Whenever Edith Weijnen, who started working as an ombudsperson in June 2019, is looking for some peace and relaxation from the hustle and bustle, she heads to the beach. From her hometown of Leiden, she can be in Katwijk aan Zee in no time. “One of the most beautiful beaches in the Netherlands,” according to the lists. Why is that? “I can show you hundreds of pictures, but I can’t really describe it. I work three times as hard after an hour on the beach. I would recommend that kind of a break to everyone, including the staff at Erasmus University.”
Weijnen is originally a lawyer and environmentalist specialised in soil remediation. She subsequently did more managerial work and became chair of a complaints committee as a side job. “Eventually, that became the main focus. Committees were set up and the position of ombudsperson was created.” She still remediates contaminated ground, except she does that for organisations now, she states. “Both are a black box. When it comes to soil remediation, you install cylinder gauges in the soil and hope that you can see how extensive and how deep the polluted area is.” That invariably also applies to complaints and their underlying problems.
When people drop by to see her, Weijnen always has her ‘antenna on’. “Does the complaint belong to a larger cluster? One indicator is if I already have four similar complaints, then apparently there is more to it. Over the coming year, I want to focus more on those ‘larger clusters’ and help the people lodging complaints as much as possible. This will actually get the problems out into the open within the relevant lines of the organisation or get other support systems involved more intensively (e.g., psychologists or confidential counsellors, ed.).”
Intimidation, harshness and insecurity
It is clear from her annual report that Weijnen has by no means yet managed to probe the depths of the EUR. Employees submitted 122 cases to the ombudsperson during the first year, who ‘sometimes struggle with feelings of discrimination or a lack of empathy towards cultural differences’, she writes. A table in the report shows that more than half of the complaints were about the culture at Erasmus University, the majority coming from the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus School of Law and Professional Services (support services). A total of 22 students knew where to find Weijnen, for example when it came to exam issues. Students with a disability who were dissatisfied with how the university helped them during the corona period also contacted her.
The culture, constituting more than half of the complaints, is a much bigger cluster. What is going on here? “That needs to be looked into further, but I am not in a position to comment on that at the moment. It is noticeable that there are plenty of complaints concerning this.” She writes in her report that these are issues that transcend ‘the individual level’. According to the annual report, the main issues include: Feeling intimidated, experiencing too much work pressure, inadequate or even persistent negative leadership, destructive collusion, an unpleasantly harsh culture in the workplace, lack of empathy, feelings of insecurity and colleagues who tend to focus too much on their own success.
Weijnen is unable to say precisely what the problem is with regard to the culture within the EUR. “There are areas of tension or obstacles in operational management, but I cannot go into the details of this case study in view of the confidentiality of the conversations that I have. But one example that you can think of, as far as culture is concerned, is online communication exchanges. How do we deal with social media? Who do you add to your work’s app group? Do you also add the boss and why should or shouldn’t you? What kinds of social conduct are we aspiring to?”
Why three departments within the EUR are seriously over-represented in the number of complaints is something Weijnen acknowledges is a ‘justified question’. “This is also something I want to unearth in the second year. Those departments stick out like a sore thumb and there seems to be something going on, however, statistics don’t tell the whole story. You can also turn it around. It doesn’t mean that there’s nothing going on in the faculties that have fewer complaints; they might just be holding back a bit for all we know.”
Three presidents in fourteen months
One of the causes of anxiety in the workplace is managerial instability. In the report, Weijnen also expresses her heartfelt wish for continuity at the level of the Executive Board. “Within fourteen months, there have been three presidents. I very much hope that there will now be a president who stays put and that the trio now in place will remain there for at least three years. They are important for a sense of the university’s signature and staff can become accustomed to their management style because of that.”
The administrative unrest has basically caused two reactions on the work floor. “Some people just lean back and think: ‘I’ll see how it goes.’ Another group jumps into the gap that has opened up. Neither of these is particularly desirable.” The relationship between the Executive Board and the deans also came under pressure. “A certain amount of tension already inherently exists, but it doesn’t have to be that way all the time. They also need some peace and quiet to know where they stand with the Executive Board.” Weijnen is confident that the current president will restore that much-needed calm.
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Alongside more calm, she also calls for a slower pace. “The EUR is still too much of a discerning rather than a learning university.” By this she means that there needs to be more review and reflection upon incidents or problems to ascertain their causes and how they can be prevented in the future.
'Everyone is extremely busy'
The fact that there is no time for this is understandable and is partly due to the work pressure. “It is a very hardworking university. It accomplishes a lot, which is commendable. But because everyone is extremely busy, there is no time to reflect on things. Corona has just exacerbated that. I also see that in my work. After an incident, I barely get around to the question: What have we learned from this? This has in some part to do with the changes within the board. But reflection is essential. I wish everyone would take a seaside break, just like the ones I have.” How often does she do that? “The longer the to-do list, the more often I go.”
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And that to-do list was long. Weijnen has also been very busy this year, she writes in her report. “In part, it was also because I met with everyone during the first year to get an idea of the university. Next year I want to refer more people to the House of Protection.” Within what is referred to as the House of Protection are, among others, confidential counsellors, student deans, student psychologists and the Commission on Sexual Harassment and Aggression and Violence (SIAG).” She also writes in her report that these bodies could, in some cases, communicate better with each other.
Weijnen’s position is a pilot scheme and, in that light, she recommends a full-time appointment instead of the twelve hours per week allotted to the position. She has also had a secretary since October. The pilot scheme will end in June 2021, but in the meantime, the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) has decided that the ombudsperson should be mandatory for universities. “Therefore, the position will remain. How this will be filled in, we will figure out in more detail in the pilot.”
Throwing the cat amongst the pigeons
In general, she sees the university as a safe work environment. “Although I definitely also see shortcomings in the culture and structure of the organisation. But nonetheless, it is a statistical fact,” says Weijnen, “that if you have so many thousands of people under your care, things can sometimes go wrong. In that case, the tools I have as an ombudsperson are a good supplement. A confidential counsellor, for example, opts to support one party that is in a bind, but is not allowed to mediate. Then you step away from protecting that one party. The confidential counsellor is not the one who eventually mediates in cases where the manager does outrageous things. I am independent of those involved, I am allowed to mediate, I am allowed to be transparent in my conversations and I can also ultimately carry out my own investigations.”
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Weijnen has not yet officially carried out any investigations, but in practice she has spoken to several people about a complaint on her own initiative, which is more or less the same thing. Most of her work involves ‘conversation transparency’ and advice. What the former means? “Making people who are at loggerheads tell each other what the situation is for them when they are actually facing each other. In education, we are very friendly and nice and justify everything with a lot of verbiage. If tensions subsequently arise between people, the root of the problem does not always come to the surface. That goes on and on and in the end, there is no other option than dismissal. Then I put the fox in the henhouse: What do you really think?”
Weijnen also gives advice, which undoubtedly provides some satisfaction. “People also regularly come to me to reflect on matters. Whenever I say: You have a good understanding of the situation, I think you’re on the right track. You could try this or that, have you thought about that? And then I see how they light up when things become clear. That’s what makes this work so much fun. The people here are very intelligent and are quite capable of switching gears on their own.”
Response from the Executive Board
The Executive Board responded to the report in a letter to the University Council: “In our opinion, the report gives a nuanced and honest impression of the EUR. We recognise the shortcomings that have been identified. They have been a regular part of the monthly progress meetings between the ombudsperson and the HR director, as well as between the ombudsperson and the policymakers concerned. This is the first time that we have seen all the shortcomings and suggestions for further improvement in a single document. We are also pleased with the insight into how the ombudsperson has given substance to her work methods in this manner. This inspires confidence and is a starting point for a follow-up discussion on how this role will be fulfilled in the second pilot year.”