“An older foreign visiting professor, a big name in his field, says to a female PhD student: ‘Wow, I think your research is really interesting. Would you like to discuss it with me over dinner some time?’ The PhD student suggests they have lunch instead, but the visiting professor convinces her to have dinner together. In the end, the dinnertime conversation is not about her research at all. Instead the professor says: ‘I’m so in love with you, and I can tell you are, too.’ The PhD student tells him he is wrong and leaves, only for the man to keep showing up at her office.”


This anecdote about a visiting professor who kept hassling a female PhD student is one of the stories Van Zoonen collected about Erasmus University. “The PhD student eventually contacted the people in charge [of the department], and they asked the visiting professor to leave, so this problem was solved properly.” This story, as well as several other stories about people being intimidated at universities, will be re-enacted on Friday evening in a play called #MeTooAcademia: The Learning Curve. Afterwards, there will be a debate with the university’s confidential adviser, among other people.

“I wondered why, in the debate engendered by #MeToo, we heard stories from the worlds of sports, the arts and business, but hardly ever about the world of science,” Van Zoonen says, explaining how the event came into being. “#MeToo is about the toxic combination of power and sex. Scientists are supposed to be these cerebral people, but sexual intimidation occurs at universities, as well.”

Receiving PhD students naked

Van Zoonen hopes #MeTooAcademia will stir up a discussion on intimidation at universities. “Universities are places where complex power relations exist. Life often revolves around competition and rivalry. PhD students are particularly vulnerable, because they are highly dependent on their PhD supervisors. This being the case, they are not likely to say, ‘My supervisor is touching me, making stupid jokes or standing just a little too close to me.’” In her capacity as the Dean to the Graduate School, Van Zoonen feels it is her responsibility to ensure that PhD students feel comfortable discussing such subjects. Not so that other people can be pilloried, but to prevent PhD students from bottling up their stories and also to check whether the procedures that are currently in place are actually effective.

Van Zoonen was not surprised to hear that intimidation occurs at universities. “There is a hilarious, but also tragic, example out there of a professor who used to work at an academic medical centre somewhere in the Netherlands. He used to receive female PhD students while sitting at his desk naked,” says Van Zoonen. “In a way, that just makes me laugh. I mean, who in their right mind would do something like that? But what did shock me was that he got away with it for years.”

Grey zone


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Van Zoonen says that, thankfully, there are not too many stories like that out there. “Generally, it will be about an inappropriate joke, or someone sidling up to another person just a little too close for comfort. It will be obvious to bystanders that something is not quite right, that someone is behaving in a way he’d never behave to a male colleague. But at the same time you’ll wonder whether to bring it up. It’s a grey zone that may cause highly complex situations.”

When she was a manager at another university, Van Zoonen encountered a situation that fell into the ‘grey zone’ category. “There was a lecturer whose conduct was not OK. It wasn’t completely outrageous, but it was frequently unacceptable. This guy had a habit, in his individual supervision meetings with female students, of explaining scientific principles by using sexual examples. For instance, he would explain how to draw up a proper survey, and all the questions would be about sex, which is not OK if you’re 58 and your students are 19. Everyone knew he was doing it. The students knew it, and his colleagues did, too. But no one filed a complaint. So the only thing I, his manager, could do was raise the issue with him. Which was effective, because I never heard any other stories of him doing it again.” Therefore, she hopes she will be able to involve managers in the play and the subsequent debate: “Because even in that grey zone managers can – and indeed must – play their part.”

Good basis

Van Zoonen regards #MeTooAcademia as a good basis for putting intimidation and sexual intimidation within academia on the university’s agenda. Outgoing Chief Diversity Officer Hanneke Takkenberg recently said in an interview that the university is not always a safe workplace. “I’m 100 per cent certain that the work environment will be safer in many regards once transgressive sexual behaviour is being properly addressed,” Van Zoonen adds. “I really think the Executive Board should include #MeToo in its diversity policy.”

#MeTooAcademia: The Learning Curve will be performed at the Erasmus Pavilion between 16.30 and 18.00 on Friday, 12 October. The play features anonymised examples of #MeToo stories that happened at Erasmus University, re-enacted by Het Acteursgenootschap. After the play there will be a discussion and drinks. Here to obtain more information and to get your tickets.