Professor is forced to resign; university criticised for how it handled complaints

UU's Ethics Institute is located at the Janskerkhof. Photo: DUB

For over nine months, the fifty or so employees of the Utrecht Ethics Institute didn’t know what was going on with their director. He transferred his management tasks and took a partial sick leave in October 2019, but no one was able to tell them what happened.

Suggestions to send flowers or a card were waved away. No one suspected the absence of another colleague was related to that of the director.

Last June, during a meeting in the Utrecht Science Park, UU President Anton Pijpers told them that the professor would be quitting per October 1, 2020. The announcement came as a complete surprise to most.

Reprehensible conduct and negligence
At that point, a tragic series of events had already taken place behind the scenes. DUB found out more after inquiring about the professor’s silent departure and then getting in touch with the former institute director and the complainants (through their lawyer).

Five complaints, sent by two separate people, were made to the university’s complaint committee in October 2019. One of them, sent by someone who was a student at the time, concerned sexual harassment; she also sent two other complaints reporting that the director was creating an unsafe work environment for her and the institution.

Another complainant, a man, stated that he had been harassed by the professor, who was his manager. He too complained about the unsafe work environment that was said to be the professor’s responsibility.

In April 2020, the university board reached its final decision to request the professor’s resignation. He was considered guilty of reprehensible conduct and negligence.

Heated discussions
Asked about its deliberations, the UU Board stated that it severely condemns that the professor kept silent about having had a long-term relationship with a former employee, which started when said employee was still a student. The woman’s complaints about the unsafe work environment he created for her were also considered well-founded.

Additionally, the Executive Board found proof that the professor urged an employee of the Ethics Institute, who was aware of the relationship, to keep quiet about it. That man’s complaint about an unsafe work environment was also considered well-founded.

Supporting the complainants' claims are the numerous people who were heard during the complaint procedure. One of the things they reported was that the professor had a tendency to have “very heated discussions.” That’s why the Board declared four of the complaints well-founded, except the one about sexual harassment.

Everyone dissatisfied
Both the complainants and the professor are displeased with the way the complaints were handled. The former director acknowledges that he made a mistake in not reporting the relationship – which he claims ended several years ago – to the department head. But he completely rejects the accusation of sexual harassment and refuses to accept his forced resignation. He feels like he’s the victim of a non-transparent procedure whose conclusions he deems astonishing.

As for the two complainants, they both struggle with the way the UU portrays the case and with the fact that none of the decisions were coordinated with them. The woman denies having had a relationship with the professor, as the term relationship implies “consent and equality of power.” The absence of those two elements was what led her to file a complaint about sexual harassment. She reasons that the university is “reproducing the professor’s point of view in a painful manner”.

Moreover, she announces that her complaint about sexual harassment had been declared well-founded by the complaint committee, who then issued an advice on inappropriate behaviour for the UU Board in February 2020. The committee’s advice was not included in the UU Board’s final judgment. Instead, they merely offered the professor the option to respond to the advice.

Finally, the woman said, through an e-mail from her lawyer, that the employees of the Ethics Institute were already in the know by mid-June, shortly after the informational meeting in the Science Park.

The events at the Ethics Institute corroborate that all levels of the university struggle with themes like inappropriate behaviour and safe spaces. Those issues have been put under a magnifying glass since #MeToo, both in the society at large and in academia.

UU professor Naomi Ellemers, for example, is researching inappropriate behaviour at universities, following an alarming report from the National Network of Female Professors. Former board member Annetje Ottow also emphasised in an interview with DUB last year that the UU Board takes complaints very seriously.

DUB deems it essential to pay attention to this situation. In doing so, we strive to protect the privacy of those involved as much as possible, which is why we’re leaving out important personal information about the parties involved.

For privacy reasons, we will not reveal the professor’s name, even though the case is about a person who’s well-known both inside and outside the university, someone whose name is easily found on Google. The professor himself explicitly stated that he has no objection at all to publishing his name. In this article, we also call him ‘the professor’ even though he no longer has that title, because that’s the position he held at the time of the complaints.

The two complainants, whose names are known by the DUB editorial board, are represented by a lawyer. That means that DUB has not spoken with them directly, although they have sent e-mails and statements themselves. Like other interviewees, they had the opportunity to respond to a draft version of this article.

The woman says it’s painful to discuss the events that led to her complaints once again, this time publicly. The employee of the institute also stated that he does not want to elaborate at this moment. For those and other reasons, we left out as many details as possible.

All involved parties were bound by the confidentiality agreement that’s tied to complaint procedures.

Harsh outcome
The professor admits that he was wrong to keep quiet about a relationship with a student turned employee. “I understand very well that it’s not up to me to decide whether a relationship like that is problematic or not. I thought about reporting it, but it was too intimate. I’m very sorry and I’ve apologised for it multiple times.”

He says the sexual harassment accusation hit him hard. According to him, many of the incidents mentioned in the complaint procedure actually did not take place, after all they would be weird within an affair that went on for several years. He stated that he and the complainant “definitely” had a relationship.

He also struggles with the outcome of the procedure: his forced resignation. “I wouldn’t have minded if the university had punished me based on a fair, clear procedure. But given what I was asked to do, and how they’ve handled witnesses’ statements, I can only be surprised about the advice issued by the complaints committee.”

Furthermore, the professor claims that the accusations of sexual harassment weren’t addressed at all in the conversation with the complaints committee, which lasted less than an hour. He says the witness he had indicated, someone who was aware of the relationship from the start, wasn’t heard. The harassment complaint from his male colleague was also only discussed briefly.

According to the professor, this colleague's complaint referred to a conversation in which he’d only stated that he “wasn’t eager” for the relationship to become publicly known. The Executive Board says it has got additional information supporting the complainant’s accusations, but the professor claims to know nothing about it, therefore he is unable to respond.

Work culture
The Ethics Institute’s former director says he's surprised that the university has made claims about his leadership based on testimonies given during the complaint procedure, without studying whether or not those feelings were widely shared. “My track record shows that I know how to supervise and coach people. In twenty years’ time, there hasn’t been a single complaint against me. I’ve never been asked about it in performance reviews. But, suddenly, I was seen as a tyrant.”

Following his resignation, the university appointed former dean Werner Raub and consultancy firm Berenschot to conduct a study about the institute’s work culture, which the professor says retroactively proves his point.

Although the study’s final report is confidential, the Board confirms that it concluded there was no structural work culture problem going on at the institute. However, UU President Anton Pijpers denies emphatically that the study’s goal was to obtain “a second opinion”. In this words: “The complaint procedure showed signs that there was a broad culture problem in the institute. We wanted to take that seriously.” Pijpers adds that the researchers found numerous issues that needed attention, and made several specific recommendations.

The professor urges the university to make the report public. He says he considered going to court over this, but ended up following his lawyer’s advice not to do so. His lawyer predicted a long, difficult road that would probably not lead to much more than what he’s already agreed upon in his settlement agreement with the university.

Given the confidential nature of the complaint procedure, the Executive Board says it cannot elaborate much on its considerations. However, it states that its judgments were based on all documentation, reports and committee advice, as well as several additional conversations, including one with the professor.

President Pijpers noted that not reporting a relationship counts for a lot, even if the UU doesn’t explicitly require its employees to do so. “The requirement is implied in existing regulations such as the code of conduct, which states multiple times that the university sets high standards for responsible conduct and integrity.”

Relationships between employers, or between a student and teacher or employee, are not necessarily forbidden. Pijpers explains that the UU has chosen not to implement a university-wide moratorium on such relationships, like other Dutch universities, such as the University of Delft, have in their code of conduct. “People can fall in love. But if there’s a hierarchical or dependent relationship, then acting with the utmost care is necessary, as is transparency.”

Pijpers believes that inviting the professor to respond to the sexual harassment claim in March 2020 was “a matter of good employment.” During the procedure, the professor didn’t have the chance to respond to the complainants’ statements, and declaring the complaints well-founded would have far-reaching consequences for him. As for the woman, the UU President deemed an additional meeting with her unnecessary because there was sufficient information about her case in the file.

“In the end, we have to conclude that parties have contradicting stories on the element of consent in the secret relationship, and that there’s nothing in the file that would prove that the complainant’s point of view is more plausible than that of the defendant,” justified the President.

The Board confirmed that there hadn’t been any previous reports of issues with the professor -- neither about inappropriate behaviour, nor about his performance. “But, in this case, there’s definite culpability to the extent that this could not go without legal consequences.”

Complainants call for significant changes to complaint procedure
Although the two complainants say they’re relieved that the professor has resigned, they’re mostly dissatisfied with the way the university handled their complaints. In a statement, the woman mentioned having a negative experience when she tried to find a way to file to her complaints within the university. These experiences, she says, prove that there’s a culture in which inappropriate behaviour often goes “ignored” or “trivialised.”

She also criticises the way the UU Board treated her in several instances, emphasizing that only the professor was invited for an additional meeting, and that the text the University Board sent to employees about her complaint wasn’t coordinated with her. To add insult to injury, President Pijpers gave so much information during the meeting with the employees that her identity could easily be found out. “During the entire procedure and its resolution, I felt as though the Board didn't take me seriously enough and didn't protect me enough.”

The second complainant says his experiences were “largely negative regarding every single element of the complaint procedure”. However, he “doesn’t feel safe” to share his experiences, partially because the case is still ongoing for him. He calls for an external evaluation of the procedure by independent experts, and voices his hope that “the UU will seriously work on dealing with the structural factors that hinder the prevention and addressing of inappropriate behaviour.”

Both complainants say that they strongly discourage all students and employees from filing complaints, as long as no radical changes are implemented. “I had hoped that speaking up would lead to a safer work and study climate for women,” the woman says. “I now know that was in vain.”

Process took too long
Although Pijpers says he stands behind his judgment, he understands the negative emotions of the complainants and the defendant. He says the case took too long, and the “monitoring of the process should have been better”.

The complaint committee exceeded its maximum response time of fourteen weeks by three weeks. Then, the Executive Board needed a month and a half to reach a verdict, while the rules state that that should be done within a month. After all that, it took yet another two months for the university to announce that the professor would leave.

Pijpers: “This has been a debilitating time for all involved parties. We take that seriously.” He laments the fact that the disapproving opinions could discourage other employees from filing their own complaints. “That would be the worst possible outcome.”

The UU President refrains from judging the committee’s work. “The committee only issues advice. It’s the duty and responsibility of the Executive Board to reach a decision.

Committee Chairman Sibe Doosje, Assistant Professor of Psychology, told DUB that he’s bound by confidentiality rules and therefore cannot elaborate on the process behind the advice that led to the professor’s resignation.

The UU President now wants to focus on improving the complaint procedure. According to the UU Board, the confidential report about the study on the Ethics Institute’s work culture features advice for the institute itself as well as for the department and the faculty. The advice includes, for instance, implementing active bystander training sessions. The code of conduct should mention in more detail what kind of behaviour is considered inappropriate and extra attention should be paid to the time committees can take for rulings. The report also urges for adjustments in the selection process for members of the complaint committee.

Additionally, the Executive Board has asked Law professor Eddy Bauw and consultancy firm Bing to present specific recommendations for changes in the procedure by late January. Multiple sides, including a group of students, have called for a complaint committee that could issue a ruling without discussion with the university’s board. This committee could work in collaboration with other universities through the VSNU Association of Universities. According to Pijpers, one of the things the study will analyse is whether such a committee is desirable.

One of the people defending an independent committee is the former professor, who deems it essential for a more transparent procedure. He says a university should prevent "legal unsafety" for its employees, which he believes can happen “if terminology like ‘harassment’ and ‘inappropriate behaviour’ are only explained in terms of subjective perceptions and interpretations.” He also feels that a university should guarantee an impartial adversarial process, as well as keeping possible reputation damage for the university out of the procedure.

The Board stated that fear of damage to the university’s reputation (as a result of an allegedly negligent approach) did not play a role in the decisions that were made regarding the professor. They did, however, wonder whether it was sensible to publicise the professor’s resignation and the reasons behind it. “That’s always a dilemma. On the one hand, we want to be transparent about the way we deal with complaints. On the other hand, you have to safeguard the privacy of the people involved.”

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Mixed response
In and around the institute, the professor is described as a good scientist and a strong administrator. He is often described as an exuberant person who was not afraid to make his presence felt.

The response to the reason for his resignation is mixed. Everyone disapproves of keeping a relationship secret, and everyone feels that punishment was necessary. But there are also doubts about the procedure, the way evidence was handled, and whether the final decision was proportional. Some wonder if the decision was driven by moral judgment or fear that the case would damage the university’s reputation. Some of these concerns have been voiced to the Executive Board.

On the other side, there’s also a general understanding that only the complaint committee and the university board know all the facts when it comes to a complaint about inappropriate behaviour. Many employees also highlighted the tricky position the complainants were in for a long time. “It’s become clear that the professor dealt with different people in different ways,” an employee said. “That makes it difficult for some people to imagine that he could have done what he apparently did do.”

There’s no division within the institute, two employees reassured DUB. Thanks to a professional coach and multiple conversations, they ensured that the differing points of view on the professor’s resignation did not lead to internal tension.

In Pijpers’ opinion, the university has tried to be as open as possible about this case, but he cannot help but notice that many have questions about the Board’s considerations. “We understand it can be frustrating that we can only say very little about the content of the complaints. Colleagues in particular want to be able to assess things for themselves, or at least understand the situation. But, as an employer, we have our own responsibility here.”

The institute’s new director, Ingrid Robeyns, was one of the first people to be informed about the issue between the employee and the professor. She brought that information to the attention of the department head. “After that, it was out of my hands.”

Asked about her assessment of the case, she said no one at the Ethics Institute knows the entire file, so she can’t do anything but trust that the Executive Board has reached a fair verdict.

Additionally, she stressed that the university should hold a debate about what appropriate behaviour means. She mentioned a section of the University of Delft’s code of conduct about the position of power managers and administrators have within the university. “They have to be transparent at all times and ensure a safe environment for their employees.”

Robeyns also voiced criticism about the way the issue was handled by the Executive Board. She finds that the procedure’s “legal approach” and the gag order for the involved parties caused a lot of damage. As a manager, she experienced the situation as extremely stressful. “Because I was forced to be silent about the case, I constantly felt as though I was lying, and I don’t like to lie.” In her opinion, the male employee who filed a complaint was also penalised: he took a sick leave and became even more isolated because he was unable to explain his situation.

Robeyns emphasised that a situation regarding inappropriate behaviour doesn’t just affect those involved, but the entire organisation. “This spring, when what had happened became clear, everyone at the institute was astonished. People felt like they hadn’t been taken seriously. That breeds mistrust.” That’s why she would like information to be proved at an earlier state, provided that it respects the parties’ confidentiality. “I do understand that some things are too private, but for everything else, you should be able to trust your employees’ professionalism.”

For the current director, the procedure took far too long and the inadequate communication surrounding the resolution of the case was a sore point. Responding to Robeyns’ analysis, the UU Board said these issues will be discussed by both parties’ lawyers.

But Robeyns’ criticisms don’t end there. Even though she’s responsible for the reintegration of the aforementioned employee, she’s not receiving any information from the University Board about why the case is taking so long. “That poor communication just shows, once again, that the university has a highly hierarchical culture. That too has to change in order to safeguard every employee’s safety.”

A brief overview of the current complaint procedure

In its Code of Conduct, the UU establishes how students and employees should behave and treat each other. The Code of Conduct to Prevention and Tackle Inappropriate Behaviour contains more specific information about what constitutes inappropriate behaviour.

There’s also a complaint procedure for inappropriate behaviour, which states that a complaint can be reported to a complaint committee. That can be done through a counsellor, but it’s not required.

The committee consists of eight members, including two student members. The Members have to have psycho-social and/or legal knowledge about inappropriate behaviour, and must be able to prove irreproachable conduct.

Members are appointed by the university’s board for a three-year term, and can be re-appointed. New members can be suggested by current members or by the Board itself. The chairperson of the committee nominates candidates to the Executive Board after a conversation with them.

The committee will hear the involved parties and multiple witnesses, and can also do a literature and legal study on the case. Based on this evidence, it issues advice to the university board. The UU Board can choose to request additional information or hire experts, and will then make a final decision.

Last year, the code of conduct and the complaint procedure were both updated, based on conversations with counsellors, committee members, members of the Lokaal Overleg (Local Consult, ed.), the University Council, and the Taskforce Diversity. One of the adjustments is that a complaint doesn’t necessarily have to be discussed again by the entire committee after investigation of a sub-committee of three members.

For years, the number of complaints reported to the committee was low, but it seems to be increasing lately. There were eight complaints in 2018 and four in 2019, of which three were not resolved by the end of that year. In the annual reports, the UU briefly and anonymously describes what type of cases there were that year. The descriptions show that the cases varied in nature, from fights between teachers to discrimination of students doing internships.