What brought about this campaign?

“We were receiving too few reports in the last few years, given the number of students and employees at Erasmus University. Our numbers were low in comparison to other universities’, too. Students, in particular, are severely underrepresented in the number of cases brought to our attention. In addition, the confidential advisers noticed that people were afraid. People find it very hard to report things to us. So we established a new network, and now we want to raise awareness of that network among staff and students.”

What types of cases are brought to the confidential advisers’ attention?

“In 2017 we had 41 cases. Last year the number went up a little: 66. The #metoo debate contributed to that increase. Members of staff typically report bullying and intimidation. The employee survey showed that 10 to 20 per cent of employees have experienced that kind of behaviour. In other words, this problem is much more widespread than we confidential advisers are seeing. Students are more likely to tell us about sexual harassment. They may be small incidents, or alternatively, they may be quite a bit more serious.”

In the previous academic year there were two cases involving alleged sexual violence between students. Did those cases give a huge impetus to the confidential advisers project?

“No, not really. We decided to establish this network back in 2017. Those cases did result in improved procedures and regulations, though. Because a lot of things went wrong in those cases. Neither of the two female students was referred to a confidential adviser. It was very hard for them to file a complaint. For instance, the website only featured an outdated complaints procedure in Dutch. The procedure was in Dutch, and initially, the university couldn’t be bothered to find them an interpreter, even though none of the persons involved spoke Dutch. At the very least, those cases ensured that we will get a new complaints procedure, which will pay greater attention to the position of international students.”

Both cases involved international students. You once told me that such complaints are often made at ISS, as well. Is sexual harassment something that takes place more often in an international environment?

“Yes, I think so. On the one hand, students lack their familiar social network, and they are not familiar with the situation or the rules and regulations, which makes them more vulnerable. On the other hand, they are enjoying more freedom than they’ve ever had before. Many students lead pretty wild lives when they first go to uni. They have a few drinks, they get into relationships. It’s all very exciting, but it does increase the chances of something bad happening. In the Netherlands we tend to gloss over such situations. ‘Don’t make a huge deal out of it’ – that’s the Dutch mentality. In England and America, one in three students gets to experience sexual intimidation at university. Those are pretty significant numbers.

“In addition there are cultural differences, which may make humour a sensitive issue. A few years ago, a West-African student made a joke in an app group for new ISS students: ‘Maybe I’ll meet a nice Asian lady during my degree that I can get married to.’ All the West-African students thought it was hilarious, but all the Asian students considered it sexual intimidation.”

The new confidential advisers’ network has been operational for the last few months. Are you beginning to notice any effects?

“I am getting a few more phone calls, but I expect it will take us a few more months to find out if more people will contact the confidential advisers. We won’t properly evaluate until next spring. Anyhow, it’s not just about increasing the number of cases brought to us. What matters is that the university is sending a clear signal: we want a safe work and study environment for our people, which is why we have established this network of confidential advisers.

“I basically regard the confidential advisers as purveyors of culture of sorts. They can show at their faculties or departments what appropriate behaviour looks like and how we should be dealing with each other. They can also propose ideas to their managers – for instance, about teaching training sessions. Four such training sessions have already been taught at RSM. People often laugh about such workshops, but they are very useful. Many people don’t realise until after such workshops that they behave in ways that could be considered offensive. For example, I recently heard someone say during a training session that he’d been known to call one of his colleagues ‘Mr Kebab’, because the colleague in question was from Pakistan and ate a lot of kebab. Of course, that’s a pretty bad thing to say, but he didn’t realise that until after the workshop.”

What are you hoping to achieve with this campaign?

“I’d like to make it easier for people to go and see a confidential adviser to discuss things. Lucienne [van Hooijdonk, until early 2019 the only other confidential adviser at EUR – ed.] and I used to see people who’d been dealing with a particular problem for months. If they’d spoken up to someone much sooner, those problems needn’t have escalated.

“It makes me sad that people are often afraid to talk about these things. They fear that such a conversation will negatively affect their position or their contract, or that people will think they’re being drama queens. But conversations with a confidential adviser will never result in that sort of thing.”

What would you like to tell the approximately eight thousand new students who are embarking on a degree at EUR this week?

“If you’ve ended up in an unpleasant situation that makes you feel bad or intimidated, report it. Often the mere fact that you were able to discuss it with a confidential adviser will make you feel better. Talk about it; don’t bottle it up. You don’t have to lodge a complaint straight away, but if it’s necessary to do so, we can help you do it. Confidential advisers are here to help you and will always listen to you, so make sure you use that opportunity.”

A network of confidential advisers was established at EUR last May. The seven confidential advisers appointed to help students can be found on EUR’s website, while the fifteen confidential advisers appointed to help EUR employees can be found on MyEUR.

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