‘Undesirable behaviour is facilitated by the hierarchical structures within universities’

08 Jul 2020

Interesting fact: Radboud University’s Executive Board recently announced its intention to launch an investigation into social safety at the Faculty of Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies. Marijke Naezer, expert on behavioural misconduct in academia, sees this as a hopeful development. ‘Things are shifting.’

Marijke Naezer is glad to hear that Radboud University is initiating an investigation into the lack of social safety at the Faculty of Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies. In 2018, gender expert Naezer defended her PhD thesis on young people, sexuality and social media. She also co-authored a 2019 study on harassment in Dutch academia commissioned by the Dutch Network of Women Professors (LNHV).

‘What makes me optimistic is that for once the signals about behavioural misconduct are not being hushed,’ she says. ‘They very often are, you know. So this shows that things are shifting within the universities.’

Behavioural misconduct

Last week the Nijmegen Executive Board announced its intention to launch an investigation into safety and social conduct at the Faculty of Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies. Apparently, a number of people had filed complaints about other people. The upcoming Dean Paul Bakker has decided to step down as he may himself be the subject of the investigation. No further details are known at the moment.

Internal documents have revealed that lack of safety in the work environment has been an issue for some time at the faculty. In a 2018 Faculty staff survey (available in Dutch) 15.5% of respondents indicated having been exposed to undesirable behaviour.

Male-dominated culture

One of the risk factors at the Faculty of Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies is that 70% of the academic staff are men. ‘This lack of diversity in staff composition, combined with persisting issues and the fact that a number of people already raised the alarm, is enough to be concerned about,’ says Naezer.

Marijke Naezer (eigen foto)

She knows from her research that diversity can help combat behavioural misconduct. ‘And by this I don’t mean simply adding a woman to a team. If a workplace has a male-dominated culture, it’s quite possible for a woman to also adopt this behaviour. Investing in diversity is not enough; you also need an inclusive culture, where everyone can thrive. With diversity I mean that there should be variation in gender, but also in other factors, like age and ethnicity.’

Not being taken seriously

In their study for LNVH Marijke Naezer, Marieke van den Brink and Yvonne Benschop interviewed 53 women about their experiences with behavioural misconduct. One of the most remarkable findings was that respondents were often not taken seriously in the handling of their report.

Or worse still: the woman who filed the complaint ended up at home or had to make way, while the person who had harassed her (usually though not always a man) remained comfortably at their post. ‘The consequences can be disastrous,’ says Naezer. ‘I’ve spoken to women whose lives were destroyed by behavioural misconduct like bullying or sexual harassment.’

Rivals

The fact that incidents are not dealt with adequately allows the behaviour to persist, says the researcher. Harassment is facilitated by the hierarchical structures within the universities (PhD candidates are dependent on their supervisors, Assistant Professors on their Professors, etc.) and today’s competitive and individualistic culture. ‘Colleagues are often rivals vying for funding. Those who manage to raise a lot of money become stars whose conduct is rarely scrutinised.’

Naezer believes it’s crucial to find a good solution for the situation at the Faculty of Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies. ‘Not a superficial solution that merely pays lip service to the problem. Reading about this, I think it’s important to get to the bottom of it. Not only for the current victims, for whom it is essential that the misconduct is properly addressed, but also because it will make it easier for future victims and witnesses to speak out and trust that their complaints will be processed safely. Far too often these cases seem very promising at first, but a year later I hear that in fact nothing’s happened.’

‘In case of severe misconduct, it should be an option to fire the perpetrator’

How does Naezer imagine efficient handling might look? First of all, she insists that the person leading the investigation should not be affiliated with Radboud University, but able to do their work with complete autonomy. ‘At the University of Amsterdam, in response to a series of complaints from female students about a lecturer the ombudsman concluded that there were no structural problems within the faculty (NRC recently published an article on this case (available in Dutch) involving the Conservation and Restoration department, Eds.). And that while reports of incidents had been shoved under the carpet for years. Terrible, isn’t it? It doesn’t sound like an independent conclusion. This is why I’m in favour of an independent national ombudsman institution.’

To come back to the situation in Nijmegen, it all begins with a thorough, independent investigation, she says. Once it’s clear what is going on, the University must be prepared to attach consequences to it. In case of severe misconduct, it should for example be possible to fire the perpetrator(s).

Leaving

At the same time, there is plenty of work to be done to address the root cause and work on creating an inclusive, safe work culture, with no room for misconduct. ‘This means that you have make an investment. Not by hiring a diversity officer for half-a-day a week, but by raising a strong team and giving them the space they need to do their work.’

The first priority is raising awareness, says Naezer. Knowing what is wrong within the organisation and acknowledging the victims’ stories. In the end, a safe work environment also benefits the quality of academic work, she says. ‘As a university, you don’t want your talented staff members to leave for the wrong reasons.’

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