Undesirable behaviour an issue for some time at small-scale FFTR
The investigation into social safety within the faculty of Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies just announced comes as completely unexpected for many staff members. And yet, there have been internal reports of undesirable behaviour for years.
The announcement that professor of Philosophy, Paul Bakker, will not be appointed dean of the Faculty of Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies (FFTR) is causing quite a commotion on campus. He is relinquishing the position because he is the ‘possible subject’ of investigation into ‘social safety and interaction’ within the faculty; the Executive Board made the announcement on Wednesday.
The investigation comes as a bolt from the blue for many staff members, according to a tour of the faculty by Vox. ‘I have always experienced the working environment as being really pleasant and my colleagues as very friendly, including Paul Bakker’, says an email from Tam Ngo, for example, who worked at the faculty as religion researcher until the end of last year.
Matthijs den Dulk is also surprised by the news. ‘I had no idea that there was anything going on, or that there were things being swept under the carpet,’ says the Associate Professor, who also sits on the faculty’s representative council of the Joint Assembly. ‘Everyone is shocked. In the talks with the Rector in the Faculty Joint Assembly, all Bakker’s colleagues were enthusiastic about his appointment.’
It was announced a few weeks ago that Bakker would take up his new position from 1 July. Bakker, professor of Philosophy of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, is currently director of Radboud Reflects.
And yet, internal documents show that the investigation didn’t entirely come out of thin air. The FFTR is a male stronghold in which only 30% of the academic staff is female. In a faculty employee survey in 2018, 15.5% of the respondents indicated that they had experienced undesirable behaviour. In 5.6 percentage points of, this involved sexual intimidation.
These statistics were reason for the Representative Council to have the Faculty Board amend a text in the concept budget for 2020. The text originally said that ‘the FFTR is a safe work environment’, and now says that ‘FFTR is an open study and work environment where students and staff value and respect each other and feel a shared responsibility. Since inclusiveness and safety and social safety are never self-evident, we continue to be committed to them.’
The results of the survey led to further independent investigation. Female staff members were asked in focus groups about their social safety. One of the recommendations to come out of that was ‘bias awareness’, that’s to say being aware of any possible prejudice you might have against men or women.
In the end, the faculty set up a plan of action, under the leadership of vice dean Heleen Murre-Van den Berg. Lunch meetings were organised for women, for example which, according to the annual report of 2019, were ‘met with a very positive reaction’.
‘The master-apprentice system can lead to socially unsafe situations’
Whether these problems formed the concrete reason for the investigation announced, the current dean Christoph Lüthy refuses to confirm. ‘I’m not prepared to go into details. The press release by the The Executive Board exploded in our hands like a bomb. The situation is having an enormous effect on everyone in the faculty, and on the university as a whole too.’
What Lüthy is prepared to say is that the FFTR is a small, close-knit faculty which provides intensive, small-scale education. The intimacy which sometimes appears to occur in such a small-scale department probably plays a role in the investigation. ‘We work a lot with the master-apprentice model, with individual guidance. This can lead to situations with social insecurity.’
He goes on to say that these situations are due in part to the fact that there are no clear rules about what is and is not ‘permitted’. ‘When are you going too far? Many rules of conduct are above all implicit. It’s strange that for plagiarism, the guidelines are much clearer.’ He hopes that the investigative committee will create clarity on the subject and take into consideration all the measures against social insecurity put into force by the faculty in recent years.
Dean Christoph Lüthy does not mention precisely which forms of social insecurity occur within the FFTR. In addition to sexual harassment, there are other behaviours which fall under the overarching term of ‘social insecurity’. Take for example abuse of power, due to a doctoral candidate or student being dependent on their supervisor. Or relationships between students and staff, or among students, with or without mutual consent.
A study by the National Network of Women Professors stated last year that ‘scientific harassment’ is rife within the academic community. Women in particular suffer from this, according to the report, due to the largely hierarchic and competitive nature of academic environments. Victims are often inclined to stay silent.
Harassment is also high on the agenda in the Nijmegen participatory body. Monday 29 June the UGV (University Joint Assembly) is to discuss the appointment of confidential counsellors.
It remains unclear what part Bakker played in the problems within the faculty. Lüthy cannot confirm or deny that the investigation is the reason for Bakker stepping down as new dean, as is stated in the CvB announcement. Den Dulk, member of the Sub-committee: ‘You might wonder whether it was wise to mention his name in the press release at this early stage. You’re risking committing character assassination.’
Lüthy acknowledges that naming Bakker is a complicated issue. ‘Connecting a name to an investigation can be regarded as very serious, but I know how the text came about. A lot of care went into it. Look, the Executive Board had just announced that Bakker was to be appointed dean. We then had to announce that he would not be appointed dean, so his name had to be mentioned somewhere. I would have preferred to see two separate announcements, one about the investigation and one about Bakker stepping down.’
‘But let it be clear that if all this had happened three weeks ago, the reporting would have been very different,’ says Lüthy. ‘You won’t hear me talk about guilt, either. I was completely in favour of Bakker being appointed as my successor.’
The dean hopes that the external committee will complete its investigation in the summer. ‘We don’t want this to be an open wound for long.’ Lüthy is unable to say whether he will continue as dean now that there is no successor anymore. ‘The Executive Board will probably be discussing that with us soon.’