Last February, Erasmus Magazine reported on a WhatsApp group chat for third-year Erasmus University College students, in which several EUR and Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences students who do not attend EUC, shared dozens of racist, antisemitic and sexist images. The Executive Board strongly condemned the actions, and the culprits were asked to come and see the Chairman of the Board, Hans Smits.

Courage and an ability to speak up

The university had been planning to report the students for a while, Smits said, but they first wanted the Public Prosecution Service and the police to assess whether it was any use doing so. Smits said the evidence was handed to the police back in February, but then the coronavirus crisis began, which caused the procedure to be delayed. The Board was invited to come and talk to the police last Thursday afternoon.

The dean of Erasmus University College (EUC), Gabriele Jacobs, went to the police station herself, she said in a response to the news that the students had been reported. “We are taking the matter very seriously. These people sent rude and vulgar messages to my students, which they felt constituted a serious threat. It took us a while to report the matter, because I wanted to go to the police station in person so that the matter would be given the attention it deserves.”

By reporting the matter herself, Jacobs sought to protect her students. “My students said they didn’t dare do it themselves. It takes a lot of courage and an ability to speak up for yourself to report discrimination to the police. Moreover, we have a lot of international students, many of whom aren’t all that familiar with the Dutch legal system.”

ESSB case not reported to police

The chairman of the Board of Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences, Ron Bormans, told the university of applied sciences’ news site, Profielen, in early June that the Board had decided against reporting the students who shared the messages in the EUC WhatsApp group chat to the police. Initially, the university of applied sciences did plan to report the matter. “Due to the chaos created by the coronavirus crisis, the case wasn’t reported,” said Bormans.

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Last month, Erasmus Magazine wrote about a similar incident in a group chat used by public administration students. In this group, too, students had shared messages with a racist, antisemitic and discriminatory nature. The public administration students received a formal warning from the dean of the Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences (ESSB), but the university decided not to report that particular case to the police.

Which raises the question: why was one case reported, but not the other? Smits provided an explanation in a letter that was sent to the University Council last week: “In the ESSB case, only fragments of a WhatsApp conversation were shared with us by one of the students in the group. In the EUC case, students provided us with the entire history of the chat, which allowed us to take more steps.”

No idea how to deal with this

The University Council indicated in its council meeting of last Tuesday that it wants the Executive Board to draw up a policy outlining how to deal with cases like these. “We’ve been informed that the two incidents were not one-offs, but that other students have experienced similar things,” said Hans van den Berg, the chairman of the Council. “And too many students currently have no idea how to deal with something like this.”

‘We’ve been informed that the two incidents were not one-offs’

Hans van den Berg, chairman University Council

Therefore, the University Council had a meeting with the chair of the university’s Executive Board, in which it asked the Board to draw up a policy addressing this issue. “We will soon send a letter to the Board in which, among other things, we will request a clear-cut policy and reporting procedures, but in which we will also ask how to make sure that this won’t happen again in the future. And we think it’s vital that some independent body, for instance an ombudsperson, look into the case, to help us make a decision on what steps to take.”

In the letter sent previously to the Council, the Executive Board had already implied that it is hard to draw lines. Smits wrote that defining racist conduct ‘is almost impossible’. In addition, he said that the university’s rules and regulations did not apply to the cases at hand, since the messages were shared in group chats that are not managed by the university. “They are part of students’ private lives,” Smits wrote.

Better able to address issues

EUC’s dean, Gabriele Jacobs, said that it was a good thing that the University Council had asked the university to draw up a policy. “I think it’s universities and education institutions’ responsibility to ensure that polarisation issues are discussed and subject to rules. I am confident that this will be done. The chair (Hans Smits – ed.) was very supportive of us, and I’m glad I was able to talk to the students who sent the messages with him. Now we must make sure we are better able to address such issues in the future.”

The students whose conduct was reported to the police did not comment on the case, as requested by Erasmus Magazine.

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