“Space must be created in order to be able to say: ‘We don’t want to see that behaviour here”

“Space must be created in order to be able to say: ‘We don’t want to see that behaviour here”

Professor and PhD student on misconduct at the UM

15-09-2021

“That you had the courage to do that.” When PhD student Katherine Bassil called a professor to account about the “bullying remarks” he made towards her (see box) in January 2021, she received many reactions. Positive ones – so good of you to speak your mind – but also negative ones – how dare you attack someone of his status. She received support from Daniel van den Hove, professor of Neuroepigenetics. There was radio silence on the part of the university. This has to change, they feel and so they have both taken action in their own way to draw attention to misconduct, work ethics, and the standards of how we treat each other at the UM.

Bassil started a blog: Speak Up UM. Bullying, harassment, unreasonable demands or crappy remarks; students and employees can post it on the blog. “But also good moments; the title is ‘the good, the bad and the ugly,’” says Bassil. “The idea is not to accuse people or to gossip – that is why all stories are anonymised – but it is to make the university aware of how some people treat others.”

Bassil thinks that a lot doesn’t reach the boards and management. “I just happen to be the kind of person who speaks out about this type of thing, but that is not the same for everyone. People hesitate to approach someone of a certain status, they may not know how to find the confidential advisor, maybe they feel uncomfortable speaking about their experience to someone strange or they realise – if they do submit a complaint – that nothing will be done with it.”

Immune

She has seen it several times at the various universities where she has worked: those who are high up enough are seldom corrected. “They seem to be immune. Only after there has been some huge incident, action will be taken. While many minor incidences together amount to a lot.” 

Bassil mentions an example that has already appeared on her site. A PhD student wrote that their boss feels that they don’t work ‘hard enough’, because they actually stop work 17:00 hrs. “Now they send e-mails with a scheduled delay so that it seems as if they are still at their computer,” says Bassil. “Others often say to people like them: hang on in there, only another couple of years and you are done. That way, the real problem continues to exist.”

Lead by example

What does Bassil want to achieve with her blog? “First of all, that people speak their minds, it all starts there. That is not happening at the moment. After that, it would be great if the university did something with it. What do people feel is a normal working attitude, a healthy work ethic? Show what the standard is. I thought, for example, that it was really good of the university that they sent an e-mail before the summer in which they said ‘Your holidays are to rest, not for answering e-mails.’”

She realised that these are small steps. “But we can make a start now. A project such as Recognition and Rewards needs time before it gets underway; we don’t need to wait on that. The pressure on PhD students is high, the number of researchers with mental health problems is increasing. Let’s do something now.”

Openness

Openness, that is where it starts, says Daniel van den Hove, professor of Neuroepigenetics, as well. He wrote a policy document, one that he has also offered to several committees and councils and rector Rianne Letschert. The title: Misconduct at Maastricht University; Acknowledge, Act and Lead by Example.

“Firstly, the cultural change has already been started. You can see that the UM wants to take the lead. Even having a discussion on this subject is not possible at some other institutes. But things could always be better. There is an inclination to keep complaints small and quiet. I understand that, but I think it is much more powerful to acknowledge that misconduct also happens here. Be honest and open about it. Show how you deal with a complaint. That also has a preventative character: people see that you don’t get away with certain kinds of behaviour here.”

Daring to say no

Van den Hove thinks that the university should make it clear what behaviour is desirable and which is not. “I don’t believe that people who carry out misconduct always have harmful intentions. Many have learned in the same way. They think: ‘I have had to fight for it, so it is normal.’ Certain manners may result in a slow build-up of an unreasonable amount of pressure, where there is no room for people to say no.”

Van den Hove hopes that room will be created to speak with someone informally, both for PhD students (“A manager must be approachable and reliable”) and for colleagues amongst each other. “That you just approach someone and say: ‘What you did just then, we don’t want to see that behaviour anymore.’”

It can be done in an informal way too, he emphasises. “The idea is that you get someone thinking, show them a different perspective. A few years ago, for example, in a lecture about arachnophobia I used a picture of a woman wearing a spider costume. It was meant as a joke, but then, one day someone said to me: ‘You really can’t do that’. I meant no harm by it, but someone else can find it harmful. You have to create an environment in which someone can say that to you.”

Independent

Should an official complaint be submitted, then it is important that this is dealt with by an independent committee, says Van den Hove. At the moment, it is usually the case of management and colleagues who get to make the first move. “There are so many mutual interests involved there. Suppose that it concerns someone who is also in the subsidy committee that you later need to approach to submit an application.”

Van den Hove hopes that his document receives support from his fellow professors. “After the Schmidt case, very few spoke out publically. Understandable to a degree, but also a pity, the discussion is interesting and valuable. In addition, it is certainly a thing among PhD students. And they have a means to voice themselves these days, using social media. In my time as a PhD student, you said nothing about this kind of behaviour, you didn’t stand a chance, or so it seemed. Now there is a way and that is a good thing, provided it is used correctly of course. But the university has to do something with that, because there is no way back. We have to make things better for the next generation.”

Bassil vs Schmidt

In January, PhD student Katherine Bassil had an altercation with professor Harald Schmidt, both working at research school MHeNs. Bassil responded to a LinkedIn post by Schmidt, in which he said that science was a lifestyle. Bassil did not agree, she believes that science was also possible as a 9-5 job. Schmidt felt that she wasn’t enough of a scientist to be able to take part in the discussion and referred to, among others, the number of articles that Bassil has published.

Bullying behaviour, Bassil felt and called him to account. She received support from Daniel van den Hove. Some of their messages and his reactions to those were later removed by Schmidt. Observant asked both Schmidt and Bassil to write an opinion article.

Research school MHeNs initially didn’t react to Bassil on the matter, but at a later stage some of those involved were invited for a talk.

Author: Cleo Freriks

Illustration: Simone Golob

Tags: bullying,misconduct,recognitionandrewards,phdstudents,professor,workpressure,stress,instagram

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