'Verontrustende vragen over het gedwongen vertrek van een UU-hoogleraar'

In an article on December 14, 2020, DUB reported on the forced departure of a UU professor and director of the Utrecht Ethics Institute. As a frequent visitor of the Ethics Institute for nearly two decades I took vivid interest in this report.

The article collected the available background information and represented the different standpoints of the involved parties. The information was unavoidably incomplete because many of those interviewed by the DUB were bound by rules of confidentiality.

The UU Executive Board reacted on the article with a statement in order “to clarify the situation”. It says: “The immediate reason for the professor’s departure was a series of complaints by a former colleague and a current colleague. The Executive Board acknowledges that the professor’s actions and negligence were so culpable that legal consequences could not be avoided.”

This is a strong assertion and an assertion to which the professor, who according to the DUB article is bound by a confidentiality agreement with the university, has no possibility to contradict. It is also irritating that the assertion seems to be ill-founded by what the statement further says and by what one can learn from the DUB-article.

It is, of course, of the utmost importance that the university sees to it that its members, especially its dependent members, do not become the victims of “intimidation, sexual harassment, discrimination, aggression, violence and bullying”, as the UU’s complaints procedure details “inappropriate behaviour”, and that it gives its students and employees the possibility to complain about and to move in on such behaviour and to be able to do so without having to fear any disadvantages. This is the obvious intention of the “Complaints procedure for inappropriate behaviour” of 9 April 2019.

On the other hand, the university must safeguard that the “Complaints procedure” is not misused for an intrigue with the aim to destroy a member of the university personally or professionally. It is here, where I find the DUB article and the statement of the Executive Board alarming. Let’s consider for a moment (without making any corresponding claim) the possibility that the professor was the victim of an intrigue, what could have protected him? I asked myself this question when reading and rereading the DUB article, the statement of the Executive Board and the Complaint procedure and I always came to the same answer: nothing!

Apparently, there were four accusations against the professor, one unquestionably justified, and three, at least according to the information given, clearly doubtful. What is all the more irritating is that some obvious reasons for doubt are not even mentioned. This raises the suspicion that the one justified accusation was or is used as evidence for the claim that the other accusations are also justified.

One must resist the temptation to assume that a professor who did not declare a relationship with a student or collaborator probably did many other bad things. Instead, one should be alarmed. The university must be able to exclude the possibility that the professor was not and is not the one harassed. It must offer protection against “inappropriate behaviour” (and must, of course, define it in objectifiable and verifiable ways) in both directions. If UU does not do so, its employees are really unprotected.

An expanded version of this article can be found on the author's homepage.