How effective is the University of Groningen’s “Just Ask” social safety campaign?
The university’s recent campaign focuses on raising awareness of the bystander. Is it really the right message to meaningfully improve social safety?
In April of this year, the University of Groningen launched a long-planned social safety campaign, calling on witnesses of socially unsafe situations to speak up and “just ask” about it. The past months have also seen much uproar around the firing of Susanne Täuber, a social safety advocate, which she argues is due to an article critical of the UG that she published.
But does the message of this campaign put an undue burden on students and staff to call out issues, instead of keeping the focus on policy makers who could improve conditions on an institutional level?
Social safety protests
Social safety has long been a topic of conversation within the halls of the University of Groningen. New reports and new policies seeking to improve the situation are regularly released and implemented, only to be followed by new complaints, issues and impasses.
Those discussions had remained largely internal until the case of professor Susanne Täuber gained so much attention that it became not just the talk of the town, but a debate well beyond The Netherlands.
What happened to professor Täuber? She was an associate professor in organisational behaviour at the Faculty of Economics and Business at the University of Groningen who went to court to fight against her firing over a damaged working relationship. The conflict with her faculty begun as she published a scientific article about social safety situation at the UG.
There have been multiple protests supporting her, both before and after the court decision to support the university. On the 8th of March, Täuber received the verdict: the UG could legally fire her – but the activist movement did not stop there.
#AmINext, one of the protest groups, launched an open letter with 4,000 signatures demanding that the professor be reinstated.
Students and some supportive staff members have also occupied the Academy Building twice, demanding that social safety issues be taken seriously by the university board.
Although the university cannot comment on individual cases, such as Täuber’s, the first occupation did result in an agreement. In the joint statement with the protesters from 22nd of March, the university board agreed to switch to a more victim-based approach. Complaints handling should not “cause further emotional damage to the victim”.
But the second occupation – where protestors focused solely on a non-negotiable demand of reinstating Täuber – ended when police officers forcefully and, as shown in video footage of the incident, in some cases violently removed the occupiers.
Täuber’s case has taken on symbolic importance, but a recent employee survey at the RUG suggests that it could just be the tip of an iceberg of broader, structural problems. As the Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences’s (KNAW) report on social safety in Dutch academia has shown, the issue at hand is complex – and ubiquitous.
The formal complaints procedure also leaves most people who file a complaint disappointed: only 15% of respondents agreed that their complaint was handled to their satisfaction. The latest employee survey also paints a rather grim picture: about 40% of those seeing undesired behaviour did not report it, of whom 30% said that kept quiet because they had no confidence in the procedure, and another 24% cited fear of repercussions.
Even though the university’s confidential advisor and the ombudsperson jointly receive around 200 complaints a year, only the new ones, appearing in the current year are counted in the report. The problems in the complaints have often been going on for several years, remain ongoing issues while the complaint is being processed, and affect multiple people.
“To have an idea of the scale of the problem, you should multiply it by ten”, argues a representative from Organise the RUG, who wished to stay anonymous due to their position at the university. Given that 40% of witnessed incidents go unreported, that could mean more than 2,000 people who have been socially unsafe in the span of the last year.
According to the Young Academy Groningen (YAG) report, victims of social safety issues are frequently members of specific intersectional groups: a typical profile of someone who would file a report is a foreign-born woman who is dependent on her superior, for example a PhD candidate. What’s more, as the report adds, those who complain about socially unsafe situations are likely to be seen as a troublemaker instead of a victim of abuse.
But are Dutch universities in general and the UG specifically structurally socially unsafe places? In the national report (KNAW), workplace culture that does not allow for discussing behaviour of superiors, even when it is inappropriate, is cited as one of the main factors. As Carolijn Winnubst, the university’s ombudsperson, put it in her report, she “regularly encounters the ‘don’t air your dirty laundry in public’ attitude”.
Less financing – more tensions
The situation also seems to vary from one faculty to the next, often in tandem with their financial status. There is, for instance, a substantial difference in the number of ombudsperson’s reports across faculties. The Faculty of Arts (25 reports, striking compared to its size) and Campus Fryslân (11%) are notoriously high compared to, say, law or sciences.
According to a member of Organise the RUG, in faculties where there is more financing, jobs are more abundant and working conditions are less precarious: “usually it goes with resources”. “Because of the limited resources that they have they start doing a lot of temporary contracts, they make it difficult for people and then the people get stressed and this stress leads to disagreements.”
In an effort to explain the root cause of protests at the RUG, Dagblad van het Noorden pointed to the stress of financing cuts recently experienced by Dutch universities: more conflicts arise where jobs are precarious.
The combination of contracts being hard to come by, faculty budgets that are too low to sustain their existing structure and the threat of lay offs hanging over their heads means that job vacancies and promotions are more coveted than ever – and translated into an environment more prone to nepotism, power abuse and general conflicts. As the Organise the RUG member explains, in more financed, settled faculties “it’s not like people get temporary positions because we don’t know what the budget is like next year. This already reduces the reasons for tensions and tensions of course cause problems.”
As the Organise the RUG member explains, of course not all complaints rise into a serious conflict. There are many good managers who will simply take the hint and adjust their behaviour. There are others whose behaviour is not serious or bothersome enough to their subordinates to cause much harm.
But in such a large institution as the RUG, with over 6,000 employees, there are bound to be some managers whose behaviour sparks conflict. There will always be a few cases of socially unsafe behaviour in an organisation on such scale, so the question then becomes how those cases are handled, and how to make to prevent undesirable behaviour from occurring.
Hierarchy and failed mediations
The employment structure of the UG does not help nip the appearing issues in the bud. In the recent employee survey, 24% of those who chose not to report undesired behaviour did so because they feared retaliations.
Multiple sources cite hierarchy as a source of trouble. Both the YAG report and the ombudsperson’s report identify power structures as a potential issue with social safety: “all victims were dependent on their perpetrator” (YAG report) and “the reports tend to concern a tricky dependency relationship and/or a considerable power imbalance” (ombudsperson’s report). According to the YAG report, one of considerable social safety issues is “power abuse or aggression from a direct superior”, which makes victims prone to “harassment (exclusion, restriction, bullying) in a process of (applying for or being granted) a promotion”. A member of Organise the RUG pointed out that some sort of revenge on the victim is possible exactly because of the vertical structure of the university.
The university’s current complaint procedure works in a way that seems to make matters worse rather than improving them. Before any other steps, the person filing the complaint is required to at least try mediation with their accused perpetrator. While this approach can be beneficial and solve some minor conflict, mediation often amounts to an unnecessary and potentially traumatic experience of being confronted by the person who has made them feel unsafe.
According to the Organise the RUG member, the university policies on social safety protecting the person filing the complaint exist only on paper: in practice, it’s just “going after an informant as soon as the boss finds out their identity”.
The YAG report also states clearly that in most cases, “complaints are typically managed in a way that protects the perpetrators and re-victimizes the reporters of misconduct.”. And as “retaliation against victims is common”, mediation often facilitates it as it reveals the reporter’s identity to the one they reported about.
While the university board agreed to a more victim-based approach following the first occupation of the Academy Building, according to the UKrant, protesters say that the UG quickly walked back that assertion and doubled down on mediation.
While the complaint filer’s identity is often known to the person they complained about, the big picture on social safety procedures and their outcome is often invisible. There is a certain degree of secrecy when it comes to complaints procedures at the UG, which goes well beyond university officials declining to comment on Täuber’s personal case.
The ombudsperson can say little about the specifics of her work due to the policy of protecting the individual accused: she cannot reveal any details about the investigation she just started, even though she, as UKrant reported, acknowledges that “more transparency would be a good thing” in her job. The ombudsperson’s report was only discussed with the university council behind closed doors.
Not everyone feels safe enough to speak freely about social safety: in the process of reporting on this story, some sources only agreed to speak anonymously, or declined to comment at all. Some UG employees fear that their critical comments might negatively impact their career in the future.
UB’s response to the issue
Even though the spokesperson of the UB acknowledges that social safety is a common challenge they have been working on for years, they rarely comment on the broader, structural issue, instead preferring to talk about the recent campaign.
Anja Hulshof, the university board’s spokesperson, concedes that the “just ask” campaign “is not a solution” in itself, she did not respond to any other questions concerning the structural issues from The Northern Times. Instead, she points to the campaign’s second phase that is about to be released, and states broadly that “steps are already being made in the right direction to further improve social safety within RUG and we continue to work on it”.
As the university declines to comment on questions about Täuber’s case, citing privacy and legal reasons, the ongoing social safety campaign is effectively the only public response to the recent uproar and social safety-related issues.
Instead of addressing possible solutions for structural problems, the campaign’s “see something, say something” approach seems to effectively place the responsibility on the shoulders of students and staff rather than putting it in the hands of policy makers.