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Study: handling of inappropriate behaviour complaints should be more independent and transparent

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The way Utrecht University handles complaints about sexual harassment and other forms of inappropriate behaviour no longer suffices. Two researchers who studied the procedure call for a more independent complaints committee, with a more transparent work method. They also state the university should pay more attention to the students and employees experiencing issues.

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The university committee that studies complaints about inappropriate behaviour and advises the UU board has to be better equipped for its task. The chairperson of that committee should be independent, and the members must receive better training. The complaints committee should also conduct additional research more often.

These are the conclusions of Eddy Bauw, UU Professor of Private Law, and Peter Schokker, partner of specialised research and advisory agency BING, in an evaluation report (available here in English and Dutch with your Solis-id. Scroll down for the English version).

The researchers claim that UU's complaints procedure is not worse than the ones adopted by other universities, but that doesn't mean we should be satisfied with what UU currently has. They also make recommendations for adjustments to the procedure itself, and to prevent and deal with inappropriate behaviour within the university.

Heavier cases
The UU asked Bauw and Schokker to analyse the university’s procedure after receiving a lot of criticism about the way a case concerning a Professor of Ethics was handled last year.

Although that specific case is not mentioned in the report, it does state that, given the increasing attention society is paying to these issues, the university can expect more of such complex cases in the near future. Up to a few years ago, the number of complaints was limited, but a clear increase is visible now, possibly boosted by the #metoo movement. 

The university’s Inappropriate Behaviour Committee received a total of seven complaints in both 2018 and 2019. In 2017, there was only one. The councillor for inappropriate behaviour also saw an increase in reports: from 43 in 2018 to 57 in 2019.

The researchers state that it’s highly likely that there’s “more at play”. Most reports don’t lead to formal complaints, often for fear of repercussions. Company doctors are also concerned. The relationship between PhD candidates and supervisors is said to be especially problematic.

That means a more ‘robust’ complaints procedure is needed, according to the researchers. After comparative literature research and twelve interviews, they conclude that the current complaints procedure is no different from other universities in terms of principles, methods, and composition of the committee. But it can and should be improved.

Committee should be more professional
First, the committee that assesses the complaints should be strengthened. The chairperson shouldn’t be a UU employee, but rather an independent, external expert. That person can act as a visible spokesperson to the committee, and take control of it.

For the members of the committee, a transparent appointment procedure should be implemented, in which the agreement of the co-determination council would be required. New members shouldn’t just be offered training, but also paid hours for their committee work. All these things are absent at the moment.

In the long run, the researchers suggest a shared committee for all universities. ”Under certain circumstances, that can offer economies of scale".

No strict nondisclosure agreement
The procedure itself has to be improved as well. Currently, the accused gets the chance to defend themselves against the accusations both in writing and verbally, but they don’t get to see the complete report before it’s sent to the Executive Board. That situation can lead the committee to issue wrong advice, warn the researchers.

Furthermore, unpleasant situations can occur at work because of the nondisclosure agreement all parties must adhere to. The researchers recommend to inform managers of the ongoing procedures whenever possible, so that they can inform their employees about it. That would help relieve unnecessary tensions.

The researchers also feel that the committee itself could do more additional research. At the moment, the investigation is often limited to interviews with the complainant, the defendant, and possible witnesses. No further investigation takes place, even though that could help in the quest for the truth.

The committee could also ask the Executive Board to take action, if necessary – by suspending a student or employee, for example. That would contribute to students and staff feeling safe. Lastly, all the hearings should be recorded.

An officer for inappropriate behaviour
Although it wasn’t part of the actual assignment, the researchers recommend lowering the threshold for students and employees to report inappropriate behaviour. Managers have to learn how to act in case of such issues, and the aftercare provided to the complainants and the accused deserves more attention. The researchers call for a special officer to work on these matters.

Additionally, all students and employees should be better informed about what constitutes inappropriate behaviour, and the issues that come with it. Right now, that is often unclear. The researchers suggest to use examples of (anonymised) in information sessions.

A great start
In a letter accompanying the report, the Executive Board promises to talk to the University Council, the Local Consultative Body, and the faculty deans about the contents of the report. The Board would like to adopt most suggestions for strengthening both the committee and the procedure.

The conversations will also address the report made by the Inappropriate Behaviour Task Force. Comprised of UU students and alumni, the group aims to improve the complaints procedure at the University, breaking the ‘culture of silence’ surrounding harassment and inappropriate behaviour.

Loes van der Woerdt, member of the University Council and the task force, isn’t impressed with the observation that the current UU complaints procedure is no different from the ones from other universities. “It’s like using a cookbook for disgusting cookies. You’re probably going to bake disgusting cookies”.

But the changes suggested in the report are “a great start”, she says. “We recognise the call for more independence and more transparency in the procedures”.

Not enough
Still, van der Woerdt doesn't think the researchers take things far enough. For example, Bauw and Schokker don’t advise the university to allow anonymous complaints, and they don’t see the need for extending the three-year statute of limitations, two measures the task force is calling for. The task force also recommends the university to conduct mandatory investigations within a group of colleagues in case of a report, but that's not mentioned in the report either.

Van der Woerdt also laments that the researchers didn’t speak to any victims of harassment or inappropriate behaviour. Bauw and Schokker found that wouldn't fit with their assignment, not to mention the response would be too small for a representative study, considering the small number of cases and the expected reluctance to speak among those involved. “But it’s the victims who can tell you exactly what goes wrong", ponders van der Woerdt.

The council member hopes that the report will lead to concrete changes. “At the moment, students and employees are often told to figure it out themselves, but it’s in everyone’s interest that this issue is taken care of properly”.

Rector Henk Kummeling says the report is meticulous and contains valuable suggestions for improving the complaints procedure. He’s also happy with the recommendations for improving safety at the university. “At the end of the day, we’d prefer it not to be necessary for people to contact the complaints committee”.

“The researchers compared the procedure in place at UU with the procedures adopted by other Dutch universities and organisations. It looks like our complaints procedure is pretty much the norm. We’re doing things the way they’re done elsewhere, too”, states Kummeling.

But he also acknowledges that the report makes it clear that the current procedure isn’t enough. The researchers expect the UU to face more and more complex cases in the near future, so it needs to invest much more to improve the quality of its complaints procedure. “To that end, the researchers have made some excellent recommendations, such as appointing an external chairperson”.

Should the Executive Board itself do things differently?
“In some cases, the Board deviated from the advice given by the Inappropriate Behaviour committee. The researchers tell us we should be very careful in doing so. If there’s any doubt about the committee’s work, we should send that advice back to the committee or consult external experts, as well as refraining from conducting any additional investigation ourselves. That’s an important suggestion, but it’s also tricky: by law, the Board has its own responsibility”.

Do the many recommendations lead to the conclusion that the complaints procedure isn’t any good at the moment?
“The researchers never said the committee does not do a good job, or that wrong decisions have been made. But there are several points where we can improve. It’s clear that something has to happen now”.

The researchers also call for the UU to have a structured approach toward inappropriate behaviour. How big is the problem, really?
“Everybody knows that, in all organisations and companies where there are hierarchical relations, issues with harassment or other kinds of inappropriate behaviour takes place. That's a fact. I can’t say whether the problem is worse at universities compared to elsewhere. But, in any case, we do know that there’s more happening than what we can see at the moment. We want everyone who works at this university to feel safe. If they don’t, then that has to become clear as soon as possible. At the end of the day, we’d prefer it not to be necessary for people to contact the complaints committee”.

What do you think of the researchers’ recommendation to appoint a special officer?
“Right now, we're looking to assess in which ways we can guarantee that everyone feels safe at the university, and then suggest ideas. Such an officer could be one idea. On the other hand, we already have three types of councillors, and we’ll soon have an ombudsman as well. For employees, the most important thing is that we have a single point of contact, and that they know they can seek help there.

“The same holds true when it comes to the proposal to enable anonymous complaints, as suggested by the Task Force. We, members of the Executive Board, are actually a bit hesitant about that idea. You don’t want to have a situation in which employees have to defend themselves from anonymous accusations. But we’ve heard that perhaps there is a way to process anonymous complaints while also relieving our concerns. We’ll be looking at that, too.

“We’re taking this issue very seriously. It’s also a long-term project. It’s not something you solve just by making some changes to the regulations”.

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