The university’s Executive Board suspects that one or more employees of the Faculty of History, Culture and Communication sent NRC journalist Frank van Kolfschooten information on alleged plagiarism by then ESHCC Dean Dymph van den Boom. For this reason, the Board decided to have the Hoffmann Bedrijfsrecherche forensic science agency scan staff e-mails. Sources have told EM that at least five, but possibly up to twenty members of staff have been investigated. The University Council feels that it should have been notified of the investigations beforehand.

The Higher Education and Research Act (WHW) stipulates that the Executive Board must apply for the University Council’s advice if certain decisions are likely to affect ‘the proper way in which things are done’ at the university (Article 9.33a of the WHW). The chair of the University Council, Hans van den Berg, believes that the university’s Executive Board could have predicted that the investigation by Hoffmann Bedrijfsrecherche would greatly affect ‘the proper way in which things are done’. “There was great unrest at the faculty already, due to the merger plans and the plagiarism affair. Furthermore, a similar e-mail investigation conducted in Maastricht had resulted in a lot of drama.” In that particular case, the Maastricht municipal government was ordered to pay compensation to the employees who had been the subject of the investigation.

“In addition, online privacy is such a sensitive subject at the moment. That in itself should have been a reason to discuss it with the Council. For instance, they normally ask for our permission before installing cameras, which frankly constitutes less of a violation of people’s privacy than an investigation of their e-mails,” says Van den Berg.

Arbitration Board

And so the University Council believes that the Board should have requested its formal advice for the investigation. If the Council had issued a negative opinion on the request, the Executive Board should at least have formally noted that the investigation was not sanctioned by the Council. “Which then would have allowed us to take the case to the Arbitration Board, perhaps.”

The Council is concerned that the e-mail investigation will have a significant impact on the university. Among other things, the employees will feel less safe, the employees who have been investigated may sue the university, and the university’s reputation may suffer some damage. Furthermore, ESHCC’s employees will have ‘wasted a lot of time’ because of this case.

Zero tolerance

On Tuesday afternoon, the Executive Board answered the University Council’s questions regarding the investigation. “We wish to demonstrate that we don’t tolerate this type of behaviour (the alleged leak – ed.),” said Roelien Ritsema van Eck, one of the three members of the Executive Board. “Employees must be able to do their work safely in the knowledge that procedures are in place to protect them. In this case, those procedures were not followed, which was wrong. We think it’s not OK for people to talk to the media when they disagree with something.” She believes the Board’s legal position is strong. “Naturally, we asked for a lot of input from others, and we think we have observed the law and all the relevant privacy legislation. It goes without saying that we tread very carefully where our employees’ privacy is concerned.”

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