Executive Board: ‘This was never meant to be a cover-up’

07 Oct 2023 ,

According to chair Daniël Wigboldus and vice chair Agnes Muskens, it was never the executive board’s intention to cover up the complaint of sexual intimidation against Han van Krieken. In this interview, they respond to the rector’s premature departure and look towards the university’s centenary.

Yes – chair Danïel Wigbuldus and vice chair Agnes Muskens were both aware of the complaint filed against their fellow board member Han van Krieken. An external committee judged the complaint to be valid, as the rector made several comments towards a female employee in 2017, which “could be experienced as sexually intimidating”. Wigboldus was informed of the complaint during the resulting procedure in 2018; Muskens was informed soon after she took the office of vice chair in 2022.

‘Of course, we discussed it’

The rector retained his position but received a warning in his personnel file. Do you agree with the way the complaint was handled?

Wigboldus: ‘It is important to realise that – as with any other complaints procedure – this concerned confidential information. The case was resolved between the rector and his employer: back then, that was the foundation board. I was informed of the complaint as well as the measures taken at the time. Those measures marked the end of the process, after which the executive board needed to get back to work. However, that doesn’t change the fact that it was substantial for everyone involved.’

But you did discuss it with Han van Krieken informally?

Wigboldus: ‘Of course, we discussed it.’

The report was not made public at the time; there was just a note in Han van Krieken’s personnel file. Did you support that decision?

Wigboldus: ‘Let me reiterate: at the time, that decision was made by the foundation board. They made the conscious decision not to make that warning public. The complaints committee investigated what had happened and judged the complaint to be valid. Based on those findings, the foundation board took measures. The other members of the executive board have no say in that process.’

Daniël Wigboldus. Foto: Bert Beelen

That might be true in a legal sense. However, the executive board works as a team. This is a matter of credibility: the rector had to make important decisions with you in important cases involving social safety. The Paul Bakker case, for instance.

Wigboldus: ‘Important is that we are confident that the complaint was handled carefully and adequately by both the complaints committee and the foundation board. Following that, you should trust each other to be able to move forward. And I have no reason to assume anything else has happened.’

The woman who made the report told De Gelderlander that she didn’t actually want to leave the university. But she did so anyway, while the rector stayed where he was. His term was even renewed.

Muskens: ‘It is of course very unfortunate that the employee could not stay at the university. I feel terrible for her sake. But that does strike at the heart of what we as a university need to discuss: how should we handle this, moving forward?’

The vice chair at the time, Wilma de Koning, had several talks with the employee in question. Why is that, if the executive board was not involved with the resolution of the complaint?

Muskens: ‘If something like this were to happen again, it would be handled in the same way. When there is a report, the procedure needs to be followed. This means that an independent complaints committee investigates the complaint and potentially comes up with follow-up measures. The executive board then takes those measures, no matter what. Then, as the complainant’s employer, I would discuss with them how those measures are put into practice.’

Agnes Muskens. Photo: Bert Beelen

How do you think this affects victims of transgressive behaviour on campus? They might think: if even the rector can get away with it, why should I bother filing a report?

Muskens: ‘Every person who feels that way is one person too many. But unfortunately, we know that this does happen. It is a challenge that we have to face. I just hope that everyone has someone close to confide in.’

Wigboldus: ‘That’s why we need to make clear that there should be no room for transgressive behaviour at this university.’

But the rector did get away with it.

Wigboldus: ‘This is where the proportionality comes into play. The foundation board took measures, both in general and towards the rector, which they deemed appropriate to the events in question. I am confident that they thought long and hard about it and took the right steps.’

Can you see why people might feel betrayed by the fact that the complaint against the rector was not made public? Doesn’t that seem like a cover-up?

Wigboldus: ‘I hope that people don’t feel betrayed. It’s a very complex case. And, as it usually is with complex cases, there is a balance between transparency on the one hand and carefulness and proportionality on the other. That is not an easy thing to do.’

‘This was never meant to be a cover-up, but people perceive it that way. That’s something we need to talk about. But how do you start that conversation? And how can we do it in a way that is safe for those brave people who sound the alarm and the people being reported on? And how do you discuss it in a public forum?’

‘To be clear: the complaint was not purposefully omitted from the report’

‘Something that can be concluded from the various cases over the years is that, even if you go through all the requisite steps and take measures, that is not necessarily going to be to everyone’s satisfaction. It is something that we as a university should learn from.’

But if there was no intentional cover-up, why was the complaint not in the annual report?

Muskens: ‘That was a very unfortunate omission. To be clear: the complaint was not purposefully omitted from the report.’

‘Normally, the complaints committee reports the number of complaints to the legal department, which adopts it into the annual report. However – as this was a complaint involving a member of the executive board – it was handled by a different, independent complaints committee. That is why the report on Van Krieken was not known to the legal department. Additionally, there were four other reports that year, which meant that the missing complaint went unnoticed.’

‘I don’t say that to make excuses. The complaint should have been in the annual report. When someone mentioned its absence several years later, it was investigated and appended to the 2021 annual report. The procedure has changed since then: now, complaints are always investigated by the same external committee.’

Nevertheless, both the Works Council (OR) and the University Student Council (USR) are referring to a cover-up culture, and are calling for more transparency.

Wigboldus: ‘Of course, we take that very seriously. However, we also need to be careful, for the sake of all those involved. Balance is key. We risk quickly becoming too procedural, but if everything is made public immediately, that could prevent people from filing reports in the first place.’

‘The university only turns one hundred years once’

‘It is more important that there is a change in culture, and that we start showing the desired behaviour. We have been made painfully aware that people don’t feel safe on campus. This means that, as a university, we still have a lot of ground to cover.’

Were you shocked when De Gelderlander informed you it would publish the report?

Wigboldus (after a long pause): ‘Of course, you think “My gosh, what will this mean?” For those involved and the university. How will this impact all the things we are doing right now? Both the creation of a safer campus and the upcoming centenary. We’re obviously still in the midst of preparations for that.’

Do you blame the woman involved or De Gelderlander for publicising the complaint against Van Krieken?

Both: ‘No.’

Han van Krieken was originally supposed to say his goodbyes at the centenary on October 17, but he decided to retire early. How do you feel about that?

Wigboldus: ‘He stepped down out of his own volition, in order to make room for the discussion on transgressive behaviour within the academic community. Fortunately, that discussion is now taking place. We should take the opportunity to make clear how we intend to promote a culture change.’

What does this mean for the centenary?

Wigboldus: ‘Well, obviously there was supposed to be a transfer of rectorship. Instead, José Sanders will simply be sworn in as rector. The rest of the schedule remains unchanged.’

‘The university only turns one hundred years once. And those one hundred years make for a rich history. A history in which the university has always served as a reflection of society. The current discussion surrounding social safety is a good example: it doesn’t only take place at Radboud University, but in society as a whole.’

‘Han is just as welcome at the centenary as anyone else’

‘I also hope that we can all take a moment to appreciate the anniversary and look back with respect and reverence on a hundred years of special events. Beautiful events, but tough ones as well.

Is Van Krieken welcome at the celebration?

Wigboldus: ‘Han made the decision to step down. He is now the former rector, as well as an emeritus professor. He is just as welcome at the centenary as anyone else.’

And what does Van Krieken’s early retirement mean for José Sanders, the new rector?

Muskens: ‘José will commence her new role on October 17, as agreed. It just means that she will start with a hefty file on her desk. She probably imagined her starting period very differently.’

Translated by Jasper Pesch

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