On Monday afternoon, in the sunshine-filled law faculty room in the Academy building, Sujatha de Poel, who is originally from India, her husband (who is Dutch) and her lawyer shared the details of what has happened to De Poel over the past year and a half. Next to them sat John de Groot, managing director of the Faculty of Economics and Business, Wijnand Aalderink, the director of the Careers Company and De Poel’s manager, and their lawyer.
The two parties were attending a hearing with the Arbitration Committee, an external group of individuals tasked with assessing conflicts within the university. In this case, the conflict they were seeking to resolve was De Poel’s conviction that she was denied a permanent contract because she and a colleague spoke up about what they saw as professional misconduct in their department.
Early in 2016, De Poel and a Dutch colleague wrote a confidential letter to the faculty board of economics and business, raising their concerns regarding hiring policies within the department and transparency about those practices.
As a result of sending the letter, De Poel says that they experienced ‘intimidation, harassment and managerial bullying’. De Poel says that the management secretary tried to discourage them from sending the letter and informed them that they had to lift the confidentiality of the letter before their concerns could be looked into. De Poel and her colleague reluctantly complied, and Aalderink was made aware of the letter’s existence and its authors.
Soon thereafter, De Poel had an annual evaluation meeting with Aalderink. According to De Poel, Aalderink set the evaluation forms aside and spent the majority of the meeting questioning her about the letter and why she thought that the board would listen to her complaints. She was given a poor evaluation, which meant that she would be out of a job.
Aalderink and De Groot cited multiple communication issues and De Poel’s alleged unwillingness to improve as ‘red flags’ that were reflected in her most recent evaluation. ‘We are also responsible for our other employees, and there were too many instances where things became problematic’, De Groot says. But De Poel says that the incidents in question were minor and are now being overblown in an attempt to mischaracterize her as an unfit employee.
De Groot suggested that when it came to the letter, De Poel ought to have discussed the issues with her manager ‘from one employee to another’ rather than going over his head. But De Poel says that given the circumstances, she and her colleague felt compelled to send the letter, and she is convinced that sending it to the FEB board is what sealed her fate. Her evaluation in the previous year was positive – she was deemed ‘very good’ in terms of the content of her work and ‘good’ in terms of competencies – and she feels that her second evaluation being held shortly after the letter was sent negatively influenced her manager’s perspective.
The Arbitration Committee will deliver their recommendations in the case to the Board of Directors of the RUG in the coming weeks. De Poel’s contract officially ends on 15 April.