Task force makes suggestions to break a culture of silence around inappropriate behaviour

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The Inappropriate Behavior Task Force states that the university suffers from a problematic culture of silence. Those who report misconduct are often intimidated or manipulated into staying quiet in order not to harm the reputation of the organisation or the accused. They also argue that complainants often become isolated, because they're just sitting at home without any contact with colleagues or fellow students, and they're not kept up to date about the procedure.

These arguments are based on existing studies by organisations such as the National Network of Women Professors, the Federation of Dutch Trade Unions (FNV), and PNN, the organisation promoting the interests of PhD candidates in the Netherlands. The Task Force also did a survey at Utrecht University.

Although those studies cover other universities as well, these issues are not foreign to UU: an Ethics professor was recently forced to resign over an accusation of inappropriate behaviour. But the problem is widespread, as demonstrated by similar cases at Radbound University, the University of Amsterdam (link in Dutch), and the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (link in Dutch). Annetje Ottow, former Vice-chair of the Executive Board, told DUB in 2019: “I haven’t received any signals that a similar twisted culture exists at UU, but I also can’t guarantee that a large university such as the UU is entirely free of any wrongdoing". 

This week, Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad published a story about a Professor of Philosophy working in Leiden. Several students complained about his intimidating teaching style. In no time at all, the professor learned exactly who filed the complaint against him. A report on inappropriate behaviour was issued, but it had no consequences for the professor at all. The university's dean took to Twitter to ask why NRC decided to write about this topic in the first place. His tweets sparked a lot of controversy.

Little compassion for complainants
Employees or students often do not dare to complain about inappropriate behaviour because they fear for their careers, the task force notes. DUB also came to the same conclusion in a survey conducted in 2019. DUB asked readers to what extent codes of conduct, confidential advisers and complaint committees were effective, and received eight responses within a week. They came from people involved with five different faculties, and they all complained about professors who, in their view, abused their position of power. At the end of the day, it seemed like the complainant was always the one drawing the short straw.

In addition, once a complaint is filed, complainants feel as though they're either not sufficiently informed about the subsequent investigation procedure or not informed at all. This lack of transparency generates a feeling that misconduct goes unpunished at the university, which makes complainants feel even less secure. Not to mention there's little sympathy for complainants, who often experience the procedure as emotionally draining. Many feel compelled to seek legal help themselves. According to the task force, the complaint committee does not function independently and managers have little expertise in how to deal with the complaints.

Reporting anonymously
In an advice note, the task force came up with a series of suggestions to address these issues. One of their ideas is to make the process of submitting a complaint more accessible, by creating an online platform for this purpose and allowing students and staff to do so anonymously. They also suggested the university to adjust the prescription period: currently, complainants must file a report no later than three years after the inappropriate behaviour took place, but the task force would like to see that period be increased to fifteen years.

Another suggestion is that confidential advisors be included in the defendant's file -- even if it's not official yet. Although these complaints are not a direct reason for investigation, they can be included in someone else's file, in case other people submit a complaint about the same person. The task force also states that the confidential advisor must be given the opportunity to start an investigation themselves -- for example, in case there are many anonymous complaints about the same person. Finally, they call for punishments to be explained more clearly.

These suggestions were welcomed by some, but met with criticism by others. By anonymising the complaints on the one hand and making the complaints more public on the other, the proposed procedure would make it easier to put people under scrutiny, without them being able to defend themselves. German professor Klaus Steigleder wrote an opinion piece  on DUB about the risk that someone will be accused unfairly when the barrier to complain is lower.

Anticipating the criticism, the task force's note declares that all those accused of wrongdoing should have the right to know about the complaints made about him or her, and receive the opportunity to refute the claims. However, according to the authors, this should be done without ever revealing the complainant's name.

Safety policy officer
There are also proposals giving the complaint procedure a more visible place within the university, such as an annual monitor of inappropriate behaviour, preferably to be implemented in collaboration with other universities. The idea is to sketch a landscape of how safe employees and students feel in higher education institutions, and then share best practices. 

In addition, the task force advises the university to hire a "safety policy officer", an employee who'll be the first point of contact for complainants to collect and create expertise on the complaint procedure. This person would also stimulate the accessibility of the procedure and provide advice on cultural change.

The task force finds that the university must improve its care for complainants and bystanders, by providing them with legal aid and coaching, for instance.  Protection against dismissal was also a point of discussion.

No intimate relationships
Last but not least, the task force would like to see the university tighten up its code of conduct by forbidding intimate relationships between employees and students or PhD candidates, in case the UU employee bears direct responsibility for the education or welfare of that student or PhD candidate. By "direct responsibility", they mean teaching, checking, advising, and supervising. Intimate relationships shouldn't be allowed either, in case of a power or dependency relationship in the academic sphere, they add.

But that's not all. To the task force, the code of conduct should forbid employees to approach students through private channels such as social media, personal phone number or text messages, when the matter in question is not related to work or study.

The Executive Board will include this advice note in a new proposal regarding UU's complaint procedure. The advice of the Bauw committee, which is basing its recommendations on previous criticism against the procedure, will also play a significant role. The board's proposals are expected to be announced this spring.

Read the task force's note in full, click here (in Dutch).