Annetje Ottow, vice-voorzitter van het College van Bestuur. foto: Arnaud Mooij, UU

‘We want to show that we take complaints about undesirable behaviour seriously’

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It’s said there’s a ‘twisted culture’ at universities, where powerful professors can do whatever they want. In Utrecht, people have been trying for a while to break this hierarchical culture. The Executive Board wants to establish a zero tolerance policy, steering towards leadership, and starting a campaign to lower the threshold to file complaints about undesirable behaviour.

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In Amsterdam, there was a professor who got away with intimidating his students and staff for fifteen years without anyone taking action. His rather telling nickname was “an 8 for a night”, according to an article published in NRC Handelsblad, which describes, in detail, his transgressive behaviour. Is this an isolated incident? Could this have happened at other universities as well? Is it a result of the hierarchical structure of universities, in which professors have positions of absolute power?

Just before this case made the news, alarming studies conducted by FNV Vawo and the National Network Female Professors were published, which said that at universities, quite a number of employees face intimidating behaviour, varying from gossip and bullying to sexual harassment.

Last week, talk show M discussed the case of the Amsterdam professor several times. Amsterdam’s Dean of Law, André Nollkaemper, was a guest there, and said: “Many people were aware that something was going on. But people didn’t report it, because they didn’t trust that the organisation would truly deal with it. That was shocking. On top of that, the university has such a hierarchical structure, making people dependent on one single person for their entire career. Especially when the professor plays such a huge role in scientific development. That’s not exactly encouraging.”

Another person who spoke up during the show was Rianne Letschert, rector of Maastricht University. “In the assessment of scientists, universities have all too often only paid attention to research output, and have neglected to see whether someone also has leadership qualities. That has to change.”

Annetje Ottow, vice chairwoman of the UU Executive Board, says that the goal of achieving a socially safe environment for students and employees has been the topic of conversation amongst the board for a while. “I haven’t received any signals that there’s a similar twisted culture at the UU, but I also can’t guarantee that a large university like the UU is entirely without wrongdoing. I do truly hope that any signs are shared with others, and that – if they’re not handled appropriately – they reach us as board.

“It’s true that there’s a hierarchical structure at the university, and that there are relationships of interdependence. We’ve been working on changing this for a while. For example, we made the decision that starting this summer, we’ll have at least two supervisors per PhD, we pay a lot of attention to the quality of people in positions of leaderships, and we strive to assess team achievements.”

In practice, very few people report their complaints. The UU counsellor’s most recent annual report shows that last year, 20 people spoke to the counsellor with an issue relating to undesirable behaviour. This led to one official complaint with the Complaints Commission. One reason for this is that the threshold for filing a complaint is often quite high. People wonder ‘what good does it do me to file the complaint?’ They often feel the risk is too great. They fear the repercussions for their careers. How can you change that?Ottow: “It’s true people feel this is a very big step to take. Still, we’d really appreciate people notifying others of undesirable behaviour. We have an excellent counsellor for undesirable behaviour, who helps people with this consideration. Furthermore, the counsellors in Utrecht have the option of researching cases and signs, and to notify us or the deans. They can only do so, by the way, if they don’t violate the complainant’s privacy and confidence.

“And if necessary, it can really help to file a complaint. That’s why the university has a Complaints Commission. As board, we want a university with a safe working environment. And if there’s transgressive behaviour, then we as board will act accordingly. We have a zero tolerance policy in place which means that regardless of someone’s position, we do not accept any transgressive behaviour. The idea that we’d sweep this type of complaint under the carpet because a professor brings in a lot of money or because we’d feel it’d be bad for the university’s reputation, is absolutely untrue. I think the university should respond appropriately, and should conduct a fair research with a fair hearing. Not doing something like that, and letting undesirable behaviour continue undeterred, that’s what’s bad for the reputation and the working environment of the university.”

The UU has a Code of Conduct with general rules about behaviour, and recently, a new code of conduct was established to combat undesirable behaviour. What’s new about this?
Ottow: “In the new version of the code of conduct, we wish to explain in clear language what this is about; we broadened the topics; and we made the process more effective. We’ve improved the regulations for students and employees, and it can be found on the website. It should be clear to everyone at the UU that we take complaints seriously. That’s why we made a video, for example. Furthermore, we also decided to hire a male counsellor for undesirable behaviour. That means we’ve got a counsellor for employees, one for scientific integrity, and two for undesirable behaviour.”

But a code of conduct alone isn’t enough. What else has got to change?
Ottow: “As mentioned, we’ve been working on changing the culture for a while, to ensure we treat one another with respect. This is even more important since we’re choosing to increase our diversity and inclusivity. Diversity means we’ll have people with different opinions, which can cause friction, I realise that. But it’s important, because we’re truly aiming to achieve a transformation. We’ll have bias trainings for everyone, for instance, as well as bystander training. In those, you learn – among other things – the best way to deal with unwanted remarks, even if you’re just a bystander.

“I join the Westerdijk lunches with young female teachers on a regular basis. One thing I’ve noticed is that these young scientists are quite assertive. If they don’t like something, they’ll say so immediately. That’s a good thing, because it shows you where the boundaries are, and it can help prevent escalation of an issue – especially if you use a bit of humour in it.

“Furthermore, we let people in positions of leadership take courses, and in assessments, we pay attention to leadership. We focus on three elements in this: what happens at university level, how are you as an individual, and what’s the culture in a team like? In changing culture, it’s important to focus more on collaborations in teams, and Open Science can help with that.”

Universities, like other organisations, often deal with socially unsafe behaviour. The size of the problem is unclear, but it’s certain that people face unwanted behaviour at the UU as well. To what extent is this caused by the hierarchical structure, and by being dependent on one single person? And to what extent does the safety net of codes of conduct, counsellors and complaints commissions work? If you have experienced undesirable behaviour, or you have an opinion about the UU’s approach, please email Ries Agterberg. Your email will be treated confidentially.
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