It is a few weeks after ‘the Aleph matter’ when Cursor sits down with Rector Magnificus Frank Baaijens, Board President Jan Mengelers and chief diversity officer Evangelia Demerouti. The Aleph society and the Eindhoven Student Corps of which it is a part were decisively punished after Aleph's annual carnival party was announced on Facebook in a posting that was hostile towards women. ‘A woman's will is irrelevant ’ (#nietoo) was the theme.
“Wretched beyond words” is how Mengelers describes the incident, even now visibly upset. “Eindhoven isn't somewhere that things get alarmingly out of hand during hazings, and TU/e is a small and personal community, a warm Brabant family. Actually, we were all sure that something like this would never happen here. Until it did. And it didn't take the form of wrongdoing, instead it was a huge faux pas. And what it reveals is that some people haven't been tuned in at all to what has been going on in recent months.”
He continues: “It has further intensified our focus on the subject. And it has caused us as Board members to do a quick check: ‘where do we stand on this?’. All three of us agree wholeheartedly on our stance in this matter: zero tolerance, no two ways about it”.
For the Eindhoven Student Corps this translated into the immediate suspension of its TU/e grant, exclusion from the next academic ceremony, suspension of the Aleph committee and the cancellation of the carnival party. And yes, this response drew - as well as support - critical questions, says Mengelers. Wasn't the Executive Board being overly strict and too politically correct towards Aleph and the E.S.C? After all, there's been many a time that a student association like this has shown itself in a good light. Wasn't this dragging everything and everyone very much through the mud? In some ways understandable, believes Baaijens, “but we want to make it absolutely crystal clear: this kind of thing is intolerable. It was never acceptable and now it is totally out of the question”.
They will emphasize it repeatedly during our discussion. For sexually transgressive behavior, in whatever shape or form, there is no place at TU/e: “We accept nothing when it comes to that,” say Baaijens and Mengelers. Anyone who demonstrably oversteps the mark should expect little sympathy from the Executive Board and risks clear measures - ranging from the withdrawal of a grant to suspension or immediate dismissal.
“But we can't be constantly patrolling the campus, magnifying glass in hand,” says the Rector graphically. “We must have the assurance that people will turn to our university ombudspeople, that they will lodge a complaint. Only after a report has been made can action be taken.”
And herein lies what Baaijens believes may well be the greatest challenge facing the university. However meticulously the procedures have been put down on paper, however much care and caution the university ombudspeople bring to their work, if for the victims of sexual intimidation the barrier to reporting feels too high, we still have a great deal of work to do.
And so it was that last October #metoo immediately became a topic of discussion at the university. Not only at the coffee machine and at the domestic kitchen table - between Rector Baaijens and his spouse for example, like him a professor at TU/e - but also in the board room and in discussions with, among others, the deans and the University Council.
You have to find a balance between the distractions of a hype and the reality of what is really going on
At the University of Twente it didn't take long (partly due to the revelations by Professor Vanessa Evers about misconduct that she has experienced over the course of her career) before an open dialogue session on the topic was convened, recalls Mengelers. “When I heard that it briefly occurred to me: shouldn't we be doing that here? The question to consider is: what will it achieve? What will it unleash? First and foremost I want people here to feel safe and comfortable. And I want us to achieve this together. To bring the topic out into the open. For people to feel assured that if anything happens to them, something will be done about it.” Because, says the executive officer describing his dilemma: “You have to find a balance between playing it down and starting a witch-hunt, between the distractions of a hype and the reality of what is really going on”.
And getting a grip on that - local - reality is no easy matter. At TU/e the number of official reports of unwanted behavior of any type is low; for sexual intimidation in particular six reports were made over a ten-year period. In part because incidents have sometimes been discussed and resolved internally - via the pater or mater familias in the workplace who offers everyone a shoulder to cry on, or with the involvement of an immediate manager. By no means every victim finds their way to a university ombudsperson. “On the one hand that is a good thing, but there's always that little voice that says, ‘This doesn't add up,’” admits Baaijens.
“Research shows that 70 percent of incidents in the workplace are not reported,” adds Evangelia Demerouti. She also refers to the extensive three-part series by the online platform ScienceGuide, which spoke to women academics at various Dutch institutions about their experience of sexual intimidation. Baaijens cuts in: “That really shocked me. It was something we discussed at home. Do we know of stories like this in our own back yard? And then I was surprised to learn that my wife hears other stories than I do, as a man.”
Demerouti emphasizes that by and large it doesn't even need to be a more severe offence to unnerve the victim. “A succession of less intense situations, like incessant insinuating remarks, often has just as much impact.”
“What particularly concerns me,” says Baaijens, “is that victims may report a pattern of behavior too late because they are dependent on the person concerned, and fear possible consequences. Like showbiz or defense, say, academia is a sector where power and dependency underlie certain relationships - for example, the relationship between a PhD candidate and professor. This dependence on someone, for your doctoral research or your next career steps, may well mean there's a certain line that has to be crossed before you say 'enough is enough'. I want to prevent this being the reason that people don't escalate a problem. Not that hierarchy always plays a role; incidents can also occur between colleagues of equal status.”
Mengelers emphasizes that he is concerned not only about the three thousand or so employees at TU/e: “We also have some twelve thousand students in our care, young adults, generally still immature and feckless, whose bodies are seething with hormones. How should we be dealing with them? Our priority is to start talking about this issue with them. So not only with deans, directors and the University Council, but also with our student associations. [In the wake of the incident with Aleph, ed.] we have also issued a challenge to the Eindhoven Student Corps: ‘Turn this disgrace into an opportunity; deal with it and surprise us’. What happened in one of their societies is a serious matter and has troubled us all, but if these students deal with it well, it need not be something that haunts them for the rest of their days”.
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The Board Present is also keen to point out, “With the advent of #metoo, intimidation has been taken up by the women's movement while it goes deeper than that. It is a matter of safety for everyone.” Demerouti talks of “a symptom of low diversity and a high proportion of men in positions of power” - a theme that is and must remain, she feels, very much on the radar at TU/e more so than ever before, “in part to prevent situations like this”.
Mengelers: “This is not only about women in the context of male power, but also about people of different sexual orientations and, looked at another way, about people from different countries and culture, and with other - religious - backgrounds. There are all kinds of people who, in response to impropriety of whatever kind, do not feel at home and safe. While we want everyone in the TU/e community to feel at home. And we will do whatever it takes to achieve that.”
Anyone who behaves inappropriately must bear the consequences. The Executive Board's message is loud and clear: sexual intimidation is not accepted at TU/e under any circumstances. Not that a report of inappropriate behavior need always lead to an official complaint and measures. Often a low-key, informal approach can help a person feel safe again in his or her work environment, say the university ombudspeople.
Judith Beenhakker and Tineke van den Bosch-Doreleijers work as university ombudspeople at TU/e; one based at Education and Student Affairs, the other based at Personnel and Organization (DPO). But, they are keen to point out, both students and employees can call on either of them.
Bullying, discrimination, sexual intimidation; these are a few of the issues they deal with in their capacity as university ombudspeople (an additional role). How often varies quite a bit says Van den Bosch: “A month might go by when no one makes a report, at other times you'll speak to three people in one week”. And: “We don't hear of everything. Some incidents are resolved within the department or service itself. And that is fine.”
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The number of reports related to sexual intimidation is simply low, she says: “Six cases have been recorded in the past ten years”. About these six cases the women will say nothing, even in general terms. On the grounds of discretion and safeguarding the confidentiality of the individual reporting the matter. Even in the annual report to the Executive Board all details and individuals are fully anonymized. And given such low figures, every tidbit of factual information could easily reveal what happened where.
#metoo has had no impact on the figures in recent months, say the university ombudspeople. On the other hand, the international wave of shared experiences and stories has set something in motion at TU/e, says board spokesperson Barend Pelgrim. “It has spurred people into action at all levels, made them alert, and prompted a moment of self-reflection: have we got everything well organized here, are the regulations and procedures we have clear to everyone, are the university ombudspeople easy to find? Some work did need to be done on that last point; it turned out, for example, that they were hidden deep in the ‘tree’ of our website.”
By his own admission, he has played devil's advocate here at TU/e: "It's almost beyond credibility that only six incidents have occurred here in the past ten years. Why should our campus be any different from the rest of the world?”
Van den Bosch says it is positive that the #metoo movement has swept this often highly charged topic out from under the carpet. “Things have been brought out into the open, and that's a good thing,” she says. “In any event, stories are now being taken seriously after we've seen certain transgressive behavior being condoned for so long,” says Beenhakker.
Not that ‘transgressive’ can be easily contained in laws and regulations, she adds. “It is not a question of: this is okay, that is not. Where boundaries lie tends to be personal and, as an example, jokes are often not intended to be hurtful. So it is good that a more open discussion can now be held about how someone intended something to come across and how the other person experienced it.”
Van den Bosch hopes this trend has made it easier for people to approach a university ombudsperson. “Because it's a step that takes courage.” Beenhakker: “In the first introduction we always explain that in principle we never do anything without the person's permission. We first offer a listening ear, then we discuss ways in which we could get the inappropriate behavior to stop.”
The university ombudspeople do not give advice in the sense of what someone should do, she explains, “but we do advise our clients about all the options, including the complaints procedure. Together we assess the pros and cons of the various options, after which the client decides what the next step will be. We also practice situations, such as the conversation he or she will have with the person in question. It is important that the person reporting is in the driving seat - precisely because his or her boundaries have already been crossed so often.”
She continues: “Together we draw up a plan of action. Not with the aim of naming and shaming the person whose behavior is inappropriate but primarily to ensure the behavior stops. Those who report this behavior usually aren't looking for all kinds of punishments and measures; mainly they want to feel safer. Where possible we try, at our client's request, to tread an informal path by getting the parties to start talking again. But where boundaries have clearly been crossed and talking is no longer enough, starting a complaints procedure can be a good option - provided that is what the client wants.”
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