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‘Poisoned atmosphere’ and infighting: what went wrong at ESHCC?

Plagiarism, the sudden departure of the dean, infighting between several professors and…

I completely disagree with the image painted of the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication (ESHCC). In my opinion, there is no culture of fear at ESHCC. On the contrary, people generally get on well with each other, listen to each other’s opinions, and we regularly discuss how to improve things at the faculty, with the management team taking the input they receive from their employees seriously.

I have to say I found the article posted by EM and Folia rather tendentious. Therefore, I would like to share my views on the subject.

Painted in a negative light

The article strongly implies that Van den Boom fell victim to a ‘witch hunt’, but the letter that was signed by all those ESHCC employees did not actually criticise Dymph van den Boom herself, but rather the advisory report she presented. ESHCC employees took issue with the negative tone of the recommendation. While they understood that a certain amount of criticism is part of such a report they felt that Van den Boom did a poor job of acknowledging the many positive trends also taking place at the school: a sharp rise in the number of students, powerful incentives at EUR with regard to internationalisation and education innovation, favourable assessments of the faculty’s degree programmes and research, top-100 positions for the History and Media & Communication departments in research rankings, and a relatively significant number of major research grants for such a small faculty: one Vici grant, one ERC Consolidator grant, three Vidi grants (by now a fourth has been awarded, too), as well as several Veni and other NWO-issued grants.

This is why Van den Boom was not very popular. Employees generally prefer a leader who motivates them – someone who not only points out all the things that are going wrong (because , ofcourse, everyone at ESHCC acknowledges there is always room for improvement), but also mentions the many positive things that are going on. Van den Boom did not do so, thus increasing insecurity among employees.

Aloof in her management style

In addition, Van den Boom was quite aloof in her management style. She holed up in her office, was not often around on the work floor, and provided updates on her assignment in lecture theatres. While there were so-called ‘focus groups’, the input provided by employees was used selectively (there are no witten reports). Staff were allowed to give feedback on the first draft of the recommendation (in the Novotel Rotterdam Brainpark), only to see very little of that feedback incorporated into the final version of the document.

This caused some anxiety to arise about what a merger (if it actually came to pass) would actually entail. In recent decades, ESHCC has developed a strong profile with regard to both its degree programmes and its research projects, but since there was hardly any acknowledgement of this in the advisory report, and since, at the same time, alternative plans were being pushed quite prominently (e.g. the controversial passage on ‘health humanities’), many employees were wondering (a) why they hadn’t been given more credit for their achievements, and (b) what all these alternative plans would mean for the future of the degree programmes they were teaching or supporting, or for the research they were conducting. The fact that several people answered ‘no Dymph’ in the Menti should be seen in this light: it was born of the intense bottom-up frustration experienced by employees who had not felt heard for almost a year and failed to find a clear analysis in the advisory report of what exactly the suggested solution (a merger with ESSB) would bring about.

Rousing public sentiment

During the whole process, it became obvious that the great majority of employees opposed or at the very least felt sceptical about the merger, while a few people were in favour of it. These last few people were quoted at length in the article: Ben Wubs, Hein Klemann and Arjo Klamer. As far as I’m concerned, this means that the story published by Folia and EM is not representative of the sentiments actually held by the faculty. I think it’s sad that so much attention is being paid to what I feel is mainly a rousing of public sentiment.

Lastly, I have been amazed to find that some professors quoted in the article consider plagiarism to be ‘perfectly fine for someone who is a manager’. Aren’t managers of all people supposed to act as role models?

I saw this week Liesbet van Zoonen has also joined in the rousing of public sentiment in her opinion piece published by Folia on 2 July. Her piece suggests that reporting plagiarism committed by managers is comparable to sexual harassment. That is one of the most absurd arguments I have heard in a long time. I find it rather strange that these types of insinuations are being published by university websites, but clearly quite some people are feeling a need to vindicate Van den Boom, at the expense of a large group of academics who spent years to develop and provide great degree programmes and research. I am not an investigative journalist, but I do wonder why Van den Boom is being defended so passionately by particulary these people.

Marc Verboord is an associate professor at ESHCC’s Media & Communication department.