Dean on professor’s transgressive behaviour: ‘We will reopen the case if we receive new signals’

22 Sep 2023

This past weekend, radio programme Argos reported on a professor of Psychology at Radboud University, who had engaged in sexually transgressive behaviour for several years. In response to that, the professor received a formal reprimand. What is dean Evelyn Kroesbergen’s stance on the case, and what steps will the faculty be taking? ‘I am now more aware of how difficult it is to report transgressive behaviour.’

Dean Evelyn Kroesbergen was shocked, listening to Argos’s episode last Saturday. The episode disclosed that a professor at her faculty bombarded a student with messages for several years, from 2017 until 2020, until the student started suffering from a burnout. ‘Like almost every other listener, I felt the urge to judge said professor’, Kroesbergen said in the Montessori building on Thursday. ‘This is unacceptable.’

The professor received a formal reprimand for his transgressive behaviour in 2020, which was added to his personnel file as a sort of ‘yellow card’. Last Tuesday, the faculty announced that there were no grounds for a new investigation into the professor’s behaviour.

Will the revelations made by Argos lead to additional measures being taken?

‘Next Monday, there will be a meeting for faculty employees and students. We can imagine that people are upset. Discussions about social safety are gaining ground, which is a good thing; we should all be involved in the discussion. What can we learn? We will also be speaking with the psychology department: what do they need? This concerns one of their colleagues, after all. That’s something that people need to process.’

‘A lot has changed in the past few years regarding social safety’

‘Broadly speaking, we will stay on course. We’re already hard at work with the theme of social safety. We’ve set up various programmes and hired someone specifically for that purpose. I’m pleased to say that a lot has changed in the past few years.’

Should a professor be able to transgress this severely in 2023?

‘A lot has changed in society as well, in a very short period of time. If someone is the victim of transgressive behaviour, they’re more likely to report it. Additionally, witnesses are more likely to address transgressions. Not only that, but many people in leadership roles are more aware of their position. The odds that someone will cross a line are smaller, but they’re not zero.’

You wish to start a dialogue with the psychology department. Isn’t it strange that the main actor, the professor mentioned in the episode, is still out and about?

‘He doesn’t hold a significant position. He no longer supervises students, and he spends very little time at the faculty. So, if there are meetings, he is unlikely to attend. Whether his presence at such a meeting would be beneficial is up to the department. The Argos broadcast did not lead to sanctions or new limitations; he is welcome at the faculty.’

And what does he do? Has he stopped teaching?

‘Almost entirely, but I’m not familiar with the details. That is an interdepartmental matter. He might spend his teaching time doing committee work, lecturing employees, or supervising post-academic education. But the important thing is that he no longer supervises students in a one-to-one capacity. We felt that was important to announce this week.’

Are you happy that his name went unmentioned?

‘I think it’s a good thing. He was punished, and the punishment appears to be effective: there have been no reports or signals of new transgressions.’

And nobody asks other professors: is this about you?

‘Of course, psychology professors of a certain age may feel that people are suspicious of them. Colleagues have expressed those worries. That is why I went straight to the faculty on Monday to discuss the matter. My impression is that most people don’t have this issue at the moment.’

During the transition between deans last year, were you made aware of the formal reprimand?

‘My predecessor told me what I needed to know and what he was legally allowed to. I knew that there were issues, but I was not aware of the details.’

Do you think you would have acted differently in this case than your predecessor, Michiel Kompier?

‘At the time, he took the appropriate steps. As far I can tell, he did so thoroughly.’

Why didn’t the university set up an external investigation back then?

‘They set up an internal investigation, which concluded that an external investigation was not necessary.’

It was necessary at the Artificial Intelligence department last year. Why is that?

‘That case involved multiple reports, and multiple signals. There was only one report against the psychology professor.’

The professor was also the co-founder of a company, which banned him from the premises for two years. The university only gave him a yellow card.

‘I am unfamiliar with the situation at the company, but I am shocked at the difference.’

It is sometimes said that the university is a place where professors can get away with a lot more than, say, an assistant professor.

‘That may have been the case in the past. But nowadays, not anymore. I am emphatic on this point; my sense of justice is too strong.

In the AI situation last year, the employee involved was asked to leave. Why hasn’t the same happened with this professor?

‘My predecessor had an investigation done, and sanctions were imposed. The Argos episode did not reveal information that justifies changing those sanctions.’

The difference is that now everyone knows how said professor acted towards a student. That may make people feel unsafe.

‘We are currently busy with finding out how people feel about this. Emotions must be ventilated and maybe given time to rest. Then we can look forward and think about what our next steps will be.

Of course, after the episode of the broadcast, it is also a possible that more reports or signals will follow.

‘People are more than welcome to speak up. If new reports or signals come in, we will take those into consideration and may decide on an external investigation after all. Social safety is paramount – it must be guaranteed. If an external investigation aids in that, we will make it happen.’

‘Generally speaking, you should be as transparent as possible’

If a new, similar case presented itself, do you think it would be handled in the same way?

‘Broadly speaking, I would take the same steps. But we learned a lot in the past few years. I learned a lot. I am now more aware of how difficult it is to report transgressive behaviour. Something can be wrong long before it is reported or addressed. That is what I would look for. That means having different conversations and asking different questions.’

‘Knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t ask a study advisor “did anyone mention anything to you?” I would ask: “Did you have the impression that someone is pushing boundaries? Do you feel safe? Is there anything that compromises that safety?” I would be much more open in conversation. That may help receive signals.’

Marijke Naezer, who is an expert when it comes to social safety, mentioned in the Argos episode that the university should be much more transparent when it comes to cases of transgressive behaviour. Shouldn’t the university have communicated with the outside world regarding the formal reprimand?

‘Generally speaking, you should be as transparent as possible. But in individual cases, choices must be made. Releasing someone’s name along with all their misdoings might be inappropriate. People are allowed to make mistakes without a trial by media. I think that handling this internally was the right decision. However, moving forward, I will think about how the board can be more open in its communication regarding social safety.’

Finally: are you always made aware if a member of your faculty receives a formal reprimand?

‘Yes, I should be.’

And has that happened during your tenure?

‘I’m afraid I can’t comment on that.’


Translated by Jasper Pesch

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