The number of complaints about inappropriate conduct is rising, according to Willeke Bezemer and Erik van den Emster of the Committee Undesirable Behaviour. They handled ten complaints last year, and nine in 2021. Prior to that, there were only a few cases per year. These complaints typically concern sexual harassment between students.

Erik van den Emster is a lawyer and studied law at Erasmus University. He previously served as a criminal judge and chairman of the Council for the Judiciary. He has chaired the Committee Undesirable Behaviour since 2020.

Willeke Bezemer is a sexologist and psychologist. As the founder and owner of the agency Bezemer & Schubad, she has been involved in advice, research and training on inappropriate conduct since the 1990s. She has served on the committee for over ten years.

With regard to the increase in the number of complaints, Bezemer explains that public attention for the #metoo movement and sexual misconduct has had a big impact. Since the 1990s, she has been involved in research, advice and training on inappropriate conduct through her agency Bezemer & Schubad. “There is currently a huge push to raise awareness. And to my great delight, the focus is not only on incidents, but increasingly on how organisations can prevent inappropriate conduct.”

Complaints from students and staff about inappropriate conduct are sent to the Committee Undesirable Behaviour. These complaints can concern all kinds of undesirable behaviour, from discrimination to bullying and aggression, but most are about sexual misconduct.

Black-and-white approach

The committee hears the complainant and the accused, and often witnesses as well, and advises the Executive Board on a decision and possible measures. Van den Emster: “In criminal law, it’s all about evidence. You can say with a slightly lesser degree of plausibility, with serious suspicion: that is indeed what happened.”

Complaints are rarely declared founded. Between 2016 and 2021, this happened once “There is often a grey area”, he explains. “The complainant and the accused can have a completely different story, especially when it relates to an erotic, emotional situation in which no one else was around. Unfortunately, you sometimes have to decide that something has not been sufficiently proven.”

This does not mean that a complainant is not believed by the committee, he says. “As the accused, you’re left in the lurch when the committee says: we will not issue a ruling on this. We have to take a bit of a black-and-white approach.”

Sexologist Bezemer emphasises that it’s normal for things to occasionally go wrong in students’ sexual relationships. This is part of their stage of life. “No one builds a sexual repertoire harmoniously and without mistakes. That can be very painful, but it’s not always a perpetrator-victim story. We have to take a careful look at how serious the transgressions are. People should be able to make the ‘normal’ mistakes, after all: that’s how you learn your boundaries.”

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Raise an eyebrow

Only 7 percent of students know where to submit a complaint if they experience sexual misconduct, according to a survey by Erasmus Magazine last year. This is one of the reasons Bezemer and Van den Emster are giving an interview. The committee typically operates in the shadows, since the procedures are confidential. That is why they cannot comment on individual cases.

Commissie Ongewenst Gedrag-COG- seksueel grensoverschrijdend gedrag-Paper_Femke Legué
Image credit: Femke Legué

“You have to make the threshold for submitting a complaint as low as possible”, Bezemer says. That threshold is currently too high, because the committee is not well-known enough. “There is a lot more happening than what gets reported to us. If it all gets resolved outside the committee, that’s great. Better, in fact. But if not, people should be able to submit a complaint.”

Even university administrators do not always follow the correct procedure because they are unfamiliar with the rules and the committee. Van den Emster recounts a situation at one of the faculties. “It turned out there was more going on. An external agency was then hired to investigate, with the approval of the Executive Board. That caused us to raise an eyebrow: we have a committee for this, don’t we? Or are we going to call in an external agency any time something gets a bit complicated?” Bezemer: “Legal certainty benefits from taking a consistent approach in such cases. Otherwise it gives off an impression of arbitrariness.”

You can reach the Committee Undesirable Behaviour at [email protected] or +310104081993. More information about the committee and the complaints procedure can be found here on the university’s website.

The university has confidential advisors for employees and students to whom you can report any undesirable behaviour. They will listen to your story and can help and refer you.

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

Lengthy procedure

“A long and painful process”, is how one student described the Committee’s procedure in an Erasmus Magazine interview last year. She had submitted a complaint and felt that the process was taking too long, that she was being asked questions that placed the blame on her and that the committee was getting hung up on trivial details in her choice of words. “Yes, that’s right, it takes a long time”, Van den Emster says. “But scrupulousness and speed are not compatible.”

He explains that a complainant and an accused are heard separately. Reports on the hearings are drawn up, which the other party can then respond to. It is often necessary to hear witnesses as well. The committee has ten weeks to process a complaint and issue a recommendation.

This deadline is always met, according to the committee members. After that, the Executive Board makes a decision. This is where delays sometimes occur. “Let me put it nicely: decisions are not always made right away.”

“Victims don’t exactly rush to a committee”, Bezemer adds. “They have to spend a lot of time thinking about it. They consider the matter carefully, and have often already discussed it with others or with a confidential adviser. In addition, a complaint doesn’t always come to us immediately; it may go to a dean or the head of a department first.” This can also make the process seem longer to someone who submits a complaint, she thinks.

The committee would like to hear those involved at the same time. That would help to speed things up. “But not everyone wants that, so the option to be heard separately must remain available.”

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Don’t you believe me?

They also recognise that the procedure can be painful. “We have to ask difficult, detailed questions in order to investigate a complaint. We explain that in advance”, Bezemer says. “This is hard for young people. They think: ‘Don’t you believe me?’ Asking questions is sometimes such an affront that we’re almost sidelined as a committee. But the fact that we’re asking questions doesn’t mean we don’t believe them.”

“A complaints procedure can also end up causing more damage than the complainant would like. Sometimes a complaint is admissible, but there is a solution with less impact.” The reports include the names of witnesses, classmates and colleagues. The parties involved may view these reports. “Then they read exactly what their colleague did or did not say. This can really affect people.”

The vice squad often holds a preliminary discussion when someone wants to file a report. The committee members feel this would be a good idea for them, too. Van den Emster: “That way the complainant understands the situation and how the committee works. This could also be a task for the confidential adviser.”

Language barrier

Another point of criticism about the committee is that there is a language barrier when one of the parties involved does not speak Dutch. The ‘formal legal’ procedure must take place in Dutch, Van den Emster explains. This is because someone can always pursue further litigation, in which case the working language is also Dutch. The parties may request an interpreter, but only from Dutch to English.

This is a challenge for the committee members. “English is a second language for almost everyone in the procedure”, Bezemer says. “They will just have to express their emotions in another language to someone who doesn’t speak that as their first language either. This can lead to misunderstandings and interpretation errors. “Words have a different meaning in translation. The vocabulary is more limited. It’s easier to express nuance in your own language, and nuance is a delicate matter in this committee.” That is why there is now a proposal to use interpreters who can translate into the language spoken by the complainant and the accused.

Clearer definition

The committee struggles with the question of when misconduct should be dealt with by the university. “If something happens on campus, in a building where lots of students live or attend lectures, then it’s clear”, Bezemer says. “This is also the case if something has happened between two colleagues.”

But what if sexual transgression takes place off campus, or between two students who have little practical connection to each other? “We occasionally receive a complaint about something that has happened between two students who do not belong to the same association, do not attend the same lectures, do not spend time in the same buildings and do not study at the same faculty. In my opinion, the complaint should be declared inadmissible.”

“We recently had a case involving an employee of a coffee shop on campus”, Van den Emster cites as an example. The committee cannot do anything about this, he explains, since the university has no authority over business owners’ personnel. “I think the regulations should be revised again. We need a clearer definition so that it is clear which cases the committee should deal with.”

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