‘I’m worried, I’m concerned, I’m uncomfortable’, says Natalia Pierzchawka to a crowd of thirty RUG students and staff assembled in the Harmonie cafeteria. The 28-year old Polish student, who is also a full-time intern at the university, spoke at the inaugural gathering of the Hold RUG Accountable organisation last night.
Natalia spearheads the movement. The idea is to petition the university to challenge workplace and sexual harassment and discrimination by starting an open conversation. ‘I’m standing here, risking my career and mental health’, she said. According to Natalia, fear stops many from speaking publicly about their experiences. Natalia says she has been touched ‘inappropriately’ in the past, and has repeatedly felt excluded within the university. ‘But my silence did not protect me. Your silence will not protect you.’
The event is sparked by Gerrit Breeuwsma’s recent column in UKrant that generated some controversy. Breeuwsma used a Dutch wordplay that was ‘highly sexist’, according to Natalia. She thinks the UKrant, because it is financed by the university, is complicit in facilitating a culture of silence at the university by not distancing itself from such language. ‘This column just highlighted the main cause of our movement. The university and the UKrant should be more explicit about their anti-harassment and anti-discriminatory policies and tell people that such comments are wrong.’
In response to the widespread criticism, Breeuwsma wrote a follow-up column where he justified his choice of words. But according to Natalia, the response was ‘a big fuck you. He feels invincible. And that’s problematic.’ The movement demands more accountability from the RUG by leading a transparent debate. ‘We just want to talk.’
Laura Baams is a professor at the RUG who previously taught in the US. She said she received mandatory training there on understanding what counts as harassment and discrimination. But she got no such training here. ‘Those trainings help you understand what is acceptable and what’s not. They help you navigate difficult student-staff relationships.’
Members of the movement think that the RUG’s inaction has ‘normalised’ the lack of information as well as instances of ‘unwanted touches and remarks’. They say that many people are so used to inappropriate behaviour that they don’t even know they are being harassed. While the university has an official and publicly available code of conduct and a new zero-tolerance policy, it’s not being put to good use, Natalia says. ‘No one knows about these documents anyway. The university hides behind words such as diversity and inclusion without filling them in with meaning.’
Law student Andrew McKeown from Australia helped organise the meeting. ‘Instead of being silent, the university should set the tone of the conversation on these matters’, he says. Having spent many years at universities in Australia and Scotland, he has been shocked by the RUG’s passivity. ‘In Edinburgh, they had anti-racist and anti-harassment messages on every PC screen. Could the RUG be doing more? Of course!’
LLM student Stratos Nikoloudis (29) says he attended the event as part of what he calls ‘the dominant, white, straight, male group. And this group is very underrepresented here.’ He hasn’t experienced harassment or discrimination himself, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t a problem. ‘Discrimination is not always obvious, but it is here with us. We should all do something to help.’
Spokesperson Jorien Bakker of the university says the RUG takes this topic very seriously and refers to the new zero tolerance statement that was published three weeks ago. ‘It gives us a new way of dealing with instances of undesirable behaviour that sadly occur in the university, just like in any other organisation.’
She also advises students to go the the confidential adviser. ‘Whatever they tell the adviser is a secret, that’s why she’s confidential.’ A recently launched series of introductory trainings and workshops is also a way to facilitate the discussion and deal with these issues.
Mandatory training is not unthinkable. However ‘we have a different way of dealing with things, we prefer to talk about this’.
Editor-in-chief Rob Siebelink states that UKrant takes sexual harassment very seriously and points to recent articles on #MeToo and inclusivity. However, he also says a columnist has the right to poke and prod, both the topic and the audience. ‘You can question good taste or choice of wording. However, an editor who takes his own columnists seriously will respect the freedom of a columnist above all, unless he or she incites hate or discriminates. I don’t feel that was the case here.’