University
Alice Photo by Reyer Boxem

Assaulted by a visiting scholar

How Alice’s future was crushed

Alice Photo by Reyer Boxem
When Chinese PhD student Alice was raped by a visiting scholar, her world fell apart. Neither the Dutch nor the Chinese police did much of anything, while the perpetrator went back home. And now the Faculty of Arts has ended her research project.
11 January om 11:38 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 12 January 2023
om 15:29 uur.
January 11 at 11:38 AM.
Last modified on January 12, 2023
at 15:29 PM.
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Door Christien Boomsma

11 January om 11:38 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 12 January 2023
om 15:29 uur.
Avatar photo

By Christien Boomsma

January 11 at 11:38 AM.
Last modified on January 12, 2023
at 15:29 PM.
Avatar photo

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur Volledig bio » Background coordinator and science editor Full bio »

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.

Getting help

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.

Confrontation

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. 

The backlash

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. 

Civil case

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. 

The university

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? 

Private matter

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. 

Interview

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.

The supervisor

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.

The dean

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.’

Sources

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.

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