The news of malpractice at Psychology broke in the morning and in the afternoon, Rector Carel Stolker addressed an audience of ninety staff, confidential counsellors and specialists at a conference on the university’s safe working climate in the PLNT building.
“You’ve read about a new case in Leiden”, he said, referring to this matter, “in which young scientists reported an instance of malpractice and became co-complainants, after a difficult journey. Today, we would like to hear how we can make it easier for them. The question is: are we in control? How do we know whether things are alright? Could we have discovered it sooner? And when does the desire to be the best in the world become a mild or more serious form of tyranny?”
Since the discovery of the culture of fear and academic fraud at Educational Sciences and the poisoned atmosphere at the Leiden Institute of Area Studies (LIAS), the University Council have been pressing the Executive Board to appoint an ombuds officer for the staff.
However, Stolker reported that the Board won’t hear of it: the Executive Board prefers to rely on the confidential counsellors already employed by the university. Most of the audience seem to have a different opinion: when Job van Luyken, Delft University’s ombuds officer, asked, during his presentation, who is in favour of appointing an officer, most people raised their hands. Among them was Executive Board member Rolf Oosterloo and Dean Paul Wouters from the Social Sciences Faculty, the scene of both the psychology and educational sciences issues.
Whether an ombuds officer is appointed or other measures are taken, discussions among the audience proved that many feel that the current system of confidential counsellors does not suffice. There is also a need for better communication. It is not clear to whom people can turn with a complaint; often, they do not know how a confidential counsellor can help them or they are afraid of reporting any malpractice. The confidential counsellors have a duty to guarantee anonymity and, as a result, they cannot do much with the messages they receive.
Nadia Garnefski, the confidential counsellor for personnel matters, says: “You observe a lot of things, but who is going to conduct an independent investigation? That’s the part that’s missing.” “Even for a confidential counsellor, who promises anonymity”, adds Piet Boer, the confidential counsellor for inappropriate behaviour. “They don’t even want me to know who it is, which makes it very hard to do anything about it. It shows that people are very frightened of the consequences of reporting something: dismissal or not being able to get their PhD.”
Judge and Leiden Professor of Employment Law, Gerrard Boot, reported the transgressive behaviour of Amsterdam professor “B”, which in the end lead to that legal expert’s dismissal from the university. Boot believes in the added value of such officers, he says.
“In my experience, a lot of people are embarrassed about reporting such behaviour, and very frightened, because, as the victim, you don’t know what’s going to happen. The chances are that very little is done about it and if people find out about it, things might not bode well for you. The person who is accused of such behaviour must be able to defend him or herself too, you see.”
The University of Amsterdam’s interim ombuds officer, Jacqueline Schoone, has noticed that her position allows her a lot of freedom to speak to a dean or head about a report without mentioning any names.
“People don’t want to lodge a complaint. They just want it to stop. They want their workplace to be safe again and for things to be as they were. I’m the friendly stranger and I give binding advice on the matter. I have at least some power of escalation. If I stick with it and nothing happens, I can take it to the Executive Board. And as a last resort, I can start my own investigation.”
At Delft University of Technology, the pilot with ombuds officer Job van Luyken seems to be working, as Delft’s HR Director added from the audience: “In recent months, he’s had more reports than all our confidential counsellors put together.”