Susanne Täuber has been fired
‘If we stay silent now, the systems wins’
Susanne Täuber doesn’t have to think very long about what she did wrong. ‘My mistake is that I didn’t take it lying down’, she says. ‘That was the whole purpose of the exercise, of course. I was supposed to get down on my knees and say: “I’m so very sorry that I wrote this. Even though I was right. Even though there are mountains of research supporting it.” But I thought: if that’s how you feel, you’re part of the problem, not the solution.’
What she wrote was an article in a prestigious academic journal: the Journal of Management Studies. The article was published on May 30, 2019 and had been through thorough peer reviews, but it was a little different from the norm. Täuber had used her own experiences as a Rosalind Franklin Fellow at the Faculty of Economics and Business (FEB) to write a critique of the system, showcasing how programmes that are intended to help women can actually get in their way.
She described how the excellent, international women the programme seeks out are given the low rank of assistant professor in spite of all their qualifications and track record. That’s a lower rank than they should be given, all because of their gender. She wrote how, because of their excellent track record, these women were often promoted fairly quickly and how that made the people around them jealous because they saw it as preferential treatment.
It’s almost as if there’s a manual for these kinds of situations
Supervisors would do nothing to counter this perception and instead ‘rectify’ the perceived unfair situation. One method was to assign fewer PhD students to RF Fellow than to their male colleagues. These women were also left out of the old boys’ network of Dutch, mostly male colleagues helping each other out. As a result, they leave, sometimes turning their back on academia altogether.
Täuber argued that something needed to be done about that. Faculties should acknowledge that well-intentioned politics can be counter-productive. They should think about how to prevent things like these from happening.
To the carpet
None of these things happened. At least, not at her own faculty. Instead, her supervisors were furious and called Täuber to the carpet. ‘Because part of the content of this article can be considered as inappropriate and damaging to the university, our department, and specific members of the department, we take this issue very seriously’, her supervisor said in an email to the department. This email had been signed by all the professors.
The dean also wrote an email to the editors at JMS. According to him, the article wasn’t based on any objective proof. It was accusatory and personal and had damaged Täuber’s working relationship with the faculty.
So now Täuber, a driving force behind the Young Academy Groningen (YAG) report that exposed how women are being harassed at the UG, had become a victim of the system herself. She was told on International Women’s Day that the court agreed with the UG’s demand to fire her for a ‘long-term damaged working relationship’.
While the court also said that her supervisors played a large, ‘if not decisive’ role in the escalation because of the way they responded to the JMS article, that ultimately didn’t make a difference. Täuber has to leave by May 1.
‘When we were writing the YAG report, I had no idea I would end up in a similar situation’, she says now. ‘But looking back, everything in it happened to me. It’s almost as if there’s a manual for these kinds of situations. It’s… interesting.’
After all, her whole mess started with vague criteria for promotions. After she had been hired as a level 2 assistant professor in 2013, she was promoted to level 1 in 2015. That same year, she was promoted to associate professor level 2. Three years later, in 2018, she felt she met the criteria to be promoted to associate professor level 1.
Every time I showed them I met the criteria, they came up with new demands
But her supervisors didn’t agree. ‘Every time I showed them I met the criteria, they came up with new demands.’ She should publish more, and publish in ‘better journals’.
She was also ignored when she complained about unfair treatment because colleagues with the same track record were promoted over her. While the faculty says the HR department investigated this but didn’t come up with anything, Täuber doesn’t believe that at all. ‘Nonsense’, she says. ‘That’s a straight-up lie. They never told me about any investigation and they never got back to me about any results.’
However, she put up with it. ‘They told me they did everything according to procedure. There was nothing I could do.’
Publishing the JMS article led to a host of intimidating emails and meetings. Suddenly, she was told to improve her soft skills in order to be promoted. She was told to apologise for the article. And she was told to undergo coaching to improve her communication skills, something the victims included in the YAG report also mentioned.
‘At first, I thought it was just a misunderstanding. That they didn’t get it. After all, some of my colleagues were supportive, saying that I was genuinely correct, as did other faculties.’
She had the article translated; perhaps the English caused some confusion. She also had the confidential adviser for academic integrity read the article, and they said it wasn’t a personal attack, but a critique of the system. None of it mattered.
And that, she says, is not okay. It’s not that she doesn’t understand that people felt like they were being attacked. After all, they’re part of the system. ‘But academic freedom means you’re allowed to criticise the system in which you work. If that’s not the case, perhaps we should stop pretending that we’re doing innovative and ground-breaking work. It’s been proven time and again that diversity leads to better research and education.’
Täuber says her academic freedom was curtailed. However, the court specifically didn’t include this in the verdict. It didn’t need to, it said, because the university is allowed to fire her for a damaged working relationship, something both parties actually agree on.
When you call out an unsafe work environment, you’re left holding the bag
It’s very disconcerting, says Täuber. ‘It’s exactly the scenario I feared the most: that if someone calls out unwanted behaviour or an unsafe work environment, their supervisor can accuse you of damaging the working relationship. You’re left holding the bag.’
Her whole defence hinged on her academic freedom having been curtailed. How can especially social scientists be expected to safely publish articles on controversial topics? ‘You’d have to study something politically safe and you definitely can’t touch upon social justice, inequality, or inclusivity, because you might risk losing your job and ruining your academic career.’
Even more frustrating is that even if the court blames her FEB supervisors for escalating the conflict, they don’t bear any of the consequences. She’s the one losing her job.
Nevertheless, she hopes her colleagues don’t get discouraged by what’s happened to her. ‘I hope they keep fighting’, says Täuber. ‘If they stay silent and compliant now, the system wins. You burn one, you scare a thousand.’
What should they do? ‘Support each other, listen to each other. Continue the fight for more just and inclusive higher education.’
Since the news, Täuber has decided to appeal the court’s decision, if she can find a way to cover the legal costs. ‘This case is too important to give up now.’
The moment it became clear that Susanne Täuber was at risk of being fired, people started protesting the situation.
Dozens of colleagues and students attended the court proceeding in support. Over the next few weeks, people posted selfies with the hashtag #amInext in a Twitter campaign.
The protest for more social safety at the UG that was held on March 8, International Women’s Day, was also in support of Täuber’s case. Not long after she’d held a speech, Täuber learned that she had indeed been fired.
In the meantime, there’s a petition circulating online, calling on UG board president Jouke de Vries to reinstate Täuber. ‘Firing a scholar who publishes work that is critical of powerful institutions, including the university itself, sets a disturbing precedent for us all. We, the employees and students, ARE the UG, and we refuse to let this act be carried out in our names’, say the writers. ‘It is unacceptable that when a “disrupted employment relationship” emerges within a department, the more vulnerable person is fired.’
The petition has been signed 2,500 times by students and academics both from the Netherlands and abroad.
Susanne Täuber’s research and the unfortunate case of her firing resurface difficult things to look at. As comfortable as it might seem to be to look away from all that and hope that by getting rid of Susanne Täuber, the problems will disappear, discriminating structures ARE in place at RUG, harassment and academic bullying DO happen and her firing does reveal that – beyond whether one agrees or disagrees with the arguments she makes in her research – there is no room for critiquing the system. Susanne Täuber’s case is not an isolated ‘personal case’, nor is it simply a situation where ‘there must be another side to the story, one that could possibly ever justify her firing and wherein her critiquing of the system must all be wrong.’ Susanne Täuber’s case points at endemic, systemic and structural abuses of power at RUG, abuses that go unchecked and remain enabled.
Looking for another side to this story means looking for reasons to look away, to stay silent and not sweat over whether one does the right thing or not. ‘Staying silent about violence is violence’ to quote from Sara Ahmed’s latest book. Looking for another side to this story is looking for all the ways in which one might give oneself permission to reproduce violence and be at peace with it.
Those in the higher and the highest management positions at the university have the chance to start working towards making a difference and prioritize the social safety of their employees. They can make a first step towards that by righting the wrongs that have already been done and start by re-instating Susanne Täuber in her job.
Full professors across the university, who have already the power and the protection within the institution, should be signing the petition to reinstate Susanne Tauber at RUG.
Seeing people on temporary contracts who have got everything to lose sign the petition fills me with admiration and gratitude.
VU should be the next one in the line of inquiry. Highly educated international female academics don’t get anywhere at VU, but getting stuck in a Mater-Slave hierarchy.