Ombuds Officer: 'The pain of social insecurity always has to be taken seriously.'
Marjan van Dasselaar was appointed as the new ombuds officer for staff on 1 May. She will be working to create a safer working atmosphere within the University. 'There is a lot of pain felt by people who experience social insecurity. That pain always has to be taken seriously.'
At the moment, the brand-new ombuds officer is mainly involved in meeting and getting to know people. 'I have the feeling that people are pleased that I'm here. Everyone is very willing to help me learn about the organisation. That's something you need in an independent position like mine. I don't receive instructions from anyone and I'm not part of any department. I hope that independence gives people the confidence to talk to me.'
Van Dasselaar has years of experience as a legal specialist working for organisations such as CNV Education. She has also worked for a legal aid agency, was a teacher in higher education for ten years and has thirteen years' experience as an independent legal adviser. Since 2019 she has been ombuds officer for six municipalities. She completed her Law studies in Utrecht. In that respect, I don't have any prior connection with Leiden and I'm starting with a completely open mind.'
In her first month she has talked with the Executive Board and staff at the Administration and Central Services Department, and she now wants to make appointments with the deans and staff who are active in networks within Leiden University. 'I hear through the grapevine who I should be speaking to.' Anyone who wants to have an introductory meeting is welcome to get in touch. 'Please mail me. I'm trying to organise many of these meetings myself, but I don't yet have a good feel for who sits where. It's all too easy for me to overlook someone.'
'What I really like is helping people feel stronger.'
Van Dasselaar wants to play a role in emancipating employees. 'What I really like is helping people feel stronger in their current job. As ombuds officer, I am independent, I have no personal involvement and I hope I can encourage people to resolve issues together. I can instigate an independent study and I can make recommendations to the Executive Board.'
The university is a 'challenging organisation' for an ombuds officer, according to Van Dasselaar. 'Having and lacking power play a role unintentionally. There are a lot of conflicting interests around third party funding and the pressure to publish.' So far, in her first month, Van Dasselaar doesn't have any specific problems in her sights, although she is alert to the kinds of issues that are prevalent at all universities. 'There was an article recently in De Groene Amsterdammer, an independent Dutch weekly news magazine, about how complex the relationship is between professors and their PhD candidates. Leiden is almost certain to have some of these kinds of issues, too.'
'Social insecurity isn't necessarily the result of unwillingness or malicious intent.'
Van Dasselaar appreciates that there is a high level of willingness to resolve problems. 'Social insecurity isn't necessarily the result of unwillingness or malicious intent. It's mainly the effect of feeling powerless, having a lack of understanding or not quite knowing how to act. But that doesn't deny the fact that a lot of pain is felt by people who experience social insecurity. We have to address that pain, bring it into the discussion.'
She invites everyone to report cases of social insecurity, even if reports are already circulating in the media. 'I know these stories, but I haven't studied them myself. I want people to come and talk to me about them. Then I can examine the issues and will be able to say something about them.'
The role of ombuds officer is organised differently at each university. 'In Leiden the choice has been made to focus on patterns in the organisation. These could be a pattern within a department, a pattern shown by a particular supervisor or a broader pattern within the whole organisation.'
'Addressing undesirable situations within the organisation starts with having the courage to speak out about it.'
Staff can talk to Van Dasselaar about patterns in behaviour. 'As ombuds officer, you don't make any judgement about the substance of decisions or policies, but about behaviour. Maybe you keep being passed over with publications, or you might have the feeling that you aren't being listened to if you make remarks on the work floor. I can only judge whether there actually is a pattern if it is reported. A small number of undesirable incidents may not constitute a pattern, but I need to hear about the incidents before I can discern any pattern. People can also notify me of undesirable instances even if they have already contacted a confidential counsellor. I won't be doing the work of the counsellor; they have their own job to do. But it can be useful to report incidents to me so that, if there is a pattern, it can be recognised.'
Van Dasselaar understands people's anxiety about raising an issue with her. 'Reporting undesirable situations within the organisation starts with having the courage to speak out about them. Then we can discuss what I will do about what has been reported. I never take any action without letting the person who reported it know. Sometimes I don't even need to name any names, and if I do need to give a name, I always discuss it first. But, if nothing is reported, there's little I can do.'
Photo: Monique Shaw