want to bring a phenomenon into light, then you have to constantly shine it, you have to focus on those problems that people have, specifically, this one is related to sexual harassment.
Yes. When someone shows you a pornographic photo in the middle of a lecture, is that sexual harassment?
- Well, how could it not be? You see...
Is that sexual abuse?
- Well, you see, abuse, harassment, there is a very small, thin line. But certainly, that is something that is absolutely not allowed. And someone who is engaged in that sort of business cannot be allowed to do whatever he wants. We always forget one thing, which is associated with primary school, also with kindergarten and secondary school, we forget that it is a system of education and upbringing. So, as long as you attend some schools, including the faculty, you are in the system of education and upbringing. So, how can you comment on this as education, as appropriate behaviour, as freedom of expression of a university professor, worker, docent, it doesn't matter.
Biljana Srbljanović said yesterday that young people are not educated enough on the topic of what is allowed and what is not in contact with a professor. The manner of conduct. Is any kind of physical contact allowed? That's what it says in that rulebook, that no one is allowed to enter your intimate space. May the professor tap you on the shoulder? Is the professor allowed to get too close to you, to get in your face? I think that we are really not educated enough, regardless of all the rulebooks, we are not educated and we have not educated young people about what is decent behaviour and ultimately, professional behaviour, between professors and students.
- Let's start from the beginning. Even in elementary schools, you have to establish rules, primarily, how children are allowed to be dressed to go to that school. Someone will say that the Protector of Citizens is now very rigid in this regard. There are some primary schools where a certain way of dressing is not allowed, not to mention the female population, make-up, jewellery and all that.
But how is that connected with whether someone is allowed to come up to you and grab you by the waist?
- Well, how can it not be connected? I will tell you now, just give me time.
- The thing is, you have to establish a system so that someone who enters an educational institution knows from the beginning what he can do, what he is allowed to do and what he is not allowed to do. It is primarily aimed not only at students, pupils, but also at those who cooperate with them. So, those rules have to be established. The student must not wonder what happened, how is it possible, but must be informed in advance. That's why there is a commissioner. So, everything must be foreseen in advance and respected to the end.
Okay. Someone who is dressed inappropriately can be kicked out, removed from class, etc. Right?
- That's right.
According to that rulebook. But I didn't ask you that.
- No, no it isn't. That rulebook doesn't address that, don't get me wrong.
It is the rulebook of an institution. Therefore, each institution adopts its own rulebook. That's why you say, some schools have adopted a dress code, some haven't. But that was not my question. I don't know why you started from the dress code when I asked you...
- Because that's the beginning.
And what is not the beginning? Now that sounds to me like a story about provocation. If you wear a mini skirt, then...
- It's good that you said that, and please don't get me wrong. I'm saying, from the moment you enter a school, or a faculty, you have to adhere to certain rules. So, I'm not going to discuss at all whether someone has the right to pat you on the shoulder or make a movement that can be considered sexual harassment. Well, normally, no one has that right, regardless of how he is dressed, if everyone is allowed to be dressed as they want. But I'm telling you, it's not one rule. It is a system of rules, a system of norms that must be respected and respected to the end. You said this well, and thank you for that, but I do not want to be misunderstood, that this is a matter of provocation. The thing is, you have a whole system of rules, there is a rule that you can't smoke somewhere, and there is also a rule about how you can dress to enter, how you have to behave, what the verbal relationship with your mentor, the professor is. And this should not be discussed at all, physical touches. What are we talking about here?
That is unacceptable.
- That is certainly unacceptable. This implies the possibility of different interpretations. And as you said, if there is a procedure, one must interpret whether it was a matter of a parental, friendly, mentoring touch or something more than that.
Who interprets that?
- Well, that's the problem since now you have two sides who will say, I understood it as sexual harassment…
But before whom?
- Well, most often before court, if it comes to that. That is, before the prosecution, and so on. So, when you say that any kind of contact is prohibited, no matter how nice someone is to you, then it must be so.
If any kind of physical contact is prohibited...
- It is not prohibited in the way it should be prohibited and explicit. You cannot fit all possible life situations into 18 articles. There are those who should implement them. Don't think that I want to criticize saying this. You have a university ombudsman, that's also his job.
What is his job?
- His job is also that part of the story. He only does not regulate things that concern the teaching itself at the university. After all, we never wanted to interfere in that, so that no one would think that we want to interfere in the autonomy of the university. But this is not the matter of the autonomy of the university, this is a concrete attack on human rights, on physical integrity.
Yes, but if this is not clear and if it has to be interpreted, then we have a problem again.
- You always have to prove something, because otherwise, something can be known, talked about, but the concrete results will not be known. I agree. So, you must have concrete results. That's not our part of the job.
I understand. You are not the court. But someone will ask you, I'm sure, for advice, considering that you know the law very well, whether this type of video, which is not the only one, is sufficient evidence.
- I wouldn't comment on that at all, if someone in a class, I don't even know which faculty it is, played such recordings.
Faculty of Architecture. Well, that's what we're talking about here.
- I mean, why? What does that have to do with architecture?
It doesn’t have to do with anything except sexual harassment, or whatever the crime is called. So, we are now actually following whether you will make an announcement in the next ten days…
- Sorry to interrupt you, but that's not what we're doing right now. We will not follow anything yet, since first we have to see the number of reports from the students, not only at the Faculty of Architecture, so that we can support their bravery to report, to assess the absolute state of things at the faculties.
Good, but specifically, at the Faculty of Architecture, since a procedure was started there, you are waiting to receive an answer in the next ten days, that is, it is now already eight days. And according to the answer you get, you will take further actions. And tell me, if students are watching you now, can they contact you directly?
- They can report directly to the institution of the Protector of Citizens. You know that I have established the practice of talking to citizens, as you said, directly, that is, I talk to them personally. As I repeat again, all people, not students, I say people because it's not just students, you also have other employees at the faculties, should not be afraid about being secondarily victimized, nor that the data they provide to the institution will go out to the public. We strictly adhere to the Law on Personal Data Protection. I said that in the announcement as well.
Thank you very much for being our guest! We will follow what is happening and I hope, since we have all this in the media today, this epidemic of sexual harassment at faculties, I hope that we will manage to suppress it.
- Absolute zero tolerance, because if you have such a phenomenon in a higher education institution, whose purpose is education and upbringing, then the entire education system collapses.
Which is already half-way on its feet?
- You be the judge of that.
Thank you for being our guest!
- Thank you!