Inappropriate behaviour in higher education in Flanders

Stories of abuse of power and sexually inappropriate behaviour are emerging from higher education institutions in Flanders. It all started with the dismissal of a professor of archaeology.

photo Dmytro Zinkevych / Shutterstock

This news is creating a stir in Flanders, just as similar cases at The Voice of Holland and Ajax are making headlines in the Netherlands. At the end of January a 49-year-old professor of archaeology at Vrije Universiteit Brussel was dismissed. There had been complaints about him for many years.

Female former students have spoken out about his advances, which included asking them about their sexual fantasies. If they brushed him off, he threatened to torpedo their careers. Their grades for oral exams dropped too.

It is more than ten years since a number of female students first complained to the university about the man in question. No action was taken and he was even given a promotion. The professor himself has dismissed the claims as “gossip and unconfirmed rumours”, according to Flemish daily De Morgen.

However, this case seems to be part of a more widespread problem. In the wake of this news, complaints about staff have surfaced at the universities of Ghent and Leuven, and a similar scenario is playing out at an art academy in Brussels.

Justified questions

In Ghent, a female Computer Science student tried to report the behaviour of a staff member who offered exam questions in exchange for sex. On the university’s website, the vice-chancellor confirms that the student “had to wait an unreasonably long time for answers to her justified questions”. Procedural errors were made as well.

KU Leuven too acknowledges that reports of inappropriate behaviour have been made. A two-year ‘remedial process’ has apparently taken place with the researcher and the research group involved. No complaints have been made since.

At the LUCA School of Arts, a teacher has also been suspended. The teacher had only just started working there and had only given classes online. The problems occurred at his previous employer, an art academy in London. Initially, the dean was unwilling to take action; after all, the problems had occurred elsewhere. But now, to “keep the peace”, the teacher has been taken off the roster for the time being.

Turning point

This last case may indicate a change of culture. At any rate, Professor of Social Sciences at Hasselt University, Patrizia Zanoni, sees it as a turning point. “There have been a number of cases in other sectors. Things are then out in the open, no longer tolerated. And that enables more victims to come forward, which gives them strength in numbers.”

The threshold for reporting problems is high, in the opinion of Professor of Tax Law at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Michel Maus, who is also his faculty’s ombudsman. At his university, you can send an email to the rather anonymous-sounding address of; but where does that complaint end up? Having an ombudsperson at a faculty is not ideal either, in his view. It is better to have someone who is further removed from the university.

It was announced this morning that Flanders is to get an independent hotline for reporting inappropriate behaviour. In fact, one already exists but few people are aware of it. So the Flemish Equal Opportunities Minister Bart Somers plans to set up a facility as part of a new Human Rights Institute.

This is not the first time that such news has emerged in Flanders. In 2018, a politician and professor at Hasselt University withdrew from an election race because of allegations.

The Netherlands

In recent years, similar stories have surfaced in the Netherlands too. Only last year, students from the University of Amsterdam protested against the lack of social safety at the Faculty of Humanities. Cases have also arisen at art academies and drama schools.

Despite this, the previous Education Minister, Ingrid van Engelshoven, saw no reason to take action. For instance, she was unwilling to make a university ombuds service a legal requirement. Her impression was that the institutions were doing a good job of dealing with these issues themselves.

The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences is currently investigating abuses of power in the academic world. Its report is expected soon.

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