For the past six weeks, Martin Blok has been absent from what used to be ‘his’ office on the first floor of the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague. This office has instead been occupied by his successor. “I didn’t want to get in the way, so I moved to a different room”, he explains. He is leaving behind the display cases inside and in front of his old office. They are filled with souvenirs – gifts that he received from students from all over the world. He has already taken some of them home, including a miniature guitarist made of bottle caps, to which he is particularly attached. “But my wife won’t let me take the balafon home.” He indicates the wooden musical instrument from Gambia. “It’s too big”, he laughs.
Can you tell me about your first day here at the ISS?
“When I started here in 1990, I was the first welfare officer, or dean of students, to be appointed at the ISS. The institute needs someone who keeps an eye out for students, with particular attention to their wellbeing. Our international students are a bit older than the average student, and many of them have had to leave their partner and children behind to study here. Pressure to perform in a foreign country, without a social safety net to fall back on, makes it more intense for them than it is for young students.
“My idea was to turn the welfare office into a kind of community centre within the academic community. A place where you could drop by for a cup of coffee, talk about your problems or organise fun activities. And that’s how it went.”
Two years after that, you were also appointed confidential counsellor at the ISS.
“Yes. The ISS had drawn up policy to combat sexual violence around that time. That also included confidential counsellors, so I took on that role at the institute in 1993 together with two colleagues.”
What was the reason for that policy?
“Sexually transgressive behaviour can happen anywhere and at any time. The ISS is no exception to this. Back then, the ISS lacked clear rules for how to deal with this, while clear rules on what should and should not be considered acceptable behaviour are crucial, especially in a multicultural environment, like the ISS, that is prone to misunderstandings in communication.
“It’s not just about sexually transgressive behaviour, of course; it’s also about how we treat each other. We have a very mixed student population here, from conservative to progressive, left-wing activists. Students from countries that have banned homosexuality have to share classrooms with LGBTI+ activists. They need to be able to treat each other with respect – preferably even with appreciation. That is why the ISS drew up this policy and why we offer training sessions and workshops, for example, to foster a healthy environment.”
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In 2015, you became a confidential counsellor for EUR as well. Four years ago, you founded a network of confidential counsellors. What changes have you noticed at EUR over the years?
“I’ve noticed that people are quicker to report inappropriate behaviour. In 2022, the number of reports was twice that in the previous year. People have become more aware of inappropriate behaviour. On the other hand, there are also people who have received premature and, in some cases, harsh judgement for minor, one-off transgressions.
“I believe people should be held accountable for their behaviour, but they should also have the right to defend themselves and explain what happened. Finding the right balance in this can be difficult. Terrible cases of abuse deserve to be dealt with severely, but if someone – for example – places their hand on someone’s shoulder, and the other person isn’t comfortable with this, should that immediately spell the end of their career?”
What obstacles did you encounter as a confidential counsellor at EUR?
“What you can actually do is not always the same as what is stated in the official rules. Managers and supervisors are often awkward and hesitant to act. People reporting a case of abuse are in most cases referred to a confidential counsellor, even if the situation could easily and quickly be resolved without them.
“Some time ago, I received a report about a student who had used a swear word in a tutorial WhatsApp group on one occasion. Other students went to the lecturer to complain. The lecturer referred them to the confidential counsellor, even though this was something the lecturer could have easily solved themselves.
“Then again, I understand that everyone’s busy. Dealing with complaints requires you to carefully study and resolve the situation.”
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What would you like to see changed at the university?
“I hope people will be able to take each other to task for transgressive behaviour. I want people to be able to casually tell each other, ‘Hey, what you just did to our colleague, that doesn’t sit well with me.’ That might be a pipe dream, though – people are inherently hesitant to call others to account, since they don’t know how the other person will react.
The university needs to be a safe place where this is possible – and the network of confidential counsellors, Safe@EUR and the ombuds officer are proof that the university hopes to create such an environment.”
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You eventually decided to step down from your role as confidential counsellor at the ISS following a student protest and a townhall meeting. Would you care to elaborate on this?
“There was an incident where I got my roles crossed. I was approached as a confidential counsellor, but I dealt with the problem as a dean of students. As a confidential counsellor, your job, when someone comes to you to report something, is to sit in a quiet room and clearly explain the purpose of the conversation and your role in the process.
“In this case, someone burst into my office, together with two fellow students, to make a report, and they wanted a conversation right then and there. I was caught off guard and went along with it. During that conversation, I was acting in my role as dean of students, but the student thought she was talking to me in my capacity as confidential counsellor. That’s where it went wrong. The problem escalated into a protest, at which point it became too much for me. I realised I was wearing too many hats. I needed a clear head, so I stepped down from my role as confidential counsellor at the ISS.”
Did you often feel like you had too much on your plate?
“No, thankfully. I did more than just receiving complaints. I organised a lot of fun stuff, like cultural activities and nice concerts. Besides, people are usually just nice to each other – you tend to forget that when your job consists of hearing all the terrible stories. People treat each other decently at EUR as well, but we only ever see the extreme cases. Of course there’s something wrong with the balance of powers between genders and ethnicities, resulting in sexism, racism and discrimination, but people are becoming increasingly aware of this. The ways in which people are dealing with problems are also getting better.”
What would you do when you needed a break from your work?
“Music has been a common thread throughout my life. I play the guitar, I’ve written some original songs and I used to perform with my punk band. It might be difficult to believe, but I used to have long hair during the hippie era. For a long time, I was a member of a choir at the ISS, together with colleagues and students. I’ve also performed with students on quite a few occasions. I haven’t written any songs in years now, but I definitely plan on picking that up again, since I’ve got more time now.”
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What did you appreciate most about working at the ISS?
“I think that would be the sense of community. An ‘ISS baby’ was born recently. A student flew over while she was heavily pregnant, and she gave birth just a couple of weeks ago. She didn’t have any of the necessities for taking care of a baby, so I dropped by the Zeeman clothing store. Three shop assistants helped me out, and we packed a large shopping bag with romper suits and diapers. When I visited her with my shopping, fellow students were already there to take care of her and her baby. When she goes to lectures, a student or a colleague takes care of the baby. That is how we do things at the ISS, and I am very grateful to have been a part of that.”
What are your plans for after you retire?
Jokingly: “I’m going to think long and hard about what I want to be when I grow up – the world is my oyster.
“I’ll be visiting Suriname for six weeks in March with my wife, to go on some fun hikes. I’m the chair of the PAC athletic club, so I’ll continue in that capacity. I also plan to continue providing training courses and workshops on intercultural communication and transgressive behaviour. At the very least, I won’t be bored.”