Assaulted by a visiting scholar
How Alice’s future was crushed
A Chinese girl sits in front of a police officer. Her face is bruised, her clothing dishevelled. She has a blank look on her face, but that is understandable. She hasn’t slept for almost thirty-six hours. She can’t. Not after what happened.
The officer takes her statement and sends her home. If she wants to file charges, she’s told, she should come back after the weekend.
‘I really thought that when I told the police what happened, they would arrest him immediately’, says Chinese PhD student Alice – not her real name. ‘But they didn’t do anything.’
Grabbed from behind
On October 24, 2019, a scholar from the Jiangsu Normal Uni, who was visiting the Faculty of Law, invited Alice to come over to the international student flat where he was staying. He had approached her a couple of weeks earlier in the Zernike library, and she had told him she was preparing for her go/no-go meeting. He said he could help her with that.
He cooked them a meal in the communal kitchen. They ate. They talked about research and her opportunities once she had graduated. Then, she noticed her phone battery was almost empty, so she gathered her things and headed to the exit.
I told him I had to go, but he pushed me onto his bed
‘He grabbed me from behind and dragged me to his room’, she says. ‘I told him I had to go, but he pushed me onto his bed. I tried to fight him, but I couldn’t.’
She remembers a sharp pain when she hit her head. She must have lost consciousness, because for a long time there was nothing. When she woke up again, she found herself naked in the dark. ‘I tried to get away and fell off the bed. Then he threatened me, saying he had nude pictures of me that he would show to others. He told me he had taken my research to apply for funding. He said he was a very important person and I shouldn’t report this.’
He took her to the Zernike library. He may have studied, she doesn’t know. She just sat there, resting her head on the table.
Hours later, she looked up to find him gone.
There were so many things Alice didn’t understand, living in Groningen. She struggled with the language. She had trouble finding her way, because everything seemed so foreign. ‘I couldn’t get anywhere without Google Maps.’
But she had expected the Dutch police to do something when she turned to them for help the next day, other than advise her to contact the confidential adviser and go to the doctor for a morning-after pill and a check-up.
She went to the doctor. She also contacted the confidential adviser, Marjolein Renker, who arranged for a translator. At this point her supervisor, professor of Chinese language and culture Oliver Moore, got involved too, and they all went with her when she finally made her official report.
Moore tried his best, she remembers. He told her not to worry about the go/no-go meeting, so that was at least something. He told her to contact him if she needed any more help.
By now, she realised that the police were not going to go after her attacker. She also knew he was flying back to Xuzhou a day later. So she went to Schiphol airport to get some answers.
She confronted him while he was waiting in line. And even though the Schiphol police took them both away for questioning and she told them the man had raped her, they still let him get on the plane. ‘I didn’t understand. Why didn’t the police detain him?’
Still, Alice didn’t give up. She got on a plane to Xuzhou to report her attacker in the town where he worked.
I didn’t understand. Why didn’t the police detain him?
There, she was confronted with officers that only reluctantly agreed to talk to her. When she showed them the officially certified Dutch police report she had taken with her, they said it was a fake.
One thing was clear to her by then: in a country that values the image of stability above all, the fact that she was ‘making waves’ was not appreciated. No one really wanted to go after a respected lecturer at a respected university.
It took her two months of trying, of pushing authorities, of calling and emailing. Then, finally, she received word that she was allowed to make a report. Afterwards, the police advised her to go back to the Netherlands, which she did.
In China, once a report is made, action has to be taken. But there were some that did not like that.
After she came back to Groningen, strangers started sending her messages on Telegram and by email. ‘They told me it wouldn’t do much good to talk to the police, because they wouldn’t do anything anyway. They also told me it would damage the image of my country.’ Some messages just contained an angry emoji.
Then, in the spring of 2020, her attacker posted on his Weibo page – the Chinese version of Facebook – accusing her of making up a fake rape story, and of being a slut. It turned out the police had questioned him.
The story was shared by twenty to thirty accounts and around 8 million people saw it. Her address got out. Strangers texted her. Emailed her. And then she received an email, stating that the Chinese government had contacted the Dutch Foreign Ministry about Alice slandering the name of her attacker on Weibo. The Groningen police wanted to interview her. As a suspect.
The case was quickly dropped, but now it felt like she was under attack: first from his social media posts, then from this ‘slander case’.
They told me I would damage the image of my country
Still, she says, it did provide another opening. ‘In China, when someone damages a person’s reputation on social media without evidence, that is taken very seriously. He had no evidence. But I did.’
In 2021, she filed a civil case in Beijing and there was even a hearing in March 2022. However, there is still no verdict.
All the time, the strange and intimidating things kept happening. Someone impersonated her to a journalist. She received a call from the police in The Hague, asking her about a bomb threat. Her attacker somehow got a hold of her personal police file. The Xuzhou police interrogated her parents.
Four years and two months ago, a Chinese PhD student was invited to come to the UG to get her degree.
Three years and two months ago, her life ground to a halt because she was raped by a scholar who had been invited by that same university.
She got depressed and was at risk of hurting herself. After the Weibo posts that dragged her name through the mud, she was barely able to function and was admitted to a mental facility several times. For three years, she fought to put herself back together again.
So what did the university do to help her?
She hesitates. There was her supervisor Oliver Moore. He regularly asked how she was doing and came by to check on her. But whenever she tried to get Moore’s advice, he stopped her. ‘He said he was there to help me academically, not with legal stuff or the other things I struggled with. He said he just wasn’t a psychologist or a lawyer.’
Then there was the confidential adviser, who listened to Alice’s story, helped her to get a translator and a lawyer. ‘I also asked her if I could have a statement from the university about what had happened to me’, she says. ‘But she said this was a private matter and not something for the university.’
The information in the thesis was scattered. I was scattered
She did eventually get a statement though, a couple of months later, after the attack on Weibo. The statement describes how Alice reported her rape to several people within and outside of the university. ‘The University of Groningen stipulates it will support [Alice] in her attempts to recover from the incident’, the document – dated May 2020 – says. It also states that the visiting scholar ‘is not welcome anymore at the University of Groningen, nor will the Faculty of Law support him in any way’.
The university helped her deal with the Dutch Immigration and Naturalisation Service when she went back to China and extended her deadlines when she was unable to meet them.
There was her social worker, who helped her along. Her psychologist, her psychiatrist. The company doctor that met with her on a regular basis, since she was on sick leave for months.
Bits and pieces
But her research wasn’t getting anywhere. She handed in bits and pieces after being pushed by her supervisor and the head of the Graduate School, but the work she handed in by December 2021 was not up to standard. ‘I was in the middle of trauma therapy’, she says. ‘The information in the thesis was scattered. I was scattered at the time.’
She believes she can fix it, if they’d just give her a little bit more time.
The Faculty of Arts decided it would not give her an extension beyond the three years she had already been given. In January 2022 – Alice was still hospitalised – she finally got that go/no-go meeting that had been scheduled three years before. She was told her project would be terminated. Her social worker called the university. ‘They said I should wait for the official letter to come and then I could object.’
If the uni wanted to help me, why didn’t they give me more time?
All she wanted was to explain that she needed only six months to a year to fix it. And that she could go back to work now, because she had been given the okay to reintegrate by the company doctor. She wouldn’t let go. Couldn’t let go.
The company doctor emailed the Faculty of Arts. He didn’t get an answer. Alice asked the Student Service Desk, anyone she could think of. Then, desperate, she reached out to the chairman of the board of the UG, Jouke de Vries, and rector magnificus Cisca Wijmenga on September 13. That did get a result.
The day after her email, she received a request from the secretary of board of the Faculty of Arts to stop emailing officials of the university with questions she should address to the faculty board.
Three days later, the head of the communications office informed her on behalf of the board of the university that her request was being discussed by the board of the Faculty of Arts.
The third email came three days after that. Another message from the secretary, setting a date for an interview with dean Thony Visser, her supervisor Moore, and the director of the Graduate School for the Humanities. She went, thankful to finally be able to plead her case.
It didn’t do much good, though.
On September 29, Alice was told the university was prepared to offer her career training to help, but that her time as a PhD researcher had ended. She will have to go back to China and fears her home country may not welcome her with open arms anymore. ‘I don’t understand’, she says. ‘If the university wanted to help me, why didn’t they give me more time? I am in desperate need of help.’
EDITOR’S NOTE: The term ‘sexual assault’ was changed to ‘rape’ after publication of the article, because while the term ‘rape’ can be triggering, the editorial team felt there should be no room for interpretation in this case.
As soon as Moore found out what had happened, he alerted both the dean of the Faculty of Arts at the time, Gerry Wakker, and the president of the UG, Jouke de Vries. However, he doesn’t believe they really felt the urgency of the matter.
Moore feels the university responded too slowly. ‘They saw this as a private citizen problem. But I see the university as having a duty of care.’
He talked to the Legal Affairs department and wrote to various university agencies, to the Graduate School and to the dean. ‘I thought the university should take more care about this, because I foresaw various bad endings.’
When Alice’s academic work didn’t progress as planned – understandably, he says – Moore hoped that the Faculty of Arts might think about how they could help Alice to still get something from her time in Groningen, if a full PhD wasn’t possible. ‘I was told not to get involved, but somebody had to. And I didn’t see the university doing it. I asked the legal people, the medical people, the administrative people, the dean, the president’s office to do something, to be more proactive about this.’
The UG, Moore says, is ‘out of fashion’, when it comes to the way it handles cases of sexual aggression. The ‘zero tolerance statement’ that was signed in the summer of 2019 is the minimum, he feels. Even when the university is not to blame and cannot undo the situation, ‘we can at least make the right gestures’, he says.
Shortly after she’d started as dean at the Faculty of Arts in 2019, Thony Visser was informed about the matter by supervisor Oliver Moore. ‘I immediately started asking questions: How is she doing? Who’s taking care of her? Is she getting guidance? I’ve tried to get as much information as I could.’
According to Visser, many people within the university were concerned with Alice: ‘The legal and administrative department, the head of communication, the confidential adviser, the company doctor… A lot of people at the UG were involved in this. Moore is also part of the university. I feel that he went out of his way to care for this young lady, and that’s also on behalf of the UG.’
She doesn’t understand why Moore would have felt he was alone in that. ‘Obviously, that wouldn’t be right.’
However, the situation led to a ‘no-win situation’, says Visser. ‘Something terrible happened here, but there are two different processes. There’s the process of getting her the help she needs, and the process concerning her PhD. In Alice’s mind, the two are intertwined, but as far as we’re concerned, they’re two separate processes.’
In spite of the concern for her personal well-being, Alice’s academic performance wasn’t strong enough for her to continue, says Visser. ‘We postponed her go/no-go meeting because of her situation at the time. We gave her three years.’
When Alice was told in early 2022 that her project was being cancelled, she refused to accept that, says Visser. That is why she didn’t immediately receive a response from the university. The final meeting with Visser, Moore, and the director of the Graduate School would’ve taken place even without Alice’s email to the board president, she says. ‘Out of a sense of compassion. We offered her career counselling, because we wanted to at least do something for her.’
Visser doesn’t think she was remiss in the situation. ‘I don’t think there’s anything the institute could have done. No one can undo this, and she has to live with it. And that’s awful.’
In addition to telling her story, Alice showed UKrant copies of police reports, medical reports, and emails to and from university staff. UKrant also listened to recordings she had made of phone conversations.
My 4 years at RUG was the worst and darkest time of my whole life …..
Alice, Your story is shocking and terrible and I support you. More should have been done to protect you and to stop your attacker from leaving the country. The police, the university and the Faculty of Arts have all failed you. Please know that many of us do not find this acceptable and we realize that healing from such an attack can take years.
i feel like rug really doesnt do much about situations like this… what a shame
I am deeply saddened and shocked by what happened to Alice. I hope she will get the justice she deserves, and a fast recovery. I hope the perpetrator gets what he deserves. Also, I am shocked about the university’s actions but not surprised. They always claim to care about student/employee well-being but that is all just on paper. In reality, no one except maybe some compassionate teachers gives a shit. If the university fails to act appropriately in such a severe situation, I am not surprised that people with “less severe” problems have been treated unfairly. Furthermore, shouldn’t Alice’s condition be regarded as a disability at this point? Isn’t the employer supposed to make arrangements for that? (Unfortunately, I am not well informed about such regulations and laws).
The fact that they think that this CRIME has nothing to do with her PhD is insane to me. If she never attempted to do a PhD at the RUG, this would not have happened to her. This man was INVITED by the RUG!
Also, good to know that I, as a woman, cannot trust or depend on the Dutch police to defend my human rights and body. The least they could do is prohibit this monster from leaving the country if they cannot take him into custody. The police in this country is USELESS.
I guess that everyone who read this sad story and wrote the comments above clearly understands why “Alice” was treated like she was by the RUG staff and Groningen police. But due to demonstrative tolerance no one was straight enough to write it. A small hint: the answer is a geographical area, 5 letters, starting with “Ch”, ending with “na”. I am sure that if such an extreme event happened to a local student or at least to a person from adjacent NWE countries like Germany or Belgium, there would be much more of an effort to both help her finish PhD and arrest the criminal before he could leave Schiphol to travel safely back home. Sad but true!
you’d be surprised
Alice, I am so very sorry for what you have endured! Your pain, sense of aloneness and helplessness must be unimaginable.
As if the trauma of a rape was not enough, you have also had to endure further traumatising treatment from those institutions that are legally obliged to help and protect you. This includes the university, which is bounded by a duty of care for all its employees and students and is legally obliged to ensure a safe work and study environment. Not only did the university fail to provide this duty of care, but they inflicted further phycological harm on you. I wonder: where has the ombudsperson been when all of this has been happening?
To those who may be reading this: this is not an isolated incident that only affects Alice, it affects everyone else at the university, staff and students included. To have a dean in place that states: “In Alice’s mind, the two [referring to the trauma of being raped and doing a PhD] are intertwined, but as far as we’re concerned, they’re two separate processes” reeks of a work place that is utterly and structurally unsafe.
Dear Alice, what Thony Visser said that it’s only in your mind that your trauma and the PhD are intertwined, while they couldn’t possibly be according to her, is gaslighting and it is denigrating towards you! Gaslighting and denigration do cause psychological harm! Your trauma and what you were able to or not able to dedicate to the progress of your PhD, are 100% connected! It’s not only in your mind that that is the case! Never doubt yourself, your sanity, and what you yourself know in your gut to be true. After all: how could a dean from a privileged position of power ever know what has been true for you? How could anyone – even more so a dean with a duty for responsible leadership – dare comment on what has been the case for you? I find this appalling on so many levels, including the basic human level. It takes a person who lacks human decency and a sense of compassion, a highly privileged woman, uneducated in matters of human relations, to say to a victim of rape that her trauma and her PhD are not intertwined. It is even more worrying when this person is the dean of an entire faculty and continues to be kept in that position of power. Again, I wonder: who is being a bystander to all of this?
What happened to you, Alice during your PhD at RuG concerns me and concerns everyone else who works and studies at RuG. I do not see what happened to you as an isolated problem, one that only affects you. In fact, I see it a structural and systemic failure of the university to provide a duty of care for its students and employees, an institutional failure to protect the safety of all students and employees while preventing them from further phycological harm when unfortunate cases of transgressive behaviour do occur.
I do not know you personally, Alice, but we are bounded by our affiliation to the same institution. Your experience gives away a study and work environment that is utterly unsafe for you and for everyone else, a place where deans can inflict further psychological harm and fail to provide their duty of care without anyone holding them accountable. The conclusion of your story for an institution such as RuG is that what happened to you, Alice will continue happening to others in the future. Dean Visser has just proven – par excellence – that at RuG there is the perfect breeding ground for undesirable behaviour to flourish.
This is why what happened to you, concerns us well, Alice. And then, I cannot help wonder: who – inside and outside RuG – is being a bystander to all of this and yet hiding under the deluded impression that it is not their place, nor within their possibilities to help? Elie Wiesel’s words come to my mind now: “what hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor, but the silence of the bystander” and I wonder, Alice: which has been most torturous for you to endure? I can only imagine how helpless each one of these events must have made you feel, and how – over time – they all tumbled over each other into a nauseating sea of numbness and trauma that will be forever haunting.
Dear Alice, you have come forward to talk about the unspeakable and ask for what is just at unimaginable personal costs. It takes a brave and strong woman to fight as you fought. I realise the pain you have endured must have left you with no other choice but to fight for even the smallest hope for justice. Should you need a companion in your dark hours, I want to share with you a book that has also been ‘my friend’ in the darker hours, perhaps you know it already: Sara Ahmed’s book ‘Complaint’. You will recognise a lot of what happened to you in her book and while that cannot take away your pain, it might help validate everything you have experienced, and reassure you that it’s not you who was ever in the wrong, it is in fact all those whom you’ve turned to for help and who have failed you who were in the wrong. You might read on Sara Ahmed’s blog that she herself resigned from her position as Professor of Race and Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths University “in protest at the failure to deal with the problem of sexual harassment.” See, there are also women like Sara Ahmed out there in the world, unapologetically brave and strong. Just like you, Alice, have been!
It saddens me to see the overall systems in place to fail so much (Dutch police, Chinese police, etc.). Alice really did everything above and beyond to get justice, only to be now faced to (potentially) be harmed even more by having reached out to the system.
I do not blame any person who’s been through any kind of sexual assault to not go and report the incident.
Nevertheless, I am glad to hear that Alice got the psychological support to deal with the aftermath of such a devastating and gruesome event.
It blows my mind that the Dutch police actually started an inquiry into her for slander. Just imagine being that officer- she was in your police station, in shock and bruised, but somehow the man’s rant on Weibo gets more serious consideration than her account? Nowhere in the story does it say he was actually charged with anything, or even investigated
Alice was done a great injustice. Not only did she go through the extremely traumatic experience of being raped, additionally the Dutch police failed her, the Chinese police failed here, the University failed her and even the Dutch government failed her. What kind of China puppets are they, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs letting the Chinese government/police meddle in their business and starting a libel case against a rape victim. It’s absolutely appalling. I wish Alice all the strength in the world and hope this will spur the University and the Immigration and Naturalization Office will help Alice stay safe in the Netherlands because that is the least she deserves
so anything happened in your eyes can be attributed to the political conspiracies? the fact that Rug and the Police of Groningen’s dereliction of duty interpreted as they are puppets of the Chinese government in your mind? don’t distort the point of this case and make use of this girl’s unfortunate experience to spread your political hatred shit, you logic genius.
Unfortunately the way in which the University reacts in extraordinary circumstances such as this, as much as it’s appalling, is not uncommon.
I personally experienced physical and mental illnesses based on trauma and it took me at least 3 years to get back to normal, during which, the University showed no sympathy or any common sense in helping me. I asked for more time and consideration to get back to studying, all they cared about was if I could meet the yearly requirement of 30ECTS set by the IND. I almost got kicked out of this country because of that.
So indeed from my own experience, it doesn’t matter what traumatic events happen to students, the University only looks at policy and offers no flexibility at all. It’s so weird that they seem to think students must perform academically up to standards even under extreme pressure such as in Alice’s case. Sadly I can prove that it is not uncommon. Like Visser stated, they look at the matters as two separate things – while normal rational people can see easily they are intertwined.
Well, that is RUG for you! Bravo to her supervisor though.
Shocking story, I am so sorry about what happened to Alice.
Alice, if you are reading this, I want you to know that many of us empathize with you. I hope you can push through and not let this negative experience define you. You sound like a really brave and resilient person. Your strength comes from within and shines through this piece. I wish you all the bests.
With respect to the policy of the Faculty of Arts: I do not understand why Alice did not get an extension. At our faculty, it is standard policy to give staff extensions for life events. I am also certain that PhD students can get extensions, e.g. for the Covid shock and related problems many of them got it. So I am quite shocked that the Faculty of Arts did not grant an extension for such a major issue to Alice. How could this happen? The dean of the Faculty of Arts sounds incredibly insensitive. And not only insensitive, what Thony Visser says is simply not true. It is standard practice at the university to take life events into account, it is not true that such things have to be separated from extension considerations. Stop looking down on Alice like she is some idiot for thinking that the two things are intertwined. Of course they are intertwined, as a matter of reality! And this reality is acknowledged by university policy. If the Faculty of Arts differs in this from other faculties, then the problem lies at the Faculty of Arts, and apparently, at its dean.
The lack of basic human decency to a woman who has been sexually assaulted (I don’t want to avoid the word, so: raped).
It’s ridiculous that they think a PhD is not related to the student’s mental health. Everything is related to mental health, *especially* a PhD. The ‘no-win’ situation is clearly a result of the inaction of the University as well as the police in both Groningen and China.
RUG and its incompetent staff seem to think that even in totally heinous situations like this here, they seem to think that hiding behind University policy is enough of a justification for not supporting its students…What ever happened to the University Ombudsman that was supposed to be hired over a year ago? Because Ms Renker seems to like complaining about her workload more than ever accomplishing anything. Sometimes things happened outside of a persons control and in situations such as this, a case-by-case approach is clearly needed, but, in typical RUG fashion, excuses will ALWAYS be made why RUG is in the right…All staff involved here actually turn my stomach.
@Ross, Fully agree. Absolutely nauseating, the university’s lack of support for Alice.
Reading this as a PhD in Groningen University, it makes me feel so unsafe. The way police and the university responded to this event sends two messages. One for victims; “Even if you follow all the right protocols, and talk to all the right people, your voice won’t be heard and you will just lose time and you will be dealing with everything that comes with it alone”. Second message is for perpetrators; “Do you want to rape someone but you are afraid of consequences? Dont be. Go ahead and do it.”
I am moved and encouraged by Alice’s bravery and how she stood up for herself without any support. I hope she gets the response she deserves. The dean saying that phd and the incidence are not intertwined is one of the most unfair comments as well. It shows lack of understanding of basic principles of causality, and it also lacks human decency and compassion. By the way, as a phd who needs to follow that career course they are talking about, I know that course is not going to help her with anything but only waste her time. We make fun of those courses’ contents being very unrelatable and useless. I hope that the university finds a way to make this wrong right.
Power to Alice and all the victims of sexual assault!
This article has stirred a very strong emotional response within me. Alice should not be denied the opportunity to complete her research because of the trauma that happened to her, which was not her fault. If the University really cares about student mental health and wellbeing as it claims to, then they must reconsider their decision and support Alice with both her recovery and her research, rather than making empty promises and just offering “career counselling”. Alice’s research and her recovery are of course intertwined – how could they not be?! The University has a duty of care. And what about the potential threats that face Alice if she goes back to China?
This is a failing on the University’s part.
Well done to Oliver Moore for showing human compassion rather than blindly following procedures and protocols without considering the person, Alice, behind these.
To Alice – I am sending you so much love and strength. This was not your fault.
Shocking and very worrying that multiple institutions have failed to help adequately (this is not just an NL/Groningen failing, but I would have hoped for better). All the best to ‘Alice’…
“In Alice’s mind, the two are intertwined, but as far as we’re concerned, they’re two separate processes.”
This comment is pure absurdity. This is like saying whatever traumatic (or just any life) event you went through shouldn’t affect your work.
RUG thinks their own policy can somehow trump a poor girl being sexually assaulted by a academic the RUG invited over here, this is honestly mind-blowing.