New UU code of conduct for student organisations

In the past academic year, Utrecht University made the news twice following incidents at student organisations. In December, the UU severed ties with UVSV after five apparent violations during the introduction time (hazing) at the association. In early January, the funding for the study association for earth sciences (UAV) was paused, after parents complained about “the sexism, the misogyny, and rape fantasies” in songs sung during the introduction camp.

After studying the incidents, ties with both associations were re-established, but the incidents still led to the university to make arrangements with all student organisations about the preferred culture. That has now resulted in the Code of Conduct Student Organisations. “Goal of the document is that student organisations are aware of their role within the academic community, where safety, dignity, and inclusion play an important role. This will have to lead to a higher level of awareness of these topics. Additionally, student organisations will be held accountable on behaviour that conflicts with the Code of Conduct,” a memorandum about the note says.

So Code of Conduct Introduction Period gets shelved?
The Code of Conduct Student Organisations has many similarities with the Code of Conduct Introduction Period. The latter is a document the seven social student associations in Utrecht sign every year along with the boards of the university and university of applied sciences. In it, there are agreements made about the introduction period the associations organise, such as how many people with a First Aid diploma will be present at any given time, that aspiring members will not be given alcohol, and the first-years will get at least seven hours of sleep a night.

Associations that break the rules can face sanctions from the Executive Board. The university can decide to withhold the board subsidies, for example. The rules of the Code of Conduct Introduction Period are limited to the seven social associations, and to a limited period of time. The new code is to hold true for the entire year, for all student organisations that use UU facilities (both financial and non-financial). As some of those facilities are made available in collaboration with the HU, the HU is considering joining in on the Code of Conduct Student Associations. That doesn’t mean the Code of Conduct Introduction Period will disappear entirely. That document will now be seen as an addition to the new agreements, given the “nature of the introduction period and the corresponding risks”.

Code of conduct as starting point for discussion
The new code of conduct lists nine principles student boards need to adhere to. A lot less than the Code of Conduct Introduction Period, which has 34 regulations in it. The new code of conduct doesn’t mention anything about reporting obligations and sanctions. Marieke de Bakker, department head of student guidance, says that’s a deliberate choice. “The goal is to raise awareness amongst (board)members of student associations about the effect of certain behaviour on others. The university doesn’t want to prescribe in detail what is and isn’t allowed. The UU wants the association to think about whether certain activities do or do not fit within the code of conduct. It’s possible we’ll have to further specify some regulations in the future, but for now, we don’t want to go into too much detail about what’s included and what isn’t.”

Martijn Grul, chairman of student advocacy organisation Vidius, is happy with the relative room the document leaves open. That way, it’s possible to look at things on a per-incident basis and then decide whether it’s an actual incident or not. It offers the possibility of discussing things both beforehand and afterwards. Grul says the value of the document lies in the fact that it’s an invitation for discussion between the parties.

It shouldn’t be a stick to hit with
The Vidius chairman thinks the rules themselves don’t present anything new: “I assume that for many people, it’s nothing more than a list of things they agree with, or they’re already working on. After the UAV incident, many associations started talking. Boards conducted internal investigations to check whether there was any sexism or racism at their associations. They did that without the university asking for it.”

Grul acknowledges things can still go wrong, such as with the earth sciences association. He stresses that the study association did reflect on its actions immediately after the parents’ complaint. Indeed, Grul says “huge steps” had already been taken before the media reported about the association songs, for instance by cleaning up the song books. The fact that the university imposed sanctions on the association anyway when the media reported about it, despite those steps, is a sour point for some associations. It made them feel as though they were being punished for the sake of the audience. The new code, then, was initially greeted with some skepticism. “It makes sense that the UU doesn’t want to have any negative news reported about them. But there was a fear that this document would be nothing more than a way for the university to cover themselves in case of future incidents, and not a document to assist board members.” Grul says the final version of the document is pleasant for all associations as well as the university.

Students demand UU doesn’t participate in trial by media
Still, the University Council wants the code of conduct to explicitly state that the UU will first communicate with the associations involved in case of incident, before talking to the media. “For student organisations, it’s very important to know exactly where they stand,” Robin Wisse says. “That’s what went wrong with the UAV incident. Ex-rector Bert van der Zwaan first paused the board subsidies, and then talked to the study association. As council, we thought it was very strange that the university doesn’t have a rule that they talk to the association first, before taking public action.” 

That’s why the code of conduct will include a paragraph that states the Utrecht University Executive Board will always contact the student organisation first in case of an incident, before taking any public action.

Code of conduct student organisations: The board of the student organisation:

A. Is responsible for establishing and executing policy and activities of the student organisation. The board will ensure this can pass a test of societal norms, as can be found in the Utrecht University Code of Conduct.
B. Ensures no one’s values are compromised and ensures the members interact with each other and other people in a respectful manner; rejects unwanted behaviour such as violence, both mental and physical, discrimination, sexism, coercion, and humiliation.
C. Provides an inclusive character of the student organisation, in which every student feels safe and welcome.
D. Supervises that the board and all the association members handle Utrecht University property in a careful and respectful manner.
E. Supervises that the organisation upholds national and local law and reguations during activities, the Licensing and Catering Act and the Tobacco Act especially. This means no alcohol will be sold and/or poured to students below 18 years of age, and students below 18 years of age will not possess any alcohol. The board also supervises they or the members will not incite each other to excessive alcohol use.
F. Does not tolerate behaviour or speech that discredits the student organisation or the university.
G. Ensures the principles from this code of conduct are known amongst the members of the student association, and ensures said principles are employed and practiced.
H. Is alert to warning signals, does not hesitate to investigate further when receiving signals, and takes suitable measures when needed.
I. Is required to take suitable measures if, at the judgment of the board, a reasonable suspicion exists that a member has violated the Code of Conduct.

Translation: Indra Spronk