Holding up a mirror to academic harassment

Arie Kers

At the invitation of the Chief Diversity Officer, on 11 February the Actor Society performed a play portraying stories of academic harassment at universities.

Panelleden academic harassment at universities
Arie Kers

Afterwards, Director of Human Resources Lieke Skidmore-Vencken, Senior Lawyer Fadjar Schouten-Korwa and Confidential Counsellor Martin Blok shared their insights from their roles and expertise within Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR). Moderator Professor Frank van der Duijn Schouten, Dean of Erasmus School of Economics, questioned the panellists and the audience on their role as leaders. 

Subtle power relations

Rector magnificus, Professor Rutger Engels, emphasised that complex and subtle power relations exist within universities. “Young researchers are particularly vulnerable. They can quickly feel under pressure to accept an extra co-author on an article they’ve written or feel obliged to perform extra activities for their supervisor(s),” he said. Engels: “It’s important that we address these issues and talk about them.”

Little poster girl

The play charted the subtle progression in cross-border behaviour. The promoter in the play referred to his PhD student as little poster girl, gave her clothing advice – something more feminine - to enhance her career. It also showed the impact of power imbalance and interdependencies. The promoter gave the student negative job appraisals when she stood up against him. When the PhD student lodged a complaint, loss of the university’s reputation and the strong position of the promoter were used as objections to taking the complaint any further.

Also at our own university

Moderator Frank van der Duijn Schouten shared his impression that people often don’t believe that these kinds of things happen at their own university. However, confidential counsellor Martin Blok was forced to burst the bubble: the play isn’t far from reality and many elements do occur here, as well as at other universities.

Speak up

Fadjar-Schouten-Korwa explained that a complaint about inappropriate behavior should be handled with due care. From a purely legal point of view, the rules in the procedure demand evidence, which can prevent people coming forward. However, the burden of proof is less strict than in criminal proceedings. If misconduct can not be proved, the behavior can in some cases be considered as neglect of duty and the dean can impose disciplinary measures. Furthermore, colleagues play an important role in addressing inappropriate behaviour. Lieke Skidmore-Vencken emphasised that we should create a culture in which all colleagues can voice their concerns and correct the behaviour of others. The members of audience acknowledged this.

Supporting people in leadership positions

To tackle academic harassment, we should provide people in leadership positions with support. Managers need to learn how to identify and deal with these issues. According to the director of HR, it’s important that a manager regularly draws attention to the topic. As a team, you are jointly responsible for ensuring a safe working environment. At the same time, protocols and structural adjustments are needed. One change is that the university is recruiting an ombudsperson to deal with complaints in an impartial way.

More information

Have you experienced inappropriate behaviour? Feel safe to contact the Confidential Counsellor. You can always speak to them in confidence. Wherever possible, they can advise on a structural solution. Email: blok@iss.nl

See the guidelines for information on how to deal with unwanted behaviour.