Several studies conducted in the last year show that people working at universities often feel socially unsafe. A recent study by FNV and VAWO indicated that 40 per cent of university employees feel unsafe. For its part, the Dutch Network of Women Professors (LNVH) recently published a report in which it describes at great length the various forms of misconduct, as well as their causes and effects, experienced by women working at universities. Nearly 20 per cent of EUR employees said in a survey conducted last year that they had dealt with some form of harassment, be it bullying, gossiping, sexual intimidation, discrimination or something else. But it is mostly students who encounter this type of behaviour, says Jean Marie Molina, an associate lecturer in Successful Degree Studies and Educational Sciences at Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences.

According to Molina, the education system can be unsafe for women, members of the LGBTIQ community, black people, persons of colour, and other groups. Students who deviate ever so slightly from the prevailing standard are often granted fewer opportunities. “To be blunt, the system wasn’t designed for minorities, but rather for an elite. This never used to constitute a problem, because the world used to be a different place, in which everyone knew his or her place. But now the world has changed and all these groups are thrown in together. The system has hardly changed, so the education we receive hasn’t, either.” Molina says that it will be very hard to change this system, because if you question the system, you are basically questioning the dominant moral and what is considered normal, which is bound to cause problems.

The problems inherent in the clash of people from different backgrounds are most obvious in the education system, says Molina. After all, the world is now a much more diverse place, but the education system (particularly as regards universities) continues to be an old boys’ club for white men, where certain norms are considered sacrosanct. These norms are imposed on all people who aren’t the same as the white men who have held their positions for an eternity. “An enormous number of people are excluded in the education sector. On the basis of their sexual orientation, background, the colour of their skin, and many other things.”

Just a few weeks ago, Molina spoke to a male student who stood crying in front of her office. He had failed an exam, and when he’d talked to a lecturer, the lecturer had said, “If I were you, I wouldn’t worry about it. Your kind of people doesn’t achieve much in life. You should be happy that you got this far.” It was his word against the word of the university of applied sciences’ employee.

Broach the subject

Ahmed believes that broaching issues, or reporting examples of this type of behaviour, is part of the solution. However, as Hanneke Takkenberg, an epidemiologist at Erasmus MC and Chair of the Dutch Network of Women Professors, has found, this is not actually that easy. “It’s very hard to report such cases, particularly for young academics. They are vulnerable and dependent on their superiors.”

Moreover, seeking help is often ineffective, according to an exploratory study carried out by the Dutch Network of Women Professors. Of the 53 respondents who shared their experiences of misconduct encountered in academia, 35 sought help from a manager, dean, executive board, confidential adviser or academic integrity committee. Actual proper help was provided in exactly one case.

According to Takkenberg, the strongly hierarchical nature of universities and hospitals is not the only reason. “The individualistic culture and competitive nature of academia also add to the problem. It’s impossible for all of us to reach the top of the ladder.”

Confidential advisers are indispensable, but Takkenberg says they only have a limited scope. “People get to tell their stories, but apart from that, there’s not an awful lot confidential advisers can do. After all, they are part of the same organisation and know the person to whom the complaint relates. Thankfully, an ombudsperson has been appointed at EUR. Someone who is genuinely independent and able to perform independent investigations.”

Erasmus MC will also have an ombudsperson. “I’m curious to see whether we will get a lot of new reports. Since we’ve published our report, we’ve been told by quite a few women that they are no longer afraid to report their cases. They’re feeling stronger now that they have seen others be brave enough to share their experiences in the survey. Hopefully, this will be the beginning of the end.”

Perceived lack of security

More reports will give the people in charge of tertiary education institutions a better understanding of the size of the problem, but at the same time, they may make people feel more unsafe. “When it comes to how people perceive their own personal safety, we have seen that when we start paying more attention to that subject, there may be a side-effect: people will actually start feeling more unsafe,” says Gabry Vanderveen, an assistant professor of criminology at the Erasmus School of Law. Vanderveen was awarded a PhD for her study on a perceived lack of safety.

Often we don’t realise how people (and particularly women) adjust their behaviour in order to feel safer, says Vanderveen. “What really struck me about the studies I’ve read – for instance, Tamar Fischer’s recent study on street harassment – is the fact that we now consider this adaptive behaviour by women normal. In a way, it’s similar to the fact that it has become second nature to us in this city to lock our bikes and make sure they are attached to something. We think that’s a completely normal thing to do, but in actual fact, people should just keep their hands off bikes, even bikes whose keys are right in the locks.”

A perceived lack of safety is a feeling we must take seriously, says Vanderveen. “I’m a psychologist as well as a criminologist, and I think that such a perceived lack of safety is only too real. If a group of people tells you they don’t feel safe, it’s important that we listen to them at the very least.” That said, a slight perceived lack of safety may not be an unwelcome thing, says the researcher. “It keeps us alert and aware of any risks to which we may be exposed.”

Working on a solution

Takkenberg and Vanderveen feel that a safe environment is essential to make universities a safer place for everyone. “Clear forms of discrimination and sexual intimidation are easily defined and undesirable, but it’s the grey zone that is harder to deal with,” says Vanderveen. Comments that appear innocent to the persons making them may hurt other people’s feelings. That is the grey zone. “If you feel that your boundaries have been crossed, you may start feeling unsafe in a place. Even when it was ‘just a joke’. In a safe environment, people can broach such subjects with each other and allow themselves to be vulnerable.”

Molina thinks that these problems will always continue to exist, because the grounds on which people are excluded are highly diverse, and people from all sorts of backgrounds are thrown together at education institutions.

For her part, Takkenberg is more optimistic. “I think the people in charge of universities are aware of these problems and are taking action.” However, she agrees that universities still have a long way to go. “As long as the upper echelons remain so homogeneous, this problem will stick around. Thankfully, Erasmus MC is changing things in the fields of teaching, research and care. They’ve embarked on a new course of action. We will see changes in the long term, and even in the short term. I’m confident that things will change for the better.”

Meanwhile, Ahmed states that reporting all instances of intimidation continues to be vital to ensure that everyone can be part of an institute. She is collecting complaints as part of a project. “A feminist ear picks up on the sounds that are blocked by the collective,” is how she herself puts it.