At University, students are taught that there is not one simple answer to a question – we all live from challenging simple one-sided truths. At the University Council we have been working to get the most complex, satisfactory answer to probably one of the most challenging issues that the participatory bodies of this university have faced in the last years. We have heard the concerns of the Executive Board, as well as those of our colleagues and fellow students at ESHCC, and those of the university at large who feel that their right to privacy was attacked. We have also taken into consideration the reactions in the press, and the petition signed by almost 500 academics for the Executive Board to finish the investigation and issue an apology. Even more: we have deeply reflected on the rights and obligations that the University Council has towards the EUR community.

One of the most important responsibilities of the University Council is to promote openness, transparency, and consultation between the different formal bodies of the University. Minister Bussemakers stated in 2015 that the University Council should get the opportunity, being the representation of staff and students, to be able to think along with the Executive Board and provide counterforce (‘tegenkracht’). She continued, saying that the minimum requirement recorded in the law is no maximum; it provides opportunity for the institutions to do more when it is appropriate.

On October 25, we sent the Executive Board a letter explaining all our grievances with the investigation and more than a dozen questions to which we needed answers. We believe that in this case the Executive Board could and should have done more. We believe they could have known that such an investigation would have an impact on the University’s community, due to the recent events at the faculty, but also because digital privacy is a political sensitive topic. We also question why no other bodies (like the University Council) were consulted before a decision this radical was taken. Furthermore, we discussed how apparently not the same rules apply to plagiarism in our University if you are a student as opposed to a higher-ranking manager. In the consultation meeting of last Tuesday, Jordie van der Burgt, our student body representative, stressed the impact the investigation has had on the University’s community and on its image: “[w]hen walking around campus, when discussing or when reading articles in Erasmus Magazine, you can almost physically feel the impact vibrating throughout the foundations of our Erasmus University”.

hans van den berg voorzitter universiteitsraad
Hans van den Berg, chair of the University Council. Image credit: Personal Archive

However, we understand the need of not only discussing it, but rather taking actions to reconstruct trust and the overall ‘good course of affairs’ at the EUR. Our employee body representative, John van Wel, stated that we want to “reiterate that we are willing and looking forward to going into this process of improvement and to help the University’s community to regain trust in its management as a whole and the Executive Board in particular”. Jordie van der Burgt also underlined the importance of moving forward: “I invite the Executive Board, on behalf of our students, to reaffirm the importance of mutual trust; and to reinforce, as one University, the foundations on which we will build the future of our University through positive societal impact”.

During the latest consultation meeting between the University Council and the Executive Board, council member Ben Bode posed an important question to the Rector, one which he had also been asking during the previous meetings, “[a]re you willing to admit that – even if you received rumours of people going to the press to leak suspicions of plagiarism, and believed that this could not be tolerated because the official procedures should have been followed – the decision to conduct a forensic email investigation was disproportionate, after all (looking back and considering all circumstances)?”.

‘In the future we should be more critical about such decisions, taking in mind the lessons learned in this case’

Rector Magnificus Rutger Engels

Repeating a question over and over again is more than purely a rhetorical tool. If we do so, it is because we as the University Council essentially believe in our Executive Board and their ability to correct mistakes and express vulnerability, which will make them stronger. According to the piece published by Erasmus Magazine about our meeting, the question was apparently answered: they report that the Rector has ‘no regrets’. We, however, see a more nuanced picture.

The Rector, Rutger Engels, expressed that both the Executive Board and he personally shared the concerns of the council in relation to the impact that the investigation has had on the University. His reply to the question of Ben summarises this well “[i]n the future we should be more critical about such decisions, taking in mind the lessons learned in this case. If you ask me if we would make such a decision again: no, of course we do not want this, but if again an exceptional situation occurs within our university, then we are forced to take measures. Whether it is such a decision depends on the situation at hand. It is absolutely not our preferred option. In future cases, the lessons learned and input received on this case will of course be part of our considerations. Thanks to the input, among others, from you, we are already taking steps to adjust regulations and build in extra checks that lead to a different way decisions such as this will be taken”.

The steps the Rector is referring to relate to the request the University Council has made. Most notable is that another body within the University will be created and mandated to formally advise the Executive Board on decisions, such as this investigation. The ICT and Internet regulations which, according to the Executive Board, allowed for this investigation will be reviewed and adjusted. Another important step is to review the rights of the University Council in relation to privacy. Furthermore, the Executive Board has asked Human Resources together with the Diversity and Inclusion Office to organise two debates on Social Safety. The University Council will be involved in all these steps, either by giving input or having formal rights.

rutger engels opening academisch jaar 2019 foto ronald van den heerik (73)

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This does not mean we see eye to eye on every point. For instance, on whether the University Council should have been consulted beforehand, based on the right of advice in cases that constitute ‘the continuation and good course of affairs of the University’. Furthermore, we would like to know the legal grounds which allowed for the investigation. The Rector acknowledged that sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree, and sometimes we agree to disagree; fortunately, we often agree. We will keep knocking on the door of the Executive Board, and will keep asking questions on behalf of the University’s community.

However, it is also important to acknowledge that common ground has been found from which the University Council and the Executive Board can start the process of moving forward, together. There are lessons to be learned, procedures and regulations to be adjusted, and questions to be answered. As Jordie van der Burgt put it: “24 people within this Council are working day in day out to make our University a better place”. To which John van Wel added: “[w]e want to make a statement and tell you that you have our trust in that you will take the actions needed (…), and we are committed to work with you”. As explained earlier in this piece, the University Council feels that the Hoffmann case has given rise to concerns, frictions, but also to the best opportunity for any representative body to stand tall and defend the rights of its constituency. It will hopefully allow the whole University to get a new common ground and discuss, from our respective places, how we can really have positive impact inside and outside our community.


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