Two weeks ago, around sixty students held a protest in the ISS building. At the time, the protest focused on a student who had allegedly assaulted a fellow student. The protest, which initially began due to an individual case, grew into an organised student campaign. The campaign demands, among other things, that the institute do something to improve the handling of complaints and that people applying for the position of confidential student counsellor must be screened first. Students feel that the current system does not protect victims of transgressive behaviour from abuses of power. They also find that the faculty is ‘protecting the predators’.
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A few days after the protest, a meeting between students and staff was organised at the ISS. This was held to discuss the demands of the protesting students.
According to Matt Ang, one of the organisers of the protest, the atrium of the building was packed with students and staff. The master’s student in Development Studies described the atmosphere as ‘extremely tense’. “People were feeling uncomfortable and emotional. Some even shed a tear,” he says. Rector Inge Hutter acknowledges this. “They were intense conversations, but they were very important and necessary”, she states.
Happening for years already
Many issues were discussed during the meeting, from the policy surrounding undesirable behaviour at the university level, to students’ personal experiences. “We do not feel safe at the ISS. Harassment takes place even in student housing,” says Ang. “And that is nothing new. This problem has been cropping up for years and nothing was ever done about it.” This perception is not justified, according to Rector Hutter. “I understand that students think this, but of course something has been done about this – we are not for nothing pioneers in this field. But obviously this is always handled confidentially, in the interests of both the complainant and the accused. Both sides are also always heard. Also, any possible sanctions that are taken are treated in confidence.”
The students tried to come up with everyone in the atrium with a definition for the term ‘unwanted behaviour’. “After all, we are made up of more than fifty nationalities and different cultures. What one culture finds normal, another may not,” Hutter points out. Ang adds: “A problem is also that the definition for it at the EUR is so vague, which leaves the policy unclear. As far as I know, the university does not have a specific sanction in place for sexual assault, for instance.”
The position of confidential counsellors was also called into question. “For victims, it is not very clear what the actual role is of confidential counsellors is. Are they certified counsellors? Have they had training to handle matters properly? In our opinion, there is a lack of professionalism and transparency in this role,” Ang states.
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Rector Hutter understands that this may be confusing for students. “They are right, the information about confidential counsellors and the complaints procedure on our website is not up to date. For one thing, it is not clear what the procedure is after you have contacted a confidential counsellor. We have to update the protocol concerning undesirable behaviour, this does entail making some amendments and becoming more professional. For example, we are going to make it clearer to students that they can submit a formal complaint and how they can go about that”, Hutter clarifies.
The institute has since presented its plan of action to students and staff. “The most important step is that we will engage the services of an external party to evaluate our handling of reports of transgressive behaviour. In addition to a better provision of information, we will look into whether our in-house psychologist could also work part of the time at the ISS”, Hutter says. Up until now, the psychologist has been working online. Yet students can drop by her practice. Furthermore, the faculty is going to employ an extra psychologist as of 1 May. “We are keen to do this, because we want everyone here to feel safe and be able to be themselves.”
Ang is relieved that the faculty is doing something. “But to be honest, I don’t trust the institute. I’ll only believe it when I see concrete changes.”