In a short space of time, the university has been rocked by several incidents relating to social safety on campus. Two weeks ago, it was reported that dozens of racist, antisemitic and sexist images had been shared by students from Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences and Erasmus University on an app group of third-year Erasmus University College students. On Monday afternoon, Erasmus Magazine revealed that vice-dean Hans Severens had resigned after complaints against him to the Committee of Sexual Harassment, Aggression and Violence.
Two weeks ago, a panel discussion on social safety was held in the Erasmus Pavilion. During that session, it was revealed that a third of the audience had either had a personal experience or knew someone who had a #MeToo experience. What’s going on at the university and what role does EUR’s Executive Board play in this? “We hope that we can be an open university where people feel able to step forward if they have complaints, because that takes a lot of courage,” says interim president of the Executive Board at Erasmus University, Hans Smits (69), in his office.
Do these issues affect you?
“It’s just dreadful. It’s awful that such things are happening at the university. You’d expect us all to be reasonably educated people here: the students in question have had a good education; there’s a reason why they’re here.
“At the same time, you must remember that when everyone is on campus, there are over 40,000 people here. That’s a huge community involving many work relationships, hierarchical relationships and study relationships. In such an environment, things can happen, just like they do in a small town or a large village.”
What’s the latest concerning the racist and antisemitic memes?
“I invited the students involved to my office and talked to them individually. We basically confronted them, and you can guess my message. We also contacted Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences, and they did the same thing.
“We then wrote letters to the three students in which we summarised what we’d discussed and told them that we were going to press charges. That case is now being prepared. Later, their dean will talk to them to show them that what they did was unacceptable, but also to provide aftercare. Because students may be here to be educated, but also for upbringing.”
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But aren’t they adults?
“Yes, they are. But upbringing and development are also important, and that was something I wanted to emphasise in our conversations. I didn’t just want to wield the axe. You also need to explore the background of the incident and its significance.”
You studied at Delft University, a typical male establishment. Isn’t this kind of coarse, sick humour and blustering part of being a student?
“No. Even in my day, I never experienced it like that. I never belonged to a student association, because my parents didn’t have much money, so I’m not familiar with that fraternity culture. I was a ‘rail student’ (the student version of a commuter, ed.), didn’t have any money to rent a room. I’d never have wished to experience a situation like this. It’s more serious than bad-boy humour. The pictures were dreadful in themselves, and then they sent them to a group of 220 of our students. That’s totally unacceptable.”
And that’s why you’re pressing charges?
“Yes. And to allow the experts to decide whether they have committed a criminal offence or not: the police. It’s also important to inform them about cases like these; perhaps they know about other incidents, for example. What’s more, you’re sending an important signal to our community that such things are not done and how we respond as a university.”
How would you describe this incident? Has the atmosphere at universities changed?
“In the conversations that I’ve had with students, the impression I get is that people feel that such things are normal – even at secondary schools. They tell each other: ‘Yes, but it happens in other places as well.’ I find that very worrying. And that’s why we are organising a session, like we did two weeks ago about social safety, this time about social media. We want to clamp down on incidents like these.”
This week, EM revealed that the vice-dean of ESHPM had resigned after the SIAG Committee investigated two complaints by women about him.
“In that case, we also distance ourselves from such behaviour in no uncertain terms.”
A message on the intranet merely seems to infer that Severens had resigned for personal reasons. Why didn’t you just say what had happened?
“I would normally, but it’s to do with privacy and legal considerations. I prefer to be proactive and transparent, but in this case many people advised me not to be because it could have many undesirable repercussions that undermine what you ultimately want to achieve. We decided this in consultation with those involved, because the result was that he decided to resign.”
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Did you speak to the two women who lodged the complaint?
“Of course. We spoke to them in confidence, Rutger (Engels, Rector Magnificus, red.) and I. It was a wide-ranging conversation, not so much in detail about what had happened but more: what do you think about it, how do you feel now, have you dealt with it, how do you view life now?”
Severens has resigned from his administrative and teaching duties, but he will stay on as a professor. Why is that?
“Well, further investigations by the external bureau may obviously reveal exonerating or extra incriminating information. We’ll have to wait and see what emerges from the investigation.”
This issue was first raised back in October. Why has it taken so long?
“Let’s be clear: the committee’s investigation took too long. But at the same time, it’s important that it was done carefully. If you talk about learning from processes, then we’ve learned this: such investigations must be done faster. Four months is much too long.”
Could this situation generate a wave of reports and the emergence of a reporting culture? Are you prepared for that?
“In general, the number of reports to the confidential advisors has already increased. So the answer is: yes, I’m prepared for that. I would welcome more openness, because it takes a lot of courage to formally lodge a complaint. I respect and compliment those who do.
“Let’s be clear: we have a good system. We have confidential counsellors; we have an ombudsperson. But however perfect everything is and however easy it is to approach our confidential counsellors, taking that step requires courage. I hope that our approach will promote openness in some way. Hopefully people will feel that they have our support to take steps.”
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Are you afraid that the university’s image will be damaged by the Severens case?
Resolutely: “No. If we didn’t address the situation well, it would be far more harmful to our image. But I’m convinced that the way in which we tackle issues, our response, learning from the situation, is more likely to strengthen our image. At least everyone knows what our line is, what is unacceptable and that we will take measures if anything happens. Fair and considered, but strict.”
Last week, Harvey Weinstein was found guilty of #MeToo. Did this inspire your approach?
“Definitely. I sent colleagues here an article from The Economist. A summary of the whole case with references to the book by Ronan Farrow (the journalist from The New Yorker who revealed the case, ed.) about how it developed. A very sharp and revealing story and also very enlightening in a psychological sense. It’s good to understand it better for yourself, and it certainly inspired me.”