Naomi Ellemers led the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) committee that was charged with advising the Dutch cabinet on social safety in the academic world. Image credit: Jack Tillmanns

This month, two cases hit the news about researchers who have misbehaved. An astronomy professor in Leiden has been banned permanently from the university and a Flemish professor, who also worked in the Netherlands, has been jailed for rape.

But the problem of social safety at universities is nothing new. The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) has written an advisory report on this topic to Education Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf and the Dutch universities.

The report, which appeared in July, is a sort of guide with practical tips for tackling social safety. Behavioural scientist Naomi Ellemers, a university professor in Utrecht, chaired the committee that drew up the advisory report.

What were your thoughts when the news about the professors came to light?

“Universities are large organisations, with many people working there. I imagine that these things happen or have happened in many places, so I’m not surprised when such news comes to light. I hope that we are reaching a tipping point, however. We have to clear out the attic and deal with cases that have been going on for years; after that, we also have to look to the future.”

Why do cases like this often go on so long?

“These problems are never isolated incidents. Every time, you hear that there’s a pattern and that people have known about it for a long time. But if no formal complaint is made, people believe there’s nothing they can do about it and so they allow it to continue. Universities often look at it too much from a legal perspective: they want to assemble all the evidence before taking action. But it isn’t simply a binary choice.”


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Could Leiden University, for instance, have acted sooner?

“Executive Board President Annetje Ottow has admitted that. [She gave an interview about it in NRC; ed.] Hopefully things will change.”

The professor of astronomy is no longer allowed to come to the university, but he hasn’t been dismissed.

“I know the case only from the press, but that’s actually a good sign, in my opinion. Apparently, they cannot fire him, but they are still taking action. All kinds of restrictions apply under employment law, but there is still plenty of scope to do things. If you act swiftly, you could impose a smaller or temporary measure. For example, you could prohibit someone from supervising PhD candidates for a while and you could make it compulsory for that person to take a training course and demonstrate an improvement in behaviour. At the moment, that rarely happens.”

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You advocate a change of culture, but in fact you have to make that change with people from the old culture. How can you do that?

“It can definitely be hard, but the first question is, what do we consider to be acceptable and unacceptable behaviour? And that is subject to change, of course. People sometimes think, I once made a joke that went too far, will I now be burned at the stake for it? That stops people from discussing the issue now. But you can also easily take the attitude that we didn’t give it a second thought 20 or 30 years ago, but now we are going to do things differently.”

You said this summer that people in a position of power literally have a different view of the world from those who are dependent on them; ultimately, they cannot know how their behaviour comes across to others. Is that the source of the problems?

“It certainly plays a part. For my colleagues and me it’s basic knowledge, but for some people it’s a real eye opener. In cases of inappropriate sexual behaviour, you sometimes hear people say, if those women don’t want it, all they have to do is say ‘no’. Then you don’t give enough consideration to the fact that a position of power makes that very hard.”

Can you solve that problem?

“A culture can be changed. You sometimes hear women of my age say, I have experienced all sorts of things; it wasn’t always pleasant, but you have to be able to take the rough with the smooth. Young women nowadays think, why? Why do we have to accept it? And that’s absolutely right.”

What can universities do?

“You can start small. There are still people who tell you that they haven’t had a performance appraisal for 20 years. Needless to say, that is unacceptable. And in those appraisals, you shouldn’t ask only about publications, fundraising and teaching, but also about social safety and leadership qualities. That’s really important. You should also keep an eye on satisfaction, staff turnover and sick leave. Let’s monitor how people are feeling and then take action where needed. You have to start somewhere.”

But does that bring about cultural change?

“It definitely helps if you do it systematically. Universities also need to have a network of people you can turn to so you don’t have to go to that solitary confidential counsellor, who is not in close touch with the workplace. You have to be able to ask someone at your own level for advice, without it becoming a legal matter.”

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So, as an example, does there need to be someone among PhD candidates in a particular department to whom other PhD candidates can talk about inappropriate behaviour?

“Yes, but can a PhD candidate also make the head of the department accountable for poor leadership? For that, you also need colleagues who occupy a similar position to that of the head of department and who have duties in the field of social safety. Administrators must therefore ask themselves what duties they want to delegate and to whom. At the university we provide education and research, but how can you make that happen without good relationships? People need to be given time for it and have to be trained for it. This must become part of the evaluations. It all has to be made more professional.”

So, do we now simply wait for the next case to emerge?

“Maybe, but it’s certainly a good sign that young people are now coming forward. The topic is getting attention and people are only going to report problems if they expect something to be done about them.”