Board on removed professor: ‘We should have acted much earlier’
The fact that a Leiden professor has engaged in years of abuse of power, gender discrimination and intimidation should have been identified earlier, says the president of the Executive Board, Annetje Ottow. ‘I’m mortified.’
Sebastiaan van Loosbroek
Friday 21 October 2022

The Board broke the news itself, but has not disclosed the identity of the professor in question. Why did you not mention the name?
‘We have no choice, as the Dutch privacy legislation stipulates that we’re not allowed to mention names. We think it’s incredibly important to be transparent whenever we can and to show that we don’t tolerate this. At the same time, we are very much bound by the privacy regulations because this concerns a person and employee. Hence, I can’t say anything that can be traced back to this person.’

When did you receive the complaints?
‘In May, the dean – I won’t name the faculty nor the institute – was approached by a group of four female notifiers. Several witnesses came forward as well, both male and female. The dean took the matter very seriously and reported it to the Board that same day.

‘Shortly after, we talked to the individual in question, after which we suspended him and denied him access to all university premises. The safety of the complainants was our top priority, we wanted to show them that we were doing everything in our power to ensure their safety.

‘On 31 May, we instructed the Complaints Committee for Unacceptable Behaviour to start an investigation. On 6 October, we received the investigation report. We then talked to the accused and informed the Board of Governors. On 18 October, we established that the misconduct had indeed taken place as described by the committee. Then, we took the final decision to go ahead with the suspension and deny the individual in question all access to the premises. He will never ever be welcome at this university again.’

What did the accused have to say regarding the allegations?
‘I’m not going to comment on that, that pertains to the person.’

He has been suspended but not dismissed. Why is that?
‘Since the committee has also found that the academic integrity of this professor is indisputable, there are no grounds to strip him of his professorship. We’re simply saying that, due to his behaviour, he is no longer welcome at this university.’

So he can continue his work at home?
‘He is still allowed to do research in a personal capacity, and mention that he is a professor or professor emeritus at Leiden University. However, he must make it clear in his external actions that he is not acting as a professor on behalf of Leiden University. He is also no longer allowed to teach at this university. That is quite a severe measure.’

The complainants and witnesses are all staff members. Does this mean no students were involved?
‘In general terms, you can say that; there are no students among the complainants and witnesses, but we’re not ruling out the possibility that students may also have witnessed his undesirable behaviour.’

How was it possible for him to intimidate colleagues for years?
‘First of all, I was deeply saddened after talking to the complainants and I feel terrible about the fact that this has happened. I’m mortified. But I’m going to be frank: the organisation and university should have recognised this earlier and taken action sooner. The committee came to the same conclusion.

‘We are going to discuss with the institute in question how we can improve social safety and the working climate and how we can pick up signals in the workplace earlier. After that, we want to talk to the deans to see if we’re alert enough to this kind of behaviour.’

The Board has been dealing with this issue for some time now. Why is this not sufficient?
‘In terms of the formal aspect, everything is in order: we have confidential counsellors, an Ombudsman, a complaints regulation and complaints committees. However, simply establishing a reporting desk for people to contact is not enough.

‘Because you can’t just say to the complainants: we have so many places for you to report, why didn’t you come to us earlier? The point is that the behaviour is wrong. As an employer, you have an obligation to provide a safe working environment and you have to organise the system accordingly.

‘So there are still steps we can take when it comes to prevention. We want to do this by focusing more on professional support and by better equipping managers and employees. For instance, we need to give managers more training in how to deal with employees who are experiencing problems with colleagues and how these problems can then be resolved. We have to improve the way we conduct those conversations.

‘But this also includes questions on how to deal with social safety, what to pay attention to as a manager and how to address each other.

‘We’re also working on recognition and appreciation, which should no longer just be about landing large grants and prizes. Research has to become more of a team effort. All this cannot simply be changed overnight.’