Broadcaster and lecturer Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin has received an “overwhelming” response since speaking out about her two-year ordeal of sexual harassment at University College Dublin.
r Ní Shúilleabháin detailed a number of disturbing interactions with a professor, Hans-Benjamin Braun, between 2015 and 2017, in an article in the Irish Times in the hope her story will help others going through a similar experience.
The professor, who no longer works at the college, was subsequently charged with harassment and barred from contacting her for five years.
Dr Ní Shúilleabháin said while it was positive UCD was now reviewing its policy towards harassment following the revelations, she hoped “it would be victim-centred”.
The academic was working in UCD less than a year when Prof Braun began initiating “conversation that just didn’t seem appropriate.”
“It really kind of started properly when he arrived at my office and asked me for a date and it took me a couple of minutes to realise why he was in my office because I was like maybe he wants a conversation about public engagement. I was really trying to wrack my brains because we wouldn’t have worked together in a professional capacity at all,” she told RTÉ’s Today with Claire Byrne.
She said she rejected his offer, telling him she was in a relationship, and asked him to leave her office.
“He came back again the next day and that was quite frightening because he was in a very frantic state, accusing me of lying to him of not being honest with his feelings, saying that he wouldn’t ordinarily ask a person out, and I had to go with him, basically, on a date.
“I was quite worried because there was no way out of my office without him leaving first. He was blocking the door, basically,” she said.
“I just eventually tried to make my body language really strong and clear and I kept my hands on the table and I just said, ‘I’m not going to go on a date with you. I want you to leave my office now.’ And I just left it at that and he left.”
Dr Ní Shúilleabháin said she rang a colleague to tell them what had happened and they advised her to inform UCD’s Human Resources department.
“I was like, okay, I will, but you know what, it’s Friday evening, I’m going away with my friends, I’m just going to call them on Monday. That was the weekend then where I was down in a hotel with three of my girlfriends. We were just having a nice weekend away, we do it once a year.”
The next morning, Dr Ní Shúilleabháin received a phone call from the hotel manager telling her Dr Braun was downstairs in the reception with a bouquet of flowers for her.
“She was relaying the conversation then between himself and myself in that he had said I was expecting him and it was our weekend away, and I asked her to tell him that we’d already gone for the day. She came back to say he knows your car is outside. That was petrifying because I didn’t know how he knew my car.”
She said hotel management called gardai and Prof Braun was asked to leave. However, he returned the next day and gardai were called a second time.
“In the interim, I had called members of UCD to inform them that this was happening and arranged to have a meeting with HR that morning,” she said.
“On Monday, I had a meeting with two people and reported all those incidents, and they suggested if I wanted to that I should work from home or I could work from home for a couple of days until they communicated with him.
“They had eventually got in touch with him and I could return to work if I wanted to because they didn’t believe he would be back on campus for a while.”
Prof Braun was instructed not to contact Dr Ní Shúilleabháin again.
Dr Ní Shúilleabháin said he eventually returned to work but she was not informed of his return by UCD.
“I wasn’t told actually when he would be coming back to work or when he was back on campus. And I think I saw him in the distance and, obviously, try and keep away from wherever his office was,” she said.
“He sent me an email, then, to see if I would take over lecturing one of his modules which isn’t in my field and I wouldn’t be able to. It was a completely inappropriate conversation. I knew he had been told not to contact me so I contacted HR directly to say he’s contacted me, can you address this because he shouldn’t have.
“I was assured afterwards that he had been told not to, it was an error of judgment on his part, and I was told then he’ll be out of the country until January.”
In January 2016, Dr Ní Shúilleabháin said she began to receive phone calls from Prof Braun from different numbers all made around the same time.
She said he also began returning to her office again.
“I can’t remember the exact date but he did again come back to my office. Repeatedly, he would come in, I would either see him and tell him immediately, ‘You’re not allowed to be here. Go away.’ And, he often would go away.
“Sometimes he wouldn’t go away. One time I rang a colleague who had their office next door, and again it was a little bit embarrassing because I wanted to keep this quiet, I was on a temporary contract at the time and this was a senior professor.”
Dr Ní Shúilleabháin said she told only a small number of colleagues about Prof Braun’s behavior as she did not want “to be seen as a troublemaker” or as though she was “making a drama out of nothing”.
“I had to expand that as I felt more and more unsafe, I guess. That colleague came out and told him he wasn’t allowed to be there,” she said.
“It just didn’t stop. Eventually, I just was working in my office locked because I couldn’t afford him barging in because it would just take it over the whole day because after an incident would happen it took me so long to try and get my headspace back into actually doing my work again. It was just too much.
“I didn’t come in at weekends. I didn’t stay late, because I didn’t want to be walking across campus either to the bus or to my car late at night. I had my phone ready to call the emergency numbers, keys in hand in case anyone would attack you.”
In April 2017, Dr Ní Shúilleabháin reported Prof Braun to gardai in Donnybrook, saying: “It kind of started to ramp up, and it felt like it was really getting out of hand. And at that point, I was so afraid, my nerves were just gone I couldn’t deal with it anymore.
“I’d also just got engaged, and I really was having such a lovely time being engaged, it’s such a happy time. To have my work really bring me down, I just couldn’t take it anymore.”
After a garda investigation, the case was brought to court last year where a judge imposed an order barring Professor Braun from having any contact with her for five years.
“It was so nice to hear that, that it had gone through a process, and that at the other end division was an outcome that couldn’t be denied,” she said.
In August 2018, while on maternity leave, Dr NÍ Shúilleabháin made a formal complaint to UCD.
“I asked myself continuously why didn’t I make that formal complaint sooner. It was only one day where I realised, ‘Hold on, I have made a complaint to the guards about this but I haven’t actually made a complaint formally to my university’.
“And then I realised how ridiculous it was. So I reported that. Because the court case was going on at that time where it hadn’t concluded, that formal complaint had to be paused until I came back.
“This was all part of the process, that when I came back to UCD from my maternity leave in December last year I really wanted to make sure that there would be changes made so that nobody else would have to go through the same thing.”
She said she would have liked more encouragement from UCD to make a formal complaint and that policy that was in place when the ordeal began emphasised informal mediation.
“That is just not appropriate for harassment. Harassment is all about power. He wanted to be in a room with me. I couldn’t be in a room with him because I felt unsafe.”
She said she is pleased Higher Education Minister Simon Harris has called for all institutions to review their policies currently in place relating to harassment.
“But I want to say to that, though, is you can have bright shiny new policies and procedures, but unless everyone knows what they are, and unless the cultures are changed to help people actually first of all, disclose what is happening to them, so that they can get support, and then maybe complain if they wish to.”
Dr Ní Shúilleabháin said she has received an apology President of UCD Andrew Deeks on Sunday night following a statement he made to the Sunday Independent.
In the statement, Mr Deeks said he was “greatly saddened” by Dr Ní Shúilleabháin’s experience.
“I apologise to Aoibhinn on behalf of UCD,” He said, adding: “I also apologise to other colleagues and students who have suffered such experiences while in our care.”
Mr Deeks said he is now undertaking “a core procedural shift” which means the university will have the authority to instigate an investigation without ever receiving a formal complaint going forward.
Currently, the university can only investigate when there is a formal complaint made.
Other measures Mr Deeks is proposing include “clarifying” the relationship between informal and formal internal complaints and complaints to An Garda Síochána.
The university will also introduce bystander intervention training, which will form a key part of orientation for all new undergraduate students later this month.
“The university is committed to learning from the experience, both of staff and students,” he said.