Professor quits after inappropriate behaviour

The Antoni van Leeuwenhoek hospital in Amsterdam. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Arch

NRC Handelsblad published an article (in Dutch) this past Saturday, based on emails, app messages, and recorded conversations, that highlighted Schellens’ inappropriate behaviour. This spring, a young doctor filed a complaint with the Netherlands Cancer Institute (NKI) / Antoni van Leeuwenhoek hospital, where both she and Schellens worked. She was unhappy with the professor’s advances. Late June, the hospital’s intranet announced that, in consult with the Board of Directors, he had quit the hospital.

Utrecht University, where Schellens worked as part-time professor of Pharmacy, was ‘completely surprised’ by his leaving the Amsterdam hospital. Other NKI employees who had been in the process of doing their PhDs under Schellens’ supervision had been transferred to a different supervisor, without making the university aware of this. An unusual course of events, says a UU spokesperson.

With 800 scientific publications, Jan Schellens is a prominent cancer researcher. An annual study conducted by DUB shows (in Dutch) that with 65 PhD candidates, he’s in the top 20 of UU professors with the highest number of PhDs ever. This year, the oncologist was inovled with the ‘Oncode Institute’, a new collaboration between nine Dutch research institutes. The professor also spoke up in the media. Last year, he was a guest at talk show De Wereld Draait Door, to speak out against the raised costs of cancer treatments.

When the UU asked the hospital and the professor for an explanation, neither the NKI nor Schellens himself wanted to elaborate. When prodded further, it turned out that in early July, a notice had been filed about Schellens with the university’s counsellor. At that moment, as well as later on, the complainant did not wish to file a complaint with the UU. She did mention that further independent investigation had been done, by orders of the NKI.

The cancer institute confirmed the investigation, but didn’t want to share its findings with the university. When a satisfactory response to questions about the sudden leave and transfer of PhDs failed to come, the UU decided on August 14 to relieve Schellens of his duties. Reason for the suspension was that, without his position with the cancer institute, Schellens no longer fit the requirements for the professorship, which demanded the performing of clinical work.

In a second conversation with rector Henk Kummeling, Schellens still refused to elaborate upon his leave from the Amsterdam hospital, according to the UU spokesperson. Afterwards, on November 1, the professor put in his notice in a letter.

The exact reason for Schellens’ leave in Amsterdam only became clear after the publication in NRC Handelsblad. In his written explanation to the newspaper, Schellens acknowledges he had let himself been led too much by ‘feelings of affection’. But he also states he disagrees with the ‘methods and results’ of the external investigation. He says it caused a breach of trust between the hospital and himself, after which had been decided ‘in proper consultation’ to terminate his work there.

After the news about Schellens’ leave spread, the UU approached the PhD students he had supervised until July 1. They stated they’d finish their tracks with their new supervisors, and did not require any additional guidance.

On its website, the UU describes how the organisation wishes to guarantee a safe, social work environment. It’s currently working on renewing the code of conduct. The decision-making process surrounding this will be used to highlight the importance of the issue amongst employees.

The Antoni van Leeuwenhoek hospital states they do not wish to elaborate on the issue in the media.