Surely the most shocking thing about the chronicle of (self) deceit and abuse at the UvA Law Faculty described in the NRC yesterday, is that it’s not a shocking exception. The university’s hierarchical structure and the mechanisms it has in place for fighting abuse of power, sexism, marginalization and exclusion, have long been shown to be insufficient. Indeed, they are part of the problem.

Report after report, external and internal, and the reality on the ground all confirm that the Vertouwenpersoon (VP) system is worthless in fighting abuse of power at the UvA. When the VP is a volunteer only meant to be a confidential ear; when VP’s aggregate and cleansed reports only get sent up the hierarchy not down; and when those in power can easily ignore it, we have all the makings of an untrustworthy system when it comes to detecting and reporting abuse. The threshold is too high, as the blank personnel dossier in Prof. B.’s case attests, despite fifteen years of repeated abuses. The aggregation of the same blank reports is what the CvB holds up as evidence for a healthy work environment and a job well done.

We demand change. Acknowledgment of the problem and immediate, structural change. Without recognition that what happened with prof. B is symptomatic of a corrupted system, no one will dare to come out and share their experiences, no matter how devastating, since no one is really listening and willing to change. As some of the (ex) colleagues of Prof. B. tragically admitted, they would rather look for another job than file a formal complaint. They are not alone, to say the least. Wringing our hangs isn’t enough. The UvA CvB is hypocritical in saying that such behavior is intolerable while at the same time perpetuating the very system making it possible.

The irony of power abuse is nowhere as strong as at the public university. When our students and colleagues walk down the university halls, afraid to speak their mind, how would we expect them to do the same in the classroom and grow, emotionally and intellectually? Or is it simply that the much-vaunted “twenty-first-century skills” we seek to promote are nothing but fear, compliance and subordination?

We call on the CvB to stop pretending they are shocked; from faculty deans and administrative managers and HR personnel to stop pretending they are caught off guard with egregious abuse. Blank reports of abuse in a hierarchical system should be the very first sign of trouble, not a cause to celebrate.

The cup is full. Our work environment is unsafe and needs to change:

  1. Let’s give voice and agency to those who have been abused and intimidated, or who have witnessed or suspect it, and let them have recourse to an independent body with legally binding executive power. For obvious reasons, and to avoid repeating the dire mistakes of the past, this body must exercise downwards accountability to the university community through its representatives, not its managers, and its scope and procedures will only be determined by the university community, including the action groups, not the CvB and not only the CoR;
  2. Beyond developing a robust legal procedure, we should improve our work environment according to each faculty’s needs and effect cultural change through proactive dialog and allyship among the UvA community’s various members.

CvB, if you don’t take care of this now, a PR crisis will be the least of your worries. Be accountable to us, not the government or the media. Let’s be an example for how a public institution can run, by listening and acting upon the insights of those who feel threatened and excluded.

CvB, we call on you to publicly and fully consent to the two points made above by Monday at 5pm. Dragging your feet and calling for further dialog will no longer do. If by 5pm on Monday concrete steps will not be taken to meet these urgent needs of the entire university community, we will mobilize and organize to protect ourselves from an increasingly toxic work environment, with leaders who are intentionally blind to their colleagues’ plight. No ranking table or charm campaign will make this go away.

On behalf of ReThink UvA,