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Young Academy: harassment victims at UG get the blame

The UG does not respond properly to complaints about inappropriate behaviour and the lack of social safety. Instead, they blame the victims, forcing them into mediation with the perpetrators, and sabotaging their careers, says the Young Academy Groningen (YAG).

YAG’s findings are unequivocal. Their report paints a shocking picture of the experiences twenty-six UG staff members had to deal with over the past two years: harassment, abuse of power, discrimination, and their careers being sabotaged.

In twenty-five of the cases, the perpetrators were Dutch men. The victims were usually female (twenty-two case), international (twenty-three cases), and in some way dependent on the perpetrators.

Discrimination

The report Harassment in Dutch Academia from 2019 has put a spotlight on the subject. This study, initiated by the Dutch Network of Women Professors (LNVH), showed that harassment, bullying, and abuse of power were commonplace at Dutch universities.

Susanne Täuber and Nanna Haug Hilton, part of the Diversity and Inclusion committee at YAG, were regularly approached by staff members who told them about general discrimination and gender-based discrimination, after which they decided to do their own research. 

‘The LNVH report included the anonymous accounts of fifty-three women across the Netherlands’, says Täuber. ‘That makes it easier for people to say that these things don’t happen in Groningen. But we know that Groningen isn’t an exception to other universities.’

Traumatised

In the end, twenty-six victims were willing to come forward. There were other stories, Täuber says, but some people were so traumatised that they couldn’t or wouldn’t participate. ‘A lot of people have simply given up hope.’

The people who did talk to them aren’t necessarily a representation of the staff at the university, the writers of the report say. The victims came forward at events organised by the YAG, or because they’d heard about it from someone else. Some were part of the YAG members’ personal networks. 

The most common complaint involved harassment by superiors. There are cases of micro-managing and excessively controlling behaviour. In some cases, superiors display verbal and physical aggression. They also sometimes threaten to give people a negative evaluation during the next performance review.

Women

‘They prefer female colleagues to stay quiet, don’t work hard, and pretend they need help’, one victim is quoted as saying in the report. ‘But then I received a grant worth several million euros […] and became the target of serious discrimination, bullying, and unprofessional behaviour. I was even physically attacked.’

The report also shows that both women and internationals are held to different standards if they want to get promoted. Their academic performance is belittled, they have to teach more often, and the criteria for promotion are unclear or change halfway through the process. 

‘At my department, tasks are divided according to mysterious rules. International assistant professors aren’t given the work they need to get a promotion’, one of the complainants says. 

Crown prince

At some departments, there are ‘crown princes’; people who are being groomed for leadership when they clearly don’t perform well enough. ‘Interestingly enough, a third of these are Rosalind Franklin Fellows. They are recruited for their excellence’, says Täuber. 

‘Another interesting result is that people become more vulnerable to harassment as they do better. As though superiors start feeling threatened or think it will become more difficult to legitimately push their preferred candidate forward.’

Not serious

Reporting the way they’re being treated doesn’t help. The complainants talk about how their superiors don’t take them seriously. Half the time, it’s because they’re actually the cause of the problem. Faculty boards also rarely intervene. They either ignore it or don’t believe people’s stories. Many complainants get a negative review after submitting a report, and victims are told that they’re bad at communicating.

The Human Resource department (HR) almost always sides with superiors. In many cases, victims are forced into participating in courses to ‘fix’ their own behaviour, or they have to go into mediation. 

Action

The YAG emphatically says the UG should take action. One thing they could do is improve the complaints process. The report writers also want faculty boards to account for why they won’t do anything about complaints of discrimination and harassment. The YAG also says that when there aren’t enough women in higher positions, but there are a lot of female employees working elsewhere, they should be given priority when applying for jobs. 

The board of directors of the university were ‘saddened’ to hear that ‘some colleagues have come into contact with inappropriate behaviour’. The board refers to the university’s zero-tolerance policy, the recently appointed Ombudsperson, and the new initiatives being developed, such as active bystander training.

Social safety

‘We believe these steps will contribute to a socially safe work and study environment for all the members of our academic community.’

Täuber is happy with the board’s response. ‘They really took it in’, she says. ‘They took the report seriously and supported us publishing it. I hope other Dutch universities follow in our footsteps, because this is a problem everywhere in academia.’ The university will now have to act upon the data they’ve been giving. ‘We’ll just have to wait and see whether they actually will.’

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