Statement | Complaining can also contribute to insecurity

The role and importance of procedures for assessing whether ‘cross-border behaviour’ has occurred is highlighted in the KNAW report ‘Social security in Dutch science’. This is an omission because the option to appeal is an important and necessary tool. At the same time, that possibility can be a new source of insecurity.

In addition to the legal framework (which of course also applies to the university), the university formulates more specific behavioral standards in the form of codes of conduct. Cross-border behavior is only when boundaries are crossed that are designated as such by a code of conduct. It is of course part of academic freedom that one can criticize this code of conduct – and this can be done in a very violent way. However, one can expect that the development of the code of conduct will in principle take place in line with the legal framework and areas of responsibility within the university. And it is a central principle of social security that people can only be ‘judged’ by established norms of behavior that define the boundaries between acceptable and transgressive behaviour.

Code of conduct

A code of conduct does not express itself abstractly about ‘social insecurity’, so that everyone can interpret for themselves what makes them feel insecure. A code, on the other hand, prohibits certain types of actions, such as intimidation, discrimination, bullying and abuse of power, which can be assumed to result in social insecurity. Only such actions count as “transgressive conduct”.

If one finds it acceptable to complain about ‘insecurity’ in general or only on the basis of one’s own sense of insecurity, without such specified types of actions, then the possibility of complaining itself becomes a source of social insecurity. Because anyone can use complaints about insecurity as an instrument to bully others, something that the code of conduct strongly forbids. Only exceeding established behavioral norms constitutes transgressive behaviour.

Also read: Social security is quickly becoming an unsafe topic

How should complaints be handled? To begin with, there is a need for a delimitation of what type of complaints may be dealt with by a university at all. It may only be a university procedure in cases where the accusations are not criminally relevant. When it concerns physical violence or threats, bribery, rape or any form of intimacy without consent, the university must not investigate such a complaint itself, but must report it to the police.

The discussion about sexual abuse within the Catholic Church was primarily about the question of whether a church may investigate this on its own initiative and the answer is very clear: no, it is never allowed in principle.

The fact that it is not possible to know in advance which party is right or what is going on requires an impartial handling of complaints. It is of central importance that the assessment of the complaints takes place independently of any consideration of the university’s reputation.

Reputational concerns can lead to the university protecting an employee or, conversely, taking a strict approach

Reputational concerns may lead to the university wanting to hold a hand over an employee’s head, or to show its determination by acting sternly. All of this provides good reasons to always move on to external and independent research. It should be standard.

Independent review

Because it is possible for the executive board (CvB), the management of a university, to make a decision based on reputational considerations, there must be the possibility of appeal and independent review of the decision within a constitutional procedure by a body outside the university itself.

There is currently no such option. You can think of a nationally functioning committee analogous to the appeals committee in matters of scientific integrity (LOWI), you can think of a specific disciplinary court, but in the case of serious accusations, a real judge would also be desirable.

The existence of a reliable grievance procedure is also important because academics, such as a PhD student, need to be able to trust that their complaint of abuse or harassment will be investigated without the university wanting to hold the accused out of harm’s way. A researcher or teacher must be able to trust that he or she will be held accountable only for his or her own wrongdoings and that no sham trial will be conducted in the service of improving university culture.

The reliability of the procedure forms the basis for guaranteeing social security. As far as is known, research into the work of complaints committees in recent years does not provide sufficient reason to believe that this reliability currently exists. The system of handling complaints and handling accusations can therefore in itself be a source of insecurity.

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