This column is different from all my previous ones. Normally I highlight one day from the previous two weeks, from early in the morning to late at night. Today, however, I want to look back on the past two weeks, the past few months, in fact. They have been coloured by the most difficult case I have had to deal with in my career: the unacceptable behaviour displayed by one of our professors.
It has given me sleepless nights. The first conversation with the staff members who dared to report the matter was in May, and I was shocked even then. The story they told me about what had happened to them, but also their enormous uncertainty about the process that lay ahead, made a deep impression. They showed courage and strength in standing up and telling their story. What has happened has impacted the entire Faculty and University and has brought up memories of other unpleasant incidents. Some people are asking what kind of organisation we are (or want to be).
‘We want to be a faculty where there is absolutely no room for inappropriate behaviour.’
Let me be clear about that. We want to be a faculty where there is absolutely no room for inappropriate behavior: be it harassment, discrimination, bullying, vilification or any other form of unacceptable behaviour. Our students and staff should feel safe with us in every single way. And as much as we want to be a safe work and study environment, a place where we can have an open conversation with each other - we obviously aren’t there yet.
It turns out that not everyone feels safe enough to report unacceptable behaviour. After all, what will happen if you do so? Will the organisation have your back? If the person you are reporting is in a higher position than you, you may feel uncertain about how this will affect your future. So we must work to ensure our students and staff feel confident that it is safe to report such behaviour and that all repots will be taken seriously.
As an organisation, we obviously offer a range of support and resources: we have confidential counsellors and helplines, we have had an ombuds officer since this year, we have complaints regulations and committees, and we have conversation training. But more is needed. By no means everyone knows how to or feels safe enough to report something they have experienced.
But first of all, we need to ensure no one behaves inappropriately in the first place. We have a large faculty and it is inevitable that people will sometimes exhibit behaviour that is perceived by others as uncomfortable or possibly even unsafe. The trick is to correct this before it gets out of hand, and that is not easy.
The University started its Let’s Connect programme last year. This is based on the conviction that a good conversation can prevent or solve a lot of problems: by talking to each other at an early stage, by listening to each other and by helping where necessary. And we want to do more: we are going to host lectures and seminars, and offer training courses on how to have a conversation with each other about our behaviour. And we need to talk about social norms: some forms of behaviour are obviously unacceptable, whereas others are in a greyer area.
In any case, we will have to learn how to have the courage to give and receive feedback, and to reflect on our own behaviour and its effect on others. We will have to learn how we, as bystanders, can help in naming and correcting behaviour. For this is how we can nip unacceptable behaviour in the bud and help prevent it.
In short, we need to work on this together. I sincerely hope I can contribute to creating such a culture at our faculty, and I hope you are willing to join me.
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. Find out where to go here.