‘Many people were simply afraid of our professor’

‘We want to show that we take complaints about undesirable behaviour seriously,’ the headline above DUB’s article about the harassment culture at the university said. Annetje Ottow, vice president of the Executive Board, was quoted in the article as saying: “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.”

'Abuse of power'
But how does that work in practice? After DUB asked to what extent the safety net of codes of conduct, counsellors, and complaints committees works, the editorial team received eight responses within a week. They came from five different faculties, and all have in common that they’re talking about professors who are according to them abusing their positions of power. And at the end of the day, it was always the complainant drawing the short string – even though one professor left, and two others divested some tasks.

The employees who sent in their responses to DUB, were triggered by Ottow’s quote. “It’s good that they’re taking this so seriously,” some wrote. Others, however, are doubtful. “The culture of the university is such that the one who complaints, will lose out.”

Bad news talk
The eight employees wanted to tell their stories to DUB to show ‘how things work’. Not all of them consented to publication. And none wanted to be named in the story, as they fear that ‘would end badly’ for them.

Take this employee at a research group, for instance, who had a professor managing him who, he says, used a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy. “Many people were afraid of that man. Every year, it was a waiting game to see who he’d attack during the performance reviews. He’s erratic and often lashes out at whoever’s in his way. Throughout the years, numerous PhD candidates have exited his room in tears.”

This employee says he was hired as talented researcher, but was quickly placed in the dunce’s corner by the professor. The first bad news talk happened in 2010. “I’d like to see you,” and then suddenly the professor lashed out. The contact worsened, and more than once, the researcher felt harassed and humiliated. “I avoided the hallway where I knew he could be, and preferred to take a detour instead.”

End of career
A while ago, the employee’s research group was suddenly dismantled, and the termination of both his contract and another employee’s was announced. He himself felt like he’d been one of the best-performing employees of the department. He appealed the decision, and he and multiple colleagues met with the counsellor for employees. The counsellor presented the story about the culture of fear to the dean. The dean thought the story was unbelievable, and talked to the department’s management. “That’s when the shit really hit the fan. The professor was not amused. Everyone became afraid, and no one wanted to push through with the complaint. At our university, the professor has so much power. No one touches that.”

The scientist’s career was broken and he was left behind, traumatised. The termination of his contract was approved by the official bodies, even though he says there were no good reasons. In the end, thanks to external assistance, his firing was prevented and he was allowed to stay: partially seconded elsewhere, partially as a PostDoc who’s not allowed to teach. His confidence in this safety net has disappeared entirely.

A touch of humour
DUB also received a response from an assistant professor. She took issue with Ottow’s statement that it’s good to mention issues to prevent escalation. “Especially when done with a touch of humour," Ottow says in the article. The assistant professor writes: “I’ve got the impression that especially the women in my organisation are struggling with the (implicit) expectation managers have that they’ll try to solve things with good humour, and always remain smiling.”

She herself lost her job at that study programme after coming head to head with a professor. In a meeting about the renovation of the Master’s programme, she’d listed her objections to the Englification of the programme. “After the meeting, I was accused of having been ‘too harsh’ in my objection to the Englification. The only thing I’d done was list a number of reasons why I felt it was unwise, and yes, I’d raised my voice because it turned out there wasn’t any room for discussion. The result was that I had to leave the programme – supposedly voluntarily.” She did take the case to the counsellor, but didn’t file a report.

An impartial third party
The counsellor for staff Paul Herfs recognises tales like these. “When things like these happen, we listen to the complaints and advise about possible steps to take. Filing an official report with an independent complaints committee about undesirable behaviour is one of these possible steps. Aside from that, we can mediate, for instance by meeting with the employees and the professor, dean, or supervisor. Just having an impartial third party present can help a lot.”

Many people have the impression that the complainant will lose. So why bother starting a procedure? The counsellors also observe that going to the complaints committee is a big step to take. “People flinch back from that. It’s a big step, and they fear the repercussions,” according to the counsellor’s annual report. Jeannette van Rees, counsellor undesirable behaviour, understands. “The committee is independent and advises the board. But as employee of student, you do have to step forward with your complaint. It takes courage. Not everyone wants to do that.”

The UU has a counsellor for employees and a counsellor for undesirable behaviour. After the summer, another counsellor for undesirable behaviour will join the two. The recently published annual report states that the counsellor for employees received almost 200 reports, and that there was a clear rise in the number of reports in the past few years. Most questions focused on rights, assessments, and conflicts with supervisors. The number of PhD candidates who complain is also on the rise. The counsellor for employees at the UU does what’s often called ‘ombudsman’ in other organisations, and was established as pilot at five universities. Herfs is involved with three of these pilots as experience expert.

There’s also a counsellor for undesirable behaviour. This position is focused more on reports of undesirable behaviour, and she’s there for both students and employees. She also received more reports this past year – 29 from employees and 16 from students. “The #MeToo discussion probably has some influence on that,” Jeannette van Rees observes. She receives complaints about sexual harassment, bullying, or discrimination. “Sometimes it’s about relationships at work, or a relationship between a student and a teacher. But I also receive reports from students being stalked by fellow students.”

It can be hard to decide whether someone should talk to the counsellor for employees or the counsellor for undesirable behaviour. Oftentimes, these things blend together during conflict. The rule is that any issue with consequences for someone’s assessment or rights will go to the counsellor for employees. It remains hard to evaluate, and it often happens that counsellors refer people to the other counsellor.

Call out culture
The counsellors don’t think that the culture at the UU is more perverse than at other organisations. They do observe that it’s a hierarchical organisation with a pyramid-shaped model. The people at the top have a relatively large share of the power. That itself brings with it a risk of things going wrong. Paul Herfs: “As counsellors, we’re able to check whether the procedures were followed properly, but we’re not changing the hierarchical culture. It’s also good to ensure there’s not one single person holding all the power. It’s an improvement, for example, that starting this summer PhD candidates won’t just have one single supervisor anymore. I’ve had foreign PhDs visit me who were assigned a desk and were told to ‘get to work’. He was thrown in the deep end, and that of course is completely unacceptable.”

Van Rees adds: “I think it would be great if the upper level would be more attentive to what happens in reality, and called out managers if things do go wrong. Situations like in Amsterdam, with that professor who harassed students and employees for years without being called out on it, are unacceptable. Utrecht has a dean who regularly asks me whether his faculty is mentioned in my annual report. It’s good that he’s involved like that.”

Would you like to respond to this article or share your own experience? Mail that to Ries Agterberg