TU/e ombudsman critical in report about social safety at the university

TU/e’s ombudsman Anna Soedira has issued a report in which she describes her experiences of the past one and a half years. She also offers several recommendations following 88 complaints made at TU/e. She is highly critical of many social safety aspects: incidents shouldn’t just lead to good intentions, but to actual change. Actively promoting prevention is key to ensuring that the number of incidents will decrease in the future, Soedira believes.

photo Loraine Bodewes

In this article Cursor quotes several passages from the report. This does not concern an interview with the ombudsman. 'Naturally, the ombuds needs to work hard to solve problems of employees, but preventing problems is even more important,' Soedira says. In her report, she quotes Desmond Tutu several times: ‘There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they are falling in.’ These words, Soedria believes, perfectly sum up what needs to be done at TU/e: first you need to find the institutional cause of this recurring problem, only then can you start focusing on trying to reduce the number of individual cases. She stresses the importance of preemptively applying the lessons learned from previous cases. “It’s important that we actually do so, and not just make do with good intentions.”

The ombudsman, or ombuds, as Soedira likes to say in gender-neutral terms, received a total of 88 reports of undesired behavior from within the TU/e community between December 2021 and June 2023. Many of these cases have been concluded by now, but there are a number of ongoing cases as well. Some figures:

A quick round through other universities shows that the number of reports, calculated back to a year, at TU/e is slightly lower than other universities, taking into account that TU/e is a fairly small university. A comparison based on student numbers, however, shows that the number of reports at TU/e is relatively high. It should also be noted that Soedira focuses on employees, not on students. Since recently, students at TU/e can turn to their own ‘student ombuds’ if they wish to report a matter. Cursor will publish an article about the student ombuds in the near future.

Confidentiality and defense

The ombuds is critical of the setup of investigations relating to cases of misconduct, because it potentially limits the defense of those involved. “Things are different when the conclusions and recommendations of an investigation are ignored or not adequately acted upon. This is even more true when the investigation report is confidential – which is standard procedure – and can be viewed by only a limited number of people. Parties involved who come to the conclusion that the advice commendations are hardly acted upon, have no adequate way of defending themselves against this, partly because of confidentiality. In situations like these, one could seriously ask the question what purpose the investigation had to begin with.” Cursor recently published an article about a case at the Department of the Built Environment, where three professors handed in their resignation and complained about this very issue: the Executive Board and the departmental board, they said, failed to act upon any of the conclusions and recommendations following an investigation pertaining to their matter. However, this can’t be verified by others or by the media due to confidentiality.

Misuse of mediation

The ombuds also came to the conclusion that mediation at TU/e isn’t always properly applied. In fact, it is sometimes used to get rid of employees: “Mediation can only be successful when the parties involved take part in the process voluntarily. It is one of the core values of mediation, as is the fundamental willingness to question one’s own standpoint. However, I’ve come to the conclusion that participation in the mediation process isn’t always on a voluntary basis, but that employees are sometimes required to take part. Even in cases when conditions for effective mediation are seriously undermined due to the preliminary process. By extension, I’ve noticed that in certain cases, mediation is used for a purpose other than the one for which it is intended: mediation as a first step towards a process that leads to the termination of a contract. It’s obvious that such actions are incompatible with a socially safe work environment.”

The ombuds also gives serval concrete recommendations:

  • Managers should ask their subordinates for feedback or an assessment on a regular basis;
  • Repeated failure of leadership should have consequences for managers;
  • Annual appraisals need to take place annually, as intended. In addition, the form needs to be reassessed by HR. In the current situation, annual appraisals don’t differ all that much from assessment procedures, which isn’t part of HR’s official tasks. In order to prevent this, the form needs to be adjusted;
  • Potential managers who are promoted from within need to be assessed as strictly as external candidates. Promotion from within doesn’t always yield the best leaders;
  • The whistleblower regulation needs to be reassessed in order to determine whether it is properly warranted. (this report appeared several months ago, in the meantime, it has become clear that the current regulation does not comply with legislation, ed);
  • TU/e’s code of conduct should hang on the walls of every room and office, so that everyone is familiar with the university’s norms and values and can refer to them when necessary;
  • The university should introduce mandatory exit meetings. It should also become possible to report the reasons of your departure anonymously;
  • HR and the manager involved should supervise re-integration trajectories more effectively. In the current situation, such trajectories aren’t always carried out according to the rules because HR and managers fail to carry out their roles, or do so insufficiently;
  • In order to safeguard neutrality, the Advisory Board secretary and the Executive Board secretary should not be one and the same person. Nor is it desirable that people who issue a report of misconduct involving the Executive Board and do so with the Advisory Board, find themselves confronted with a secretary who is also ‘part’ of the Executive Board in his or her capacity of board secretary;
  • The complaints procedure needs to be reviewed to determine whether a procedure can be found that causes less harm to those involved. Calling upon parties involved to attend a hearing can be particularly harmful, the ombuds believes.

The ombuds also indicates in her report that she acknowledges the efforts made by several departments within the university to work on improvement, but that at the same time much work still needs to be done. The public report will be discussed by the University Council (internal link) in three weeks’ time. Cursor makes clear that this is a public report, but that the ombudsman was not the one providing the report to the editors.

Editorial note

The amount of journalistic freedom at Cursor is very unclear at the moment. In collaboration with the unions, the editorial staff has submitted a proposal letter with suggestions regarding press freedom to the Executive Board, and a first discussion has taken place. This article was published in anticipation of the outcome of the negotiation process.

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