‘People are done with misconduct’

Coversation with ombudsperson Jacqueline Schoone about a WUR’s more ugly side.
‘The norm has shifted. You don’t have to put up with transgressive behaviour anymore. And you can expect your colleagues or fellow students to stand up for you.’ Photo Guy Ackermans

Abuse of power, intimidation, bullying: as an ombudsperson Jacqueline Schoone is familiar with WUR’s ugliest side. She analyses where the fault lies with the system and what can be done about it. She will publish a new report soon. What are the trends, what has she noticed?

‘People still find it difficult to call each other to account for unacceptable behaviour, at WUR like anywhere else. And transgressive behaviour is still often dismissed under the guise of affection: “oh well, he’s just an oddball”, or “she didn’t mean it like that”. But unacceptable behaviour that is condoned can continue and get worse. Fortunately, I do see a change. Misconduct is being tolerated less and less. People are done with it, they want it to stop.’

Enormous impact

‘A lot of the complaints come from the work floor. That fits in with a broader social trend. The Voice of Holland scandal has had an enormous impact. Everyone now realizes how destructive and appalling an unsafe environment is. The norm has shifted. You don’t have to put up with transgressive behaviour anymore. And you are allowed to expect your colleagues or fellow students to stand up for you. An unsafe environment has gone from being an individual’s problem to being a collective task. I’ve even heard people who have “made it” and haven’t needed to worry about repercussions for a long time say that they can no longer justify not doing anything about it. Looking the other way is just not on anymore. That is a fantastic development.’

More reports

‘I expect the number of reports to increase significantly. There is less and less reluctance to report an incident. People can stand up for themselves better, supported by society’s changing views on what is and is not okay – not to mention the labour market. Not so long ago, if you wanted a good career, you had to accept an unsafe environment because it was supposedly “all in the game”. That has been completely overturned. The excellent KNAW (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences) report on this states that personal safety is a precondition for scientific quality.’

Personal safety becomes an employer’s asset

‘I’d like to go a step further: personal safety will become an employer’s asset. Universities will soon be judged by their employees on what they do about safety and job satisfaction. Not enough? Then people will go elsewhere. There is a growing awareness that you don’t have to work in an unsafe environment. People feel they deserve better than that. Managers will also be called to account more emphatically and held responsible for doing something about it. One of my recommendations is to equip them better for this.’


‘Relatively few reports are received from students, although fortunately they do find their way to the confidential counsellors. The number of reports has increased somewhat since the introduction of the guideline on who you can contact for what, but in my opinion, there’s still room for improvement. This is a familiar pattern, also at other universities.’

The new generation of students is a lot more alert and assertive

‘Students mainly report incidents out of a sense of responsibility, to prevent other students from getting hurt. When it comes to themselves, their own interests, they often opt for a way out that isn’t available to staff members and PhD students: sitting out the problem behaviour until the course is finished, because after that you never have to see that person again. No, that doesn’t solve anything, but students can’t always face the hassle of reporting a problem. Having said that, I do notice that the new generation of students is a lot more alert and assertive. They won’t be pushed around – and rightly so.’

Extra helpdesk

‘This autumn WUR will have an extra reporting point. It is an additional ‘reception desk’ and the reports are simply passed on to the regular channels. But it means the victims don’t have to find out first where exactly they should go. People can also report to the new helpdesk anonymously, if necessary. By making it as easy as possible to report incidents, we hope to bring as many as possible to light.

I have sometimes described submitting a formal complaint to WUR as “an almost impossible step”, because the procedure is formidable in some respects. It is not easy to make a formal complaint: you have to provide evidence, and you risk a discussion about whether your complaint is well-founded or not. And then there is the requirement in the complaints regulations that a complainant must have exhausted “all informal avenues” before a complaint can be dealt with. That could be made easier and safer, I think. I do see the strong points, though. For example, while a complaint is being handled, the defendant and the complainant do not have to meet face to face. For many complainants, that is a great relief. But on the whole, there is too much of an underlying assumption in the complaints procedure that “we should be able to work things out together as reasonable people”. That is generally true, but excesses call for a firmer approach. Someone who repeatedly displays a pattern of intimidatory or sexually transgressive behaviour may well deserve to have a formal complaint lodged against them. Transgressive behaviour should have consequences.’

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