“Often we are the link between students who experience harassment and all the various hotlines and confidential advisers available at universities”, says Leonie Heres. She wrote a doctoral thesis on ethical leadership and is endowed professor Integrity in Local Government at Erasmus University since 1 December. Last Thursday, she taught an online lecture to a small group of Utrecht University students, and made what she herself calls a ‘classical mistake’.

Last week, the online show BOOS (meaning ‘angry’ in Dutch) reported that dozens of women candidates experienced sexual abuse during their participation in the Dutch talent show The Voice of Holland. The claim ranged from allegations of rape to sexually tinted WhatsApp messages by two coaches and the band leader. The Dutch public was shocked as a few very prominent artists were pointed to as the suspects.

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Good opening

“I entered a call in Teams. This happened just after the BOOS episode had aired, and the conversation was about that. I very briefly discussed the subject and then quickly returned to the subject matter at hand, even though, as someone who specialises in this field, I know that such conversations are much easier to have if you have a good opening, and this was a good opening for such a conversation.” She then posted on Twitter that she should have dealt with the seminar differently.

This is what she wishes she had done differently: “It starts with asking questions. Is there anyone here who can relate to these stories? Is this something that happens in your lives? Do you think the university is a safe place, and do you feel safe around your fellow students? Are there any things you struggle with in situations like these? What can we lecturers do to help you? If you have a good relationship with your students, people may start discussing painful subjects. What is really important in such cases is emphasising that the person who is doing the harassing is always the one who is to blame.”

The Sexual Assault Centre offers help to anyone who has had an undesirable sexual experience. You can chat or call them for free and anonymously at 0800-0188.

The university has confidential advisors for employees and students to whom you can report transgressive behavior. They will listen to your story and can help and refer you. There is also a complaints procedure for undesirable behavior.

‘High-risk environment’

There are certain parallels between entertainment shows such as The Voice and universities, says Liesbet van Zoonen, the Dean of the Graduate School of Social Sciences and the Humanities. “There is little room at the top, power relations are very hierarchical, and the ways in which people get promoted are non-transparent.” That’s why universities are ‘high-risk environments for this sort of behaviour’. Social safety studies regularly confirm this. In 2018, Van Zoonen organised a theatre show called #MeTooAcademia: The Learning Curve, which ended up being staged more than thirty times at universities all over the Netherlands.

In her capacity as the dean of a graduate school, Van Zoonen often works with PhD students. A recent survey of PhD students who are conducting research at Erasmus University showed that many of them felt that their research project was negatively affecting their mental wellbeing. PhD students are highly dependent on their supervisors. Sexual harassment is not the only type of inappropriate behaviour; there are many other types of social safety. “We seek to create a situation in our classes where we can discuss social safety. But what is more important is that we also teach workshops to PhD supervisors, about things such as co-authorship. Who is credited with a publication, and whose name gets listed first? PhD students and their supervisors often disagree on such things.”

Acknowledgement

Both Heres and Van Zoonen have at some point had a student or employee report inappropriate behaviour to them. “I think that’s because my students know this topic is really important to me”, stated Heres. She explained her approach: “I start by really listening. Don’t get into victim blaming and be careful with advice such as: you must report this. You don’t need to judge what has happened. And don’t take action too quickly as this can even add to the distress. Sometimes people just aren’t ready to make a report or submit a complaint. You can offer help, though: would you like me to find information for you or would you like us to write an e-mail to the confidential counsellor together? It is really important that you acknowledge the person: ‘I can imagine that’s it’s difficult to talk about this.’”

Offering support is also what Van Zoonen does when someone experiences inappropriate behaviour. “If your supervisor harasses you, whether intellectually or physically, it’s a really lonely process to make a report about this or submit a complaint. Irrespective of what happened, I try to support someone in that process.”

More helplines

Has Van Zoonen noticed any changes since she organised the theatre performances about sexual intimidation at universities in 2018? The short answer doesn’t sound too hopeful: “No. It’s also not a new problem. We’ve been taking about this since the 1980s.” At the same time there have changes in the scientific world, which make dependency relationships less problematic. “For example, there is more team science, which makes individual relationships less important. And there are other reward structures and profiles for scientists in Recognise and Appreciate1 that can also help.”

And there has been an increased focus on social safety at universities in recent years. There are more confidential counsellors at Erasmus University, there is a psychologist for PhD students and more resilience training courses are organised. Van Zoonen has mixed feelings about this: “On the one hand it’s really good, but on the other it makes inappropriate behaviour an individualised problem.”

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Awareness within education

“Helplines and confidential counsellors are simply not enough”, added Heres. “We’ve invested a lot in the right systems, but these take place outside education. It’s high time that we invested in awareness and behaviour and give this the integral position within education that it warrants. You also need to be aware that a discussion about sexual violence and about all forms of inappropriate behaviour can be a trigger, because we all carry our own experiences.”

She’ll be discussing the BOOS broadcast with her students at the earliest opportunity. “I sent them an extensive e-mail in which I indicated that I felt this was an important issue for students and that I’d ignored this. I told them I’d like to return to this topic if they’d like that. I’d like to discuss with them how they experience safety on and around the university, the role we as lecturers could play in this and where we can improve.”

  1. Recognise and Appreciate is a national project to ensure a less one-sided assessment of scientists. The focus is often on scientific output, but this project makes education, leadership or social impact more important. ↩︎