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“Even if we don’t address each other formally, the PhD student-supervisor relationship is very hierarchical”

“Even if we don’t address each other formally, the PhD student-supervisor relationship is very hierarchical”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes

Ombudsman at UM: 50 cases in nine months

The majority of the fifty cases UM ombudsman Anna Soedira has been presented with since February 2019 concerned conflicts between employees and their bosses – PhD students and their supervisors in particular. Some of these are still under investigation, whereas others have been resolved. Some solutions left all parties satisfied, whereas others didn’t.

Ombudsman and legal expert Anna Soedira has a small office on the ground floor of an expansion of Sint Servaasklooster 32. Since 1 February 2019, she’s the person UM employees can turn to for help with employment disputes, which may involve assessment, dismissal, returning to work after illness, or supervision. The position of ombudsman (a Swedish word in which ‘man’ refers to ‘person’) was introduced by the Local Consultative Body (Lokaal Overleg). With the approval of the employee in question, the ombudsman can independently investigate the matter, initiate mediation and provide independent advice for the Executive Board to act on. These are the major differences between the ombudsman and the confidential advisor, who focuses on complaints about inappropriate behaviour, always supports the employee in question and doesn’t have investigative powers or a right to information.

Impartial

The ombudsman is independent and impartial, stresses Soedira, who works at UM twenty hours per week. “You could say I’m biased to both sides. I try to find reasonable solutions with the two parties involved.” There have been fifty cases so far. Is that a lot? She has no idea, she says. We pose the same question to her counterpart at Utrecht University, Paul Herfs, who has been staff ombudsman at UU for years now. “I had almost 200 clients last year. UU has considerably more employees than UM. In my opinion, 50 cases in nine months proves the value of having an ombudsman at Maastricht University.”

It’s mainly PhD students who turn to Soedira. “Some have felt abandoned for a long time when they’re suddenly told their work isn’t good enough. Others hear their contract won’t be extended when they’ve almost completed their PhD, meaning they have to leave without their degree. Or there’s something wrong with the way they’re treated. Even if we don’t address each other formally, the PhD student-supervisor relationship is very hierarchical. Your supervisor decides whether or not you’ll get your degree. That’s a significant difference from your average boss.” 

Miracle worker

Soedira has noticed that people tend to wait a long time before reaching out to the ombudsman. “I can’t do anything until people come to me. I’m not a miracle worker, but that’s when we can start looking for ways to resolve the issue.” Unfortunately, many people only turn to her when a lot has already happened. “Some cases are about situations that have been going on for years. If there’s a lot of bad blood between people, mediation becomes more difficult and time-consuming. I’d like to sit down with those people at an early stage.” Sometimes, the person who files the complaint doesn’t give permission to talk to the other party. “In those situations, there’s not much I can do. But it helps them anyway. They feel heard, which often gives them room to move on or make a decision.” 

Zero tolerance

Soedira thinks it’s important that UM has all kinds of procedures, including complaints procedures, although they do have to be followed, of course. “You can’t do anything without rules. I admire the Executive Board’s zero-tolerance policy regarding inappropriate behaviour. It’s a start that will hopefully lead to a culture of calling out certain behaviour in each other. Expressing a zero-tolerance policy helps with that. Stopping inappropriate behaviour will take more, though. I think we need to start looking differently at the way power is exercised. UM is a hierarchical organisation. Hierarchy entails power. We need to look at how people in leadership positions – not just PhD supervisors, but also the people who run service centres, for example – deal with that power. It’s about them becoming aware of the power they have and using it the right way. This is already happening; I’ve seen it happen in my work as well. I’m thinking of a boss who excused an employee from certain activities so that he could follow a training course or seek therapy, allowing him to feel better and subsequently perform better at work.”

There’s no waiting list for the ombudsman; you’ll usually be able to sit down with her within two weeks of contacting her. Soedira says it’s not always possible to reach a solution that leaves all parties satisfied. “Sometimes someone has to leave UM, unfortunately.” This is why it’s so important that the procedure is properly followed, “that everyone involved is treated with respect and feels heard and seen”.

If you have any questions or complaints, please contact Anna Soudira at anna.soedira@maastrichtuniversity.nl.

Staff ombudsman: not all universities have one

Both Utrecht University and the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam have had a staff ombudsman for a while now. Maastricht University, Delft University of Technology, the University of Twente and Erasmus University Rotterdam all created the position quite recently, says Paul Herfs, ombudsman at UU. The University of Amsterdam also has plans to appoint an ombudsman.

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