When your skin color is used against you
Grace Prince (real name known to the editorial board) has experienced quite some undesirable behavior, first hand. When she came to the TU/e, it was soon clear that in her research group it was only about sharing successful results. “If something was wrong, you were stupid and it was your fault. If something was right, it was the professor’s success. If he was unhappy with the results, my professor, Noah Winters (real name known to the editorial board), would say publicly ‘do you even know what you’re doing? You are so stupid’; but then at the end of the meeting he would pat me on my back, saying that I’m doing a good job. That confused me and happened a few times. The professor created strange dynamics in the group, and he wasn’t the only one with undesirable behavior.”
“There was a group member that publicly tried to make my life hell, with his constant jokes about me being black. He would for example say he couldn’t see me because the lights weren’t on. Everyone thought it was funny. I must admit that in the beginning I would just roll my eyes or chuckle nervously, and just not say anything. I didn’t want to cause trouble and appear to be ‘sensitive’ since I was in a completely different culture.”
But one day she had enough and publicly said exactly what she thought of him and his jokes. “I was also asked publicly ‘how did you get your PhD? I didn’t know that there were schools in the ghetto’. This was all out in the open and everyone laughed, which made me understand that racism was actually just part of the university and societal cultures, and that no one saw anything wrong with it. He also went through a phase of calling me ‘Blackie’ – I would never respond. Even at a conference: ‘Hey, Blackie! We’re going for lunch’”. Others were there but didn’t say a word. With the underlying dynamic of the professor putting her in the role of the group’s dummy, it didn’t make things better. “Once I was even asked about the color of my genetalia: ‘I’ve always wondered what black pussy looks like’.”
One day, this group member said “Blackie” again in public. “I told him, ‘You are only to call me dr. Prince. Don’t even use my first name’. At the same time, Winters would interrupt my work or meetings, and call me into his office for the dumbest things. I was in there all the time for all kinds of ‘emergencies’ – things that normal people wouldn’t see as an emergency. After a while I told him, next time you have another ‘emergency’, you can wait. Just email me.”
“Another researcher told me in my first week that he would never respect me as a researcher; and as a result, he was very petty with me. For example, he wouldn’t give me the results that I needed for my work. He would then lie about it to the professor, who would tell me that I didn’t have it together. I thought I was going crazy and I realized I just had to record my conversations with them. Once in a meeting I confronted them, and asked ‘Are you sure?!’. I took out my phone to replay the conversation and they backed off. I know it’s not ethical but I had no choice. I decided that I would never have meetings with him again without the professor present.”
The researcher became very angry when she told him again that he should give her the results. “He said ‘Don’t get above yourself, it’s not long ago that my people were buying and selling your people’. As a ‘You’re not my boss’ kind of thing.”
Sinterklaas time, the situation became really unbearable. The group celebrated Sinterklaas and they had a real ‘Zwarte Piet’ now. “‘Grace is here so we don’t have to do our make-up this year!,’ they said. The professor asked me to be Zwarte Piet. My response was not measured: I just told him to get lost. I saw the celebration but made sure not to be involved. I understand that the culture is different, but it’s incredible that a country does this in the 21st century. I must admit that a year later, the professor came to me personally and apologized, saying ‘Sorry if I offended you by asking you to be Black Pete.”
Regardless of the apology, the harassment continued and the situation became harder and harder for Prince. “I went to a confidential person at TU/e, after consulting a local support group. I heard from them at least three of the same stories, from other departments on campus." Cursor has been in contact with the person of the support group Prince spoke to, who has confirmed that Prince has indeed spoken to her about the incidents of racism and abuse of power. This person from the support group has also worked at TU/e herself and left because of her own negative experiences on this topic and the lack of solutions.
Prince: "Speaking to the confidential person was difficult as bullying and harassment are not always tangible or concrete – it’s an environment. She was nice and listened. ‘How can I make a formal complaint and stop this?’, I asked. She told me I’d have to go through my manager. So I backed down and chickened out as the manager was part of the problem… I just didn’t feel like I could pursue it. I just didn’t know who I could trust.”
In the whole department there was only one other black girl. They looked nothing like each other. “I remember once someone in the department approached me and congratulated me on my recent publication in Nature. I said I didn’t have one. Then he said, ‘Oh it’s not you? It must be the other one then.’ On campus, I have been asked many times whether I work at the university. When I reply “yes” it is sometimes met with “Oh! In the kitchen? Are you cleaning staff?”. I have heard repeatedly from staff and students that black people are inherently or genetically lazy and violent, and are less intelligent, implying that my position was simply a ‘diversity box’-ticking exercise. Or, that I am somehow a “Good Negro” – a black person that has supposedly cast off the shackles of their “primitive culture” and “successfully integrated into” and adopted the superior way of the West. I was initially shocked at how widespread and acceptable such beliefs and comments are in the culture here – how intellectualized and normalized the racism is; but now it is normal to me.”
“There is now a diversity board that you can go to and complain about these things, and I was invited to speak to them about my experiences; but then I found out that the rector is on that board. So when something bad happens, it can just become a big PR exercise. This made me have no faith in the board. A rector cannot sit in such a position. They can report to him, but that should be all.”
Regarding the diversity committee, Evangelia Demerouti, diversity officer and member of that committee, does not think that the presence of the rector in the committee restricts the members in their freedom of expression. “I don't see any difference between the meetings with and without him. Having the rector there helps the implementation of ideas as he hears about diversity issues first hand. We are currently making a plan to optimize the governance of diversity and inclusion so that the implementation of measures becomes more effective.” The Executive Board adds here that the diversity committee does not function as a complaints committee.
Prince clearly remembers the debate of diversity week, with Jerry Affriye, “which was not focused on the TU/e at all. It was about his experiences and wider societal issues of race. There are so many Asian and a few black people studying and working here. Why didn’t they provide an open atmosphere for them to talk about any experiences of racism at TU/e? When the session organizers were asked about their experiences of racism reports at TU/e, they stated that they have never received any. I unmuted and spoke up. Baaijens interrupted me fast and asked ‘but what do we do about it?’. Then I understood: it’s a big fat PR stunt. The whole thing was choreographed, so that there was not really space for TU/e people to speak up. A TU/e professor asked a good question: ‘What is TU/e’s statement on Zwarte Piet and racism?’. As Cursor reported, there was none.”
The Executive Board does not agree with the characterization of that debate as a choreographed PR stunt. According to the Executive Board, this debate was specifically aimed at discussing discrimination within TU/e, and on that occasion rector Baaijens also said, as Cursor mentioned, that discrimination for sure occurs within TU/e as well and that it has to be addressed.
A dinner with his wife
Back to the situation in the group: a tenure position would soon be available, and two postdocs were a really good fit – one male and one female. “The latter I later found to be Winters’ mistress. The male postdoc was most promising, and I even helped with writing a support letter, but all of a sudden his admission stopped and he was going to leave. It was weird. I was then told that the female postdoc will be put forward for the tenure track and I had to help with supporting documents for her. Me, Noah and the female postdoc worked on a grant proposal together, which became successful. Noah said he wanted to bring us home for dinner to say thank you. Myself and the female postdoc went to his house, where we had dinner with him and his wife. Then two weeks later I was called into his office, where he admitted he was having a relationship with the female postdoc and that his wife found out. I asked him ‘Why did you bring me to your house?!’ He said his wife suspected an affair but was not sure if it was with me or the postdoc, ‘so I brought you both in to show that all was normal and calm her suspicions.’”
“This case was reported to the department, and they said ‘a relationship is fine, but not within the same group.’ He didn’t care about their opinion and said ‘she is my postdoc and things will stay the way they are.’ The department somehow agreed to this. The relationship itself was not a problem – it’s a private matter; but Noah had created a situation where it completely disrupted the professional workings of the group. The postdoc was now like a ‘senior supervisor’ for the whole group – barking orders at staff and students, and making threats against them: ‘if you don’t do what Noah and I say, we’ll make things very hard for you, or make sure you never get your degree or publish or work in the field again’. It was no longer clear who was really in charge – the professor or the postdoc.” Noah Winters and the postdoc also demanded that the group members write letters of support for her to remain in the group. Threats and manipulation made people feel that declining was not an option.
Winters would threaten the people working for him regularly. A holiday time came and Prince told Winters she was going away for a holiday. He said that was okay. “I really needed it. On my way to the airport, he called me and said work wasn’t finished yet. He threatened me that if I didn’t come back right away to fix it, I would not be able to work in this field again. I also remember Noah told me ‘if you leave your contract before the end date, I will make things extremely difficult for your future. It’s a small world.’ I started laughing, as I realized I would soon go against his expectations.”
“On the last day that I worked for him, I went straight to HR and said that I wouldn’t work there a moment longer because of the mess that the professor was making of the group through threats, lies, and manipulation. The general level of unprofessionalism was absolutely unbelievable. The board even tried to get rid of the postdoc. Yes, she behaved appallingly but ultimately, she was not the problem. The professor was the real problem. But all this turned out not to be tangible enough to fire him?! Bullying, threatening that ‘you will not have your PhD, you will not have a job again’, fostering an atmosphere of harassment… none of it was enough. He knew and he felt in control.”
Prince also went to talk to the board in person, and encouraged the others in the group to do the same. The board of the department told her there was nothing they could do, and that, as he is behaving like someone who is mentally ill, they have a responsibility as his employer to also look after his mental health. “I asked them if it was worth sacrificing the mental health of the rest of the group just for him? They said yes. I said it was clear to me. And I left. This issue was not only escalated to the department board, but also to the executive board. The lack of response and action let me know that their attitude was ‘keep it all as quiet as possible so it blows over.’ That both the department board and the executive board did nothing to protect the affected people is the main issue. I believe the people doing the harmful things are not the only problem: the university has no proper system to address these issues, that’s the real problem. And if there is a system, no one knows what that is and where to go when things are going wrong”.
The Executive Board denies that nothing has been done to protect the affected people from the group in question. According to the Board, an enormous amount of work has been put into placing PhD students and postdocs in other groups, "so that they could complete their research, and everyone in the group was also spoken to."
Winters has left
“Noah Winters is now employed at another university (none of the group members moved with him) and I heard the board there got extremely angry, finding out they have employed someone with such a background and the TU/e hadn’t informed them. Of course TU/e kept things quiet to avoid reputation damage.” The Executive Board says that the university Winters is employed now, was indeed informed by the Eindhoven Department Board, and that this was done at the request of the Executive Board.
The main point here is that there is no transparency and nobody to complain to, except to the person that is the problem, which is not always easy to do when professors appear to have their students’ futures in their hands and no accountability. “The amount of power the professor has is dangerous in my opinion,” says Prince. “I am grateful I was never a PhD under these circumstances. They feel even more dependent upon their professor. When all of this was going on, many PhD’s were worried about their job. They thought he could just fire them. They had no clue that their contract is actually with the university, and not with this man. They were afraid to complain, and the university has made it that way. They don’t know their rights and the professor behaves like a god. There needs to be a clear process for accountability.” The Executive Board notes that there are confidential counselors at TU/e and that there is a complaints committee.
Cursor has tried to talk to several (in)directly involved parties about Grace's experiences, but nobody dares to speak up, not even anonymously, because they fear the consequences. Even though they are no longer employed at TU/e. Off the record, a lot has been reported that supports her story.
Pascal Grand (real name known to the editorial board) was a TU/e master’s student and conducted promising research. Due to the traceability of the story, the editors cannot provide substantive details about his research.
In his master's thesis, Grand had focused on an important topic in his field that could offer interesting opportunities for the industry. What he hoped to find had not been found before. Grand: "Despite the apparently good results, in-depth research was needed to confirm those, but unfortunately the required specific expertise was lacking within my research group." Doubts about the validity of the conclusions were confirmed when he spoke to external experts on that topic. Grand also showed the caution in his thesis, but “my professor sold the results like they were the jackpot” regardless. He was not involved in a subsequent grant application, which his professor took care of, who also used material from his thesis for that matter.
“When presenting the results of my thesis, my professor was publicly very positive about the results. Then I already thought ‘hey, I wouldn't dare to draw these conclusions so easily’. But I just started in this field, a professor already has a high position. More and more experts said ‘it probably isn't what you hope it is’. Still, the professor continued. The scholarship was awarded. Both the project owners and the investing companies have not been critical enough. What surprised me was that it was presented as a technology that was mostly working already and in the start-up phase for upscaling. I know that the project started with a lot of fanfare: everyone thought ‘we’ll just do this’. Another PhD student was given this assignment and later demonstrated that indeed it does not work as well and easily as hoped. I think this is also what the companies and the project management were so annoyed about: their ‘safe’ investment suddenly became a lot more uncertain.
It could have been a beautiful project from the start. It was not doomed to complete failure. But a too rosy presentation of those initial results has sent the follow-up research down an unrealistic path. And of course: if you say it probably won't work, you won't get any money anyway. So you have to put a bright point on the horizon, but how big you make it is up to the one pitching the idea. And that’s where the risk of pipe dreams comes into play, just to get that research funding.
Being so dependent of your professor
Mechteld Hogenbrink (real name known to the editors) has worked at TU/e for a long time as a PhD candidate. “I cannot speak openly about the experiences or give the names of those involved. Unfortunately, like many others, I am dependent on my professor for any references for my further scientific career."
"I was in a really toxic relationship with my professor and promotor and I was not the only one. She was my daily supervisor, but in practice that amounted to only half an hour every two weeks, if I was lucky. In the second year, the guidance became so bad that I started talking to a counselor. I asked for tips on how to do this. That person said there was nothing she could do and that I should discuss it myself. I did that, but my supervisor was not exactly open to this: no solution was found. I worked my way through and started writing my thesis.”
“When I met the deadline, she was not satisfied regardless and I had to go back to the drawing board. I didn't want that anymore. I just wanted to quit, the relationship was already horrible and I couldn't see a solution anymore. Then I went to another professor for advice. He told me that this was really not okay and I had to go to the dean. I did that, as well as to HR. That became difficult again: the dean is not the supervisor of a professor and what happened is not punishable by law. It is different from behavior in the workplace that is documented to be not allowed. HR gave an advice aimed at behavioral change by my professor, but that turned out not to be binding, so that was of no use to me either. It's very difficult when you keep getting stuck in the system and no one is really helping you. An experience like mine, and I know I am not alone, does not get to people with enough power until it has escalated too far. You first get arguments such as "you are the only one, we cannot just take action, we have to think about the long term, etc."
“I hope this article makes people more aware that this is happening and that if you experience this yourself, you know that you are not alone. The university must discuss this with PhD students and start filing. Then it doesn't have to be like this in the future.”
Hanky Panky Shanghai
Minha Lee is assistant professor at the Department of Industrial Design (ID), where she teaches Value Sensitive Design. Lee has observed implicit and explicit racism and prejudice at both ID and Industrial Engineering & Innovation Sciences, the faculty where she received her PhD. Lee: “In the student evaluations, for example. English is not the first language here for most people. There seem to be prejudices about lecturers who, in the opinion of the students, do not speak English very well. This is reflected in their evaluation forms, in which they also had to specifically assess the quality of the lecturers' English (2017/2018, ed.). "
Lee herself always got good reviews regarding her English, but she saw things go wrong with other lecturers. “The form is anonymous and you can write down whatever you want. I work at ID and we have a lot of Asian teachers there. That's nice, but because of their pronunciation or accent - which students refer to – not all of them are understood so well, or they are just respected less, for example because of eye glancing by students during class. It is subtle and therefore difficult to address. As an adjustment to those evaluations, I suggested, ‘let's just evaluate communication skills, instead of English.’ That is better for everyone involved. A teacher's communication skills are broader and not only about language, but also, for example, picking up non-verbal signals and being able to explain a topic in different ways, depending on what a student needs to understand it."
The poor rating of English in an evaluation form also affects a teacher, Lee explains. "If you do not get good scores in general, including the students' assessment of your English, you will not be able to get your BKO (Basic Teaching Qualification, ed.)." Lee discussed the bad ratings for English with her students to start the conversation on that topic. Ludo Kluver was one of them. The master's student of Innovation Management took an elective course in which Lee was a guest lecturer. Kluver thinks that the assessments are sometimes not filled out positively because the incentive to do so is lacking. “As a bachelor's student it is mandatory to fill them in, as a master's student that is no longer the case,” Kluver says. “This means that there is still little motivation to fill them out. I think people fill them out if they want to add something to the course or if they want to complain.”
That conclusion is consistent with what Lee saw happening. Kluver partially recognizes the problems with English of some lecturers. “I've been studying for a long time, so I've seen the transition to English as the language of instruction. I appreciated that because the curriculum at the time was still in Dutch and the exams were already in English. That made studying much more difficult. We have quite a few German professors at my department (Industrial Engineering & Innovation Sciences, ed.) and they also have a different accent than Dutch people do when they speak English. And then there are all kinds of guest lecturers who speak English again differently. It is also just a matter of getting used to. But I can imagine that this could be a catalyst for some students: if you cannot follow English well, you will find it more difficult to follow the course. And if you find it difficult to follow the course, you don't like the course, and the person who teaches that course will be judged on that. It can be improved if students get used to this early on, by hearing many different accents. Then you learn to ‘hear through them’."
Kluver personally doesn't think it's always racism that plays a role in such negative reviews. “I am more likely to think of unfamiliarity: unknown, unloved. You can also see that in project groups. There, Dutch students simply want to speak Dutch and prefer not to adapt. That's what I said to Minha: it's important to expose students early and mix cultures.” Lee agrees. "Especially if students grew up in environments where there was not much diversity." She is happy that the statement about English has now changed to: "the lecturer explained the content in a clear and comprehensive way.”
Especially now with COVID, Lee sees a rise in Asian hate. “People of Asian ethnicity can get called out randomly, as happened to me in the Eindhoven city center when someone shouted 'corona' at me. Anti-Asian prejudices are not addressed by the TU/e diversity committee. And why isn't a diversity committee itself more diverse? Within that committee there is a lack of representation of scientists from minority groups, and those do exist at TU/e. Even as the Black Lives Matter movement was clearly stirring in 2020 following the death of George Floyd, no statement from the university or from the diversity committee was made. Pretending not to see color is extremely painful and blocks progress. Even a blind person can ‘tell’ from the way others talk to a person what race they belong to."
What also struck Lee was the racism debate on October 6, 2020. “It was a true PR event: the invited Jerry Afriye barely had a chance to talk. Prior to the debate, I had already sent an email to the Executive Board, together with some TU/e colleagues (the editorial board has seen the proof, ed.) about racism at the TU/e, but it remained unanswered for three months. I feel disappointed that no action is being taken and all of this seems to be on the back burner. If someone wants to report experiences of racism, they are referred to a counselor or student psychologist. This makes it an individual problem instead of a social problem.”
Hanky Panky Shanghai
The bias against minorities starts early here, Lee believes. “I just found out about the Dutch ‘Hanky Panky Shanghai’ birthday song, appalling. Can there be an explanation of this? Years later, those kids become students and come to university and are taught by Asian teachers. They need to be reeducated on this topic. They have been supporting racism without even realizing it. We (minorities, ed.) are often told ‘you can’t take a joke’. Well, it’s not a joke, it’s racism. I didn’t grow up here, so I know it’s not normal and I speak up. But what if you’re a Dutch student of color or with an Asian background and you have experienced this all your life? There is a lack of awareness and speaking up. By not making a statement against racism, the university is protecting the people who commit racism. Who are they? People in positions of power. This means that some professors or other people in positions of power can say very hurtful things to students or their colleagues. If an institution does not address racism, it is impossible for people who consider themselves to be minorities to have a voice.”
Statement by the Executive Board
Social safety is crucial for working and studying in a university. As Executive Board, we do not tolerate transgressive behavior, discrimination, racism, abuse of power or any other form of insecurity. We expect everyone at the university to feel the same way, and to act accordingly. We want to be an institution where everyone can develop themselves, get the best out of themselves and experience the space to do so.
To our regret, we see that this safety is not always a given and that we have to work on it continuously together. The stories that Cursor publishes concern behavior that crosses borders, behavior that we disapprove of. Especially the personally experienced racism and intimidation has shocked us deeply. We are therefore launching an independent investigation in order to clarify the facts, assess actions and make improvements.
As part of an integral approach to improving social safety, additional confidential advisors are recruited and it is decided to appoint an independent ombudsperson.
We apologize for those situations where things did not go well, in the portrayed cases, but also in cases where we are not aware of them. Cases in which colleagues or students have been treated unjustly, have been discriminated against or feel that they have not been heard. In situations where we do know of inappropriate or transgressive behavior, we act.
In addition to better design of formal structures, it is essential that we hold each other accountable, and speak up when things are not going well. Because we think it's important that everyone should feel at liberty to raise the alarm and when doing so is helped adequately.
Let's jointly ensure that our university is and remains a safe university. We can only do this together.
For the sake of completeness, please find here a reference to the possibilities of contacting confidential advisors and complaints committees within our university. More information about this is to be found on the intranet.