Friday night, 19 November 2021, members of the Delftsch Studenten Corps were startled by a ‘retaliatory raid’ by dozens of Rotterdam union members, on account of a chair that had previously been stolen. RSC/RVSV members wrecked the interior of the union building with clubs, threw fireworks, and assaulted attendees. Following the incident, the Rotterdam corps took immediate measures: Forty members were suspended, one was expelled. Interesting fact was that three board members turned out to be involved in the incident. The university administration barred the union from official occasions for the rest of the academic year, and demanded a plan of action for cultural change.

More than a year later, president Rosa Jelsma and vice-president Mats Ravelli are taking stock. To what extent has cultural change already occurred? And can ‘Delft’ never happen again?

Rosa, when the Delft raid took place, you were already considering a board position. And then you heard that three board members were involved. What did you think?

Rosa: “People really misbehaved there. And we must learn from that. I didn’t actually think about my ambitions as a board member at that point. I mainly thought: next year, I can do my bit to change the association. The challenge appealed to me. I do think it’s important to add that by then, we were already two years into the pandemic, during which first and second-year students hardly ever visited the RSG building. As a result, there was less social control, which is a very important foundation of our association. Now that the restrictions are over and the RSG building has reopened completely, that social control has greatly increased again.”

Mats: “This association is built on its morality and other traditions, which had fallen due to the coronavirus. It was high time to get everyone singing from the same hymn sheet: we stand for an association where everyone should be able to enjoy themselves, and with which we have both feet firmly planted in society. Delft really was a wake-up call.”

After the Delft incident, the university administration demanded a plan of action for cultural change. How did the association approach that?

Rosa: “We actually wanted to screen every aspect of our association, explicitly involving all members to ensure support for change. Among other things, we conducted a survey to find out how they see our association. We used the results to hold dialogue sessions in the form of a fishbowl session, which is a discussion with chairs in an inner circle and chairs in a larger outer circle. People in the outer circle could join the inner circle if they wanted to say something. This obliges everyone to listen to each other.”

What were these sessions about?

Rosa: “For example, about student welfare, which has become increasingly important since the pandemic. And the role of the association in society. This revealed that everyone wants to be very involved, in society in general and specifically in the city. Another key point of discussion was the pressure on students. The performance culture in Rotterdam, where you have to obtain all sixty credits in your first year. But also the financial and social pressure. A lot is expected of you. We plan to repeat these sessions regularly.”

How can these fishbowl sessions on student welfare and social engagement help ensure to such a violent incident as in Delft never happens again?

Rosa:”If you take good care of your members and they take good care of each other, everyone will feel more solidarity and be more likely to call each other to account for inappropriate behaviour. It’s all interrelated. In addition, we place great emphasis on social control and a culture of accountability, which is also discussed during these sessions. They create an internal dialogue, ensuring that the opinions of younger students are also heard. They are our future.”

This is not the first process of cultural change. There was another incident, before Delft: violence against someone who hadn’t yet started their studies, during the induction in 2017. Cultural change was also promised then. Do you understand that outsiders think: ‘Gosh, another cultural change. Apparently nothing has changed’?

Rosa: “It’s an ongoing process That cultural change was about how you treat each other, what are your norms and values as an association? It’s much like now in that respect. Only it’s a different situation. Back then, it was about the induction period, and a lot really has changed in that respect. The cultural change of 2017 coincided with the merger of two separate associations in the same year (RSC and RVSV, ed.). The cultures of two associations, each with its own morality and traditions, had to merge to form a single association culture.”

How has the induction period changed since 2017?

Mats: “We have revamped the introduction period, in close cooperation with the university. It is now mainly about freshmen getting to know each other and the association. Our norms and values as well as the history of the association. The aim of the introduction period is to integrate your freshmen into your association. They are the new generation, after all.”

It sounds as if freshmen no longer have to undergo anything unpleasant at all during the induction period.

Mats: “Well, you are challenged, especially mentally. You are challenged to take initiative, for example. And to present yourself in front of a large group of people, by performing a play or displaying your talent, for example.”

‘Even if the culture was ‘perfect’, I could never fully guarantee no more incidents would occur’

Rosa Jelsma

Have you at any point ever thought to yourself: this association is indeed in need of cultural change?

Rosa: “You know, Delft showed for me that we really need to work hard. At the same time, I don’t think you can measure culture by incidents. Because even if the culture was ‘perfect’, I could never fully guarantee no more incidents would occur. All we can do is learn from incidents and evaluate.”

Mats: “For me, the segregated evening is an example of something that no longer fits the culture of the association. In 2017, RSC and RVSV merged into one association, but there was still always a segregated evening during Eureka week. Yet, nobody actually likes that anymore. We want to demonstrate: men and women treat each other amicably and respectfully here. So there really isn’t any place for that kind of event here. We still have two a year now.”

What have you achieved in the way of cultural change? Has anything substantial changed yet?

Mats: “We have signed covenants with the debating societies. These include things like: treat each other respectfully. Unwanted touching is absolutely forbidden. Very basic agreements perhaps, but if you put them on paper you can hold each other to account. They were signed by the chairs of all the debating societies. If things go wrong, we can take appropriate measures. This alone actually already prevents things, it contributes to the desired culture of accountability in which everyone has to take responsibility. And that is better than punishing afterwards.”

Rosa: “In September, we discussed the progress of our plan of action with the rector of Erasmus University, Annelien Bredenoord. The conclusion was that we really must start to act. At the time, we were still focusing on Delft, but the message was that we had to take a broader approach. To look at all facets. And that is what we are doing now. I think we have especially made great strides in terms of member engagement in the club culture. Many members now offer to help on their own accord, and dare to ask us critical questions. And are aware of our place in society. But it would be too much to say that cultural change has been completed, you can never say that.”

An EUR spokesperson said the following about the progress of the process at RSC/RVSV: “EUR is committed to a new broad code of conduct for RSC/RVSV and the associated cultural change. The rector (Annelien Bredenoord, ed.) discussed this with RSC/RVSV last September. During this meeting, it emerged that good steps are already being taken by the association’s board. However, the rector indicated that things could be a lot more concrete and that there is real urgency. A follow-up meeting between the rector and RSC/RVSV on this subject is planned for April.”

rsc-rvsv eurekaweek 2019 foto amber leijen (3)

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