On Tuesday night, around 30 people calling themselves “Hold RUG Accountable” gathered at the University of Groningen to take on harassment and discrimination within the university. The group is calling for the institution to be more accountable in order to create a safer environment for students and staff.
By Sophie Pizzimenti and Edward Szekeres
During the meeting in the cafeteria of the Harmony Building, several dozen students and staff discussed university policies and devised suggestions for improving what organisers described as “the RUG´s inaction and passivity” within the subject of harassment and discrimination.
The Hold RUG Accountable group believes this is a crucial moment for the institution to take a stand against inappropriate behaviour. A press release prior to the meeting asserted that “the university has specific legal responsibilities and obligations for staff and for students regarding its duty of care to prevent harassment and discrimination.”
“Prevention is better than intervention” said Polish student Natalia Pierzchawka (28), who is one of the movement’s leaders. In her opening speech, she addressed the various forms of harassment and discrimination that people may unknowingly experience, highlighted the lack of understanding of inappropriate behaviour and the insufficient means of reporting abuse as the core problems that the movement will aim to address.
“People are still afraid to speak up”
Both international and Dutch students were in attendance and were given the opportunity to anonymously submit their own experiences with discrimination and harassment. “We just want a safe space where we can talk and easily report things,” Pierzchawka says. “People are still afraid to speak up.”
The meeting to raise awareness of these issues come after a series of scandals “highlighting the deeply rooted problem of harassment in academic spaces” at universities in Amsterdam and Nijmegen. On a local level, the meeting was prompted by a recent column from professor Gerrit Breeuwsma which used the Dutch word “knap” – a play on words which can mean either good-looking or clever – to describe two female academics. Pierzchawka felt the remark was “highly sexist”, and she was not alone: in a follow-up column, Breeuwsma addressed the ample criticism he received following publication. But Pierzchawka says it amounted to a non-apology that dismissed any concerns. “He feels invincible, and that is a problem,” she says.
‘Hold RUG Accountable’ intends to submit a dossier highlighting the shortcomings of existing policy to the university leadership. In addition to the personal anecdotes gathered at the meeting and recommendations for more effective policy and action, the group is preparing a report citing previous university statements, an evaluation of its Code of Conduct and its recently implemented zero-tolerance policy – upon completion, they intend to present their findings to professor Cisca Wijmenga, the next Rector Magnificus of the university.
Laura Baams, an assistant professor in the faculty of behavioural and social sciences at the university, was also at the meeting, and she emphasised the importance of making people aware that the existing policies and training are not up to the task. “Without training, people often don’t even know what is acceptable and what is not”, she says. In her previous workplace in the United States, Baams says that she received mandatory training about harassment-related issues. “It’s important to make people aware of what can be done. Right now, I am not sure about the next steps or how the university should respond, as they are not responding at all.”
As the meeting came to a close, another participant reflected on what she had learned about existing university policy, which left her feeling even more convinced that the institution can still do more. “I learned a lot of things I didn’t know before, like the existence of the code of conduct, and that staff have to go through training,” explains Stacey Lamptey, a law student from Ghana. “Right now, the university needs to listen to the students, listen to our suggestions, because we are the ones experiencing this.”
When approached for comment about the group’s concerns, RUG spokesperson Jorien Bakker said that inclusivity is a top priority at the university. “We are aware of instances of undesirable behaviour that sadly occur at the university, just like in any other organisation,” she says. “We want to be inclusive for all staff and students: that’s why we launched a series of introductory trainings and workshops in the past weeks where we invited staff and students to participate.”
Photo by Sophie Pizzimenti