The news about unacceptable behaviour at The Voice of Holland revealed on the TV programme BOOS on Thursday has triggered a flood of reports to organisations such as Slachtofferhulp Nederland (victim support the Netherlands) and the Centrum voor Seksueel Geweld (centre for sexual intimidation), reports the NOS news agency (in Dutch). In the meantime, employers are asking the Landelijk Instituut Vertrouwenspersonen (national institute of confidential counsellors) if this kind of abuse could also be happening in their places of work. What has TU Delft done to prevent this kind of abuse and where can you go as a student or staff member if it does happen? Delta spoke to Sandra van der Hor, who has been an externally certified Confidential Advisor for the TU Delft community for the last two years.
Has the news about The Voice of Holland led to more reports here?
“No, not yet. In 2020 I received three reports of sexual intimidation and in 2021 two out of about 70 incident reports in total. I was appointed shortly before the Covid pandemic. Before, there were a lot more internal Confidential Advisors at TU Delft, but there were just as many reports. Given the large student and staff population, this is not much.”
What does that say?
“It raises the question whether this is a reflection of reality. Universities are hierarchical and this plays a major role here, even if it is just the fear of someone with more power. Many people do not dare come forward. Another aspect that plays a role is how well known the Confidential Advisors are. Our work should be communicated more regularly, and special attention given to the internationals. The function of Confidential Advisors is typically Dutch. I often first have to explain what we stand for and what we do.”
If somebody lodges a report, what can they expect?
“A Confidential Advisor offers a listening ear without judgement and without asking questions that may lead to victim blaming. The story of the person reporting is always true. We never ask if they may have misunderstood the other person or gave off a wrong signal. A conversation with a Confidential Advisor is entirely confidential except in two situations. The first is that if it transpires from the report that there is a dangerous situation at TU Delft for others, for example if a murderer or rapist is on the loose. The second is about major violations of integrity. This is usually about scientific or financial fraude. Apart from these, as a certified Confidential Advisor I have what we call a signaalplicht. What this means is that if we receive more than three notifications about the same person, I am duty-bound to report it to and discuss it with the person with end responsibility while not making it traceable to the people who reported the issue.”
‘Hardly anyone takes further action’
Apart from these exceptions, what can you do for people who come to you besides listen?
“I can explore the options with the person making the report. We might look at if the person feels safe to discuss the issue with the accused. If not, does it feel safe to talk to another person holding responsibility in the organisation? Another, last option is submitting a complaint. Whatever the decision, it is the person making the report who always keeps control and decides.”
What next steps do they tend to choose?
“Hardly anyone takes further action. I see this at other organisations where I am a Confidential Advisor too. As there is often fear, people prefer to avoid the accused person. In the worst case scenario they leave or report sick. Take doctoral candidates for example. They are in extremely dependent positions. They weigh up what is worse, entering into a confrontation or keeping quiet. It is sad, but people usually think that the consequences of talking about it on their career and personal lives too great. They are afraid, ashamed and feel alone. People have often walk around with their experiences for a long time without telling anyone.”
How can TU Delft encourage a culture in which sexual intimidation is not accepted?
“Change takes time, but we are on the right track. It has helped that after two years of my being the only external Confidential Advisor, that internal Confidential Advisors have been appointed. In contrast to their predecessors, they are trained so that it is clear where their roles start and end. It also helps having the Integrity Office and the Diversity Office. But what we really need is that the subject is a fixture on the agenda throughout TU Delft. It must be discussed. It is wonderful if it is arranged well on paper, but that says nothing about how it is in reality. Social safety and a safe work and study environment should be universal. TU Delft has a Code of Conduct, which is a good thing, but does anyone read it? TU Delft should communicate it much more as it did this week in an email to students and staff. This should be done more often, like when my annual report comes out. While what happened at The Voice is terrible, I am happy that the subject of social safety is now in the media and thus on the agenda.
People should also not look away. You can write policy until you are blue in the face, but if you allow sexual intimidation to happen and let the perpetrators get away with it, it means that the Code of Conduct is optional.”
‘Sexual intimidation in student houses and associations is a hidden problem’
Last year the Executive Board said that it was not a good idea to provide information to all first year students about boundaries. This was in response to an Amnesty manifesto called Let’s talk about yes. Was it a missed opportunity?
“I always advise keeping the door open, in this case for the students of Amnesty, and to enter into discussion. You may just find each other somewhere in the middle.”
The Executive Board believed that this was the job of student associations on the grounds that it would be better to have the information provision done there than at TU Delft itself.
“Student associations have confidential mentors. I know this as I trained them myself. So it is an accessible way to make issues open for discussion. The point is that sexual intimidation in student houses and student associations is still largely a hidden problem. Officially, if something goes wrong there it does not fall under the TU Delft Confidential Advisor. That to me is odd as the TU Delft students who are affected sometimes experience problems for the rest of their lives and carry a negative image of TU Delft after their studies. So if students approach my colleagues or me with sexual intimidation in a house or association, we will talk to them and take their report seriously. As I said, social safety and a safe work and study environment should be universal.”
- Check the website of the Confidential Advisors at TU Delft.
- The company doctor also has a confidentiality function. The company doctor can be found on the intranet and is also available by email.
- The regulation on undesirable behaviour at TU Delft is available here.
- After consulting a Confidential Advisor you can submit a complaint about undesirable behaviour to the Secretary of the Complaints Committee.
- The student ombudsman is available here and the staff ombudsman here.