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Executive Board column: Let’s be alert to unacceptable behaviour

This is a difficult time. Above all, for all those directly involved in this horrible case – unacceptable behaviour by a professor and his removal from the University – the case we went public about on 18 October and that has been reported in the media. This is painful and tough for the complainants and witnesses: they are victims and have been caused a lot of suffering. And it is an enormous shock for students and staff, from the institute in question and the entire University. This has happened here at our university and it therefore affects every one of us.

We actively went public about this case on 18 October: we want to be really open about this and to learn our lessons and share them with you. Going public with this news is therefore a deliberate choice by the Executive Board. This cannot and should not happen in the workplace. We want to prevent this kind of unacceptable behaviour in future or at least spot it at a much earlier stage so that prompt action can be taken.

This case has caused a great deal of upset, among students and staff alike. I understand this all too well and I too find it deeply troubling. Many questions are coming from our academic community. Who is it? Why has he not been sacked? What exactly did he do? Why was this unacceptable behaviour not noticed and punished sooner? How could this have been prevented? And also: how should I myself behave? Where do you draw the line? Am I already at fault if I am short or blunt with a colleague once or twice?

To answer that last question first: no, we assume that everyone can recompose themselves and correct their behaviour. But it mustn’t become a pattern of unacceptable behaviour. And if someone gives you feedback on your behaviour, take this to heart. Let’s challenge, help and correct one another, even if we ourselves are not the victim of unacceptable behaviour but witness or hear about it from others so that together we do the right thing. And let’s not forget that the majority of the time things are fine: we have nice colleagues and our university is a great place to work.

Then onto the question of who it is. We cannot and may not reveal the identity of the professor concerned, even if names are doing the rounds in the media and on social media. As an employer we are bound by strict privacy rules. We are convinced, together with the Complaints Committee, which has looked at this very carefully, that violating this privacy could cause even more harm to those involved.

You also ask, quite understandably, why he hasn’t been fired. There are good reasons for this relating to employment law; everything has been carefully considered. I cannot explain more without revealing details about the identity of the person concerned. The measures taken will prevent future occurrences of this unacceptable behaviour in our buildings because that is what we can control (as opposed to behaviour outside the University).

Others have asked us if you can still be a good researcher/professor if you behave like this. Here at our university, he can at least no longer perform the managerial aspects of the role, in interaction with staff members, nor is he allowed to supervise PhD candidates or collaborate with colleagues from our university. After long and careful consideration, and taking into account the clear advice of the Complaints Committee and all the personal circumstances, the Executive Board has decided not to withdraw the professorial title.

What exactly did he do? We are talking here about ‘unacceptable and intimidating’ behaviour, general descriptions of behaviour that we absolutely do not tolerate. This includes abuse of power, gender discrimination and the systematic vilification and belittling of staff. It also includes inappropriate behaviour with an element of sexual intimidation: ranging from comments right down to unwelcome physical contact with one of the members of staff. All of this was under the constant threat of harming the complainants’ careers. And unfortunately, it went on for several years.

Why was this not noticed and punished sooner? It was noticed but regrettably, not enough was done about it. This is not about scapegoating but it does give us cause to work hard on fostering an environment of dignity and respect at the institute concerned. Because for this to have gone on for so long means that the work environment was not safe enough. How could this have been prevented? That is a difficult question. I would like to think it could have been prevented, but the fact is that it wasn’t.

We as the Executive Board think it is terrible that this has happened at our university. Because we have done so much to create a workplace where everyone is treated with dignity and respect: confidential counsellors, an ombuds officer, complaint regulations, committees, conversation training, you name it. But that has not proved to be enough. So what this is also about is us collectively being more alert and challenging others sooner for unacceptable behaviour, behaviour that is hurtful and harmful to others. We started the Let’s Connect programme last year. We believe that talking to one another can already prevent or resolve many problems. If we take the time to talk and listen to each other and help those who need it, this will already resolve so much.

And we have the Recognition and Rewards programme – known in Leiden as Academia in Motion – where we are placing the emphasis on developing staff competency in areas other than conducting research alone. We are investing in the equally important teaching, collaborative relationships, teamwork and leadership. And this is something we will continue to pursue.

As the Executive Board, it is our duty to create a safe work environment. Helplines and training are not enough. We want to push ahead with the lessons learned and areas for improvement. Alongside support and policies, this is about awareness. It’s really important that we talk about what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behaviour: let’s continue to do so.

I’d like to end this column by saying that this case and the pain it has caused all those involved have touched me deeply. I’m at a loss for words.

If you have any doubts or concerns or if you yourself have experienced unacceptable behaviour by someone else at the University: talk to your manager or study coordinator, or contact a confidential counsellor. We’re here for you.

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