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Response to NRC publication by Liza Mügge, chair of the UvA Taskforce on Social Safety

Last Saturday the national newspaper NRC published an article on inappropriate behavior of a lecturer in the Conservation and Restoration programme at the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Amsterdam (UvA). The piece chronicles students’ extremely painful experiences and their fear to file a formal complaint. The description illustrates how such experiences have a long-lasting effect and can lead to psychological stress and mental health issues.

This case hurts. It hurts me as chair of the Taskforce on Social Safety, but also as a person and employee. I do not know all the ins and outs of this complex – and undoubtedly multisided – case. But no student at this university or elsewhere should be exposed to this kind of behavior. I find it frustrating that these transgressions went on for so long and that the process to address them crashed. I am worried for our students, both now and in the future. We cannot tackle deeply rooted sexism if students distrust the complaint procedure.

Unacceptable behavior in groups is normalized way too often. Everybody is aware of it, but it drags on. Students and early careers scholars depend on few people who are too powerful. This is a structural problem of the way academia is organized. Even in the post #metoo era the penny has not dropped for everyone. For decades many successful careers have been built on inappropriate behavior – faculty who invite their students to their homes alone, sexist and racist ‘jokes’, and worse.

It is hard for social safety to thrive in a thicket of asymmetric power relations, high work pressure, and a lack of diversity. From the many conversations that I have had since my term as chair of the Taskforce began in September 2019, I have learned that still not everyone realizes the urgency of the problem. At the same time, the UvA Executive Board, the Central Student Council, the Senate, the Central Works Council (and some Faculty Work Councils), and the Chief Diversity Office have put the issue high on their agendas. Students raise their voices and have announced a demonstration for coming Friday.

We can only ensure social safety for students and employees if the rules are crystal clear and procedures are carefully followed for all people involved. But this is not enough. A culture change is essential. No form of sexism, racism or other type of exclusion should be tolerated. Let departments and teaching programmes use this moment to prioritize debates about these issues. In the fall the Taskforce will organize a range of activities to advance a culture change. The Taskforce currently also develops recommendations for institutional improvements.

I have been at the UvA since 1996 with some short interruptions. There a world to conquer and still so much to do. But I am hopeful, because I also see how many positive changes have taken place over the past years. Change brought about by actions and interventions of critical, outspoken, and brave students and employees. And of a board that takes social safety seriously. The will to fight for social safety is there. Now we have to win it together.

Liza Mügge, chair of the UvA Taskforce on Social Safety 

15 June 2020