Because every case of unacceptable behaviour is one too many

BY LUC SELS. There is a lot of media coverage these days on how universities and university colleges are handling problematic cases of unacceptable behaviour. In recent years considerable progress has been made, but we must seize this moment to see where we can do better.

Written by Luc Sels, KU Leuven rector. He tweets via @LucSels.
Rector Luc Sels | © KU Leuven – Rob Stevens

There is a lot of media coverage these days on how universities and university colleges are handling problematic cases of unacceptable behaviour. Our ombudsperson, Pol Ghesquière, rightly emphasised in an article in De Standaard (in Dutch) that several investigations are also underway at KU Leuven. “A university is a very hierarchical environment,” he pointed out. “A student needs a professor, a doctoral student needs a supervisor, and a professor needs their dean.”

A university community is fragile, that much is clear. We must therefore seize this moment to revisit our approach and see where we can—nay, must—do better. We must have the courage to do so: an ambitious academic institution that wants to be truly inclusive cannot afford to remain stagnant in this area. We have to do this because unacceptable behaviour in various forms is still too common, and those making the reports do not always feel sufficiently heard.

This story belongs to all of us. We must all have the courage to stick out our necks

In a moment, I will discuss the formal steps we want to take. First, I want to get this off my chest. This story belongs to all of us. We must all have the courage to stick out our necks if there are indications of unacceptable behaviour in our immediate surroundings. We need to address (fellow) students and colleagues when they go too far, and report wrongdoing and file a complaint when that is justified. That is easier to achieve in a culture of openness and trust. Our everyday dealings with each other are key to further reinforcing that culture: being friendly and compassionate, supporting each other and giving feedback.

Let us work on this together. I call on everyone who is confronted with unacceptable behaviour to take the step to the Help Desk or a local confidential advisor.

Where do we stand?

The fact that this debate is unfolding around universities may pain the many colleagues and students with well-calibrated moral compasses and all those who experience our community as warm and inclusive. The lack of attention in the debate to the considerable progress made by universities in recent years is undoubtedly frustrating for all those who work hard every day to create a respectful working and learning environment. That is why I deliberately want to take a moment to mention all the work that has been done.

The pursuit of a more inclusive university has been a priority for several years. In 2020, I dedicated my speech at the Academic Opening (in Dutch) to it. “Being inclusive means setting boundaries: boundaries to exclusion, to stigma, to hatred, to violence, to abuse of power, to discrimination, and to any form of unacceptable behaviour which excludes or humiliates others or stifles their voice.”

At the time, I added that some students wondered “exactly where the university draws the line, what it tolerates or, conversely, does not tolerate. There is a sense of non-commitment, even impunity, among some. That feeling is fuelled by the restraint in our actions, by the confidentiality of our disciplinary measures, and by rigid procedures.” We have addressed that lack of clarity and the associated sense of impunity over the past year.

In 2020–2021, we raised widespread awareness with the ‘A pact for more respect’ campaign. The campaign culminated in a ‘Charter for Inclusion‘ and the website ‘Inclusion at KU Leuven‘ that shows students and staff the way, demonstrates how we are improving accessibility, and brings together all the necessary information on how KU Leuven addresses unacceptable behaviour. That approach was recently revised, based on a lot of discussions.

The central Harassment Help Desk established in 2017 and the extensive confidential network play a crucial role in prevention and follow-up. The confidential network consists of confidential advisors, prevention advisors, confidants and doctoral ombudspersons. These are people with diverse profiles: professors, administrative and technical staff, assistants, women and men, diverse in age and background. That diversity allows everyone to choose the person they feel most comfortable with.

The network works with an external prevention and protection service, IDEWE. This is an important point to stress. It is often forgotten in the debate that with IDEWE, we already have a body to which anyone can turn for an independent investigation. Our Help Desk also supports people when filing a complaint with the police, if necessary.

Together, all of these actors are responsible for psychosocial well-being. They complement other agencies such as the Student Health Centre. They serve as the point of contact for many psychosocial risks and complaints, from personal problems such as unhappiness or exhaustion to bullying, verbal aggression, and sexual harassment . They also offer support in team conflicts and abuse of power. With this network, the university has chosen accessible and approachable contact points to intervene locally as quickly as possible and prevent escalation.

This approach works. The number of reports to the different confidential advisors and ombudspersons has increased significantly since the network was rolled out, from a few dozen cases a decade ago to nearly 500 in 2020. This is of crucial importance because every report provides a valuable opportunity to look for a solution.

The introduction of the Harassment Help Desk in 2017 also triggered a change, taking us from around 20 reports in 2017 to around 140 in 2020. Approximately three quarters of these reports are promptly resolved, but a considerable number lead to more intensive remediation or mediation processes, or in some cases, a referral to the disciplinary body.

This approach works. The number of reports to the different confidential advisors and ombudspersons has increased significantly since the network was rolled out.

The university has undertaken a wide range of prevention initiatives in recent years, including the follow-up on the Satisfaction Monitor at the faculty, departmental and office levels, and the multi-day iSupervise training—now mandatory for all new senior academic staff—which focuses on leadership, coaching, inclusive team culture, and more. The focus on research integrity and research ethics has been sharpened. Charters have been implemented to guide the collaboration between the supervisor and doctoral student or postdoc.

Finally, we have also introduced new order restoring and disciplinary regulations for students that describe much more clearly what will and will not be tolerated and clarify responsibilities in disciplinary procedures.

These are examples of steps towards a respectful and inclusive university, and we will continue to work towards that goal. 

What can we do better?

We already have an extensive system targeting unacceptable behaviour, but we must seize the current debate to accelerate our progress on this complex issue. A learning organisation owes that to itself and its members. It does not let itself be pressured or cornered; it shows the courage to evaluate itself, identify weaknesses and work on them— without hesitation and with determination.

Society is rightly questioning how universities deal with unacceptable behaviour. We must be clear about that. After all, we bear a shared responsibility for tens of thousands of young people and thousands of colleagues. Responding to these legitimate societal concerns does not require a radical U-turn or the “sudden” introduction of new policy “under pressure”. These social evolutions have already been underway in our university for some time. We have made a lot of progress in recent years, and we must continue to build on that. Our progress should instil confidence in our capacity to handle the next steps.

Society is rightly questioning how universities deal with unacceptable behaviour. We must be clear about that.

This is not just about responding adequately to unacceptable behaviour; it is also about the transparency and verifiability of that response. An atmosphere of secrecy will not be accepted by either the academic community or society as a whole.

What are the next steps?   

External review. This month, I will talk to the Academic Council to propose a thorough evaluation of the processes and procedures developed since 2017, during the coming academic year. This is best done through an external review by an independent committee, and the review results should be made public. The committee should examine the functioning of the help desk, the follow-up on reports, the communication of rights and obligations, how we deal with conflicts of interest, turnaround time of case files, how we protect people who report wrongdoing, how we deal with anonymous reports, etc. Such a review should be guided by a multidisciplinary steering committee that develops recommendations for the university administration. Our current confidential advisors must be well represented in that group, as they have accumulated valuable experience and know what works and what doesn’t.

Disciplinary regulations. In 2021, we have implemented new, contemporary order restoring and disciplinary regulations for students. A revised version of the order restoring and disciplinary regulations for academic staff is currently planned and is also relevant to non-academic staff. It calls attention to the sanctions, the clarification of powers in disciplinary cases, the disciplinary procedure followed and the time necessary to complete it, the provisions related to statutes of limitation, how to communicate to those reporting and indirectly involved parties, etc. It also addresses the relationship to academic staff evaluation procedures.

Capacity building. As mentioned earlier, KU Leuven has already expanded its confidential network considerably. The central ombudsperson and the three (female) colleagues who today take on the legal role of confidential advisor are widely recognised for their expertise and empathy. They are crucial actors in cases that require more intensive follow-up and guidance. As part of the review mentioned earlier, we will consider whether we have enough confidential advisors and whether a second (female) ombudsperson is called for. The external reviewer will also consider whether further development of a student confidential network and/or further professionalisation are appropriate.

Training and raising awareness. Extra attention should be paid to the mandatory iSupervise training for new professors and the intensive, multi-day training for new deans, department chairs, and other executives. Leadership and coaching are already very important there. Nevertheless, more attention is needed in these programmes to prevent, promptly identify, and follow up on unacceptable behaviour. This strengthens our “senses” in all relevant entities. Such integration is also useful in doctoral programmes, in addition to the current emphasis on research integrity.

Follow-up. Training is not enough; follow-up and peer review are also necessary. Follow-up requires a fine balance between decisiveness and care. This is a complex task, for which many executives are underprepared. Follow-up is also important during the conclusion of a process. It can prevent a situation that appears stable from getting out of hand later. The follow-up and vigilance for follow-up should not be left up to one person; it calls for an approach that allows multiple colleagues to monitor the situation. 

Training is not enough; follow-up and peer review are also necessary.

Visibility. Our HSE department already reports to the confidential network and the Harassment Help Desk regarding reports received and the associated follow-up. Further steps are helpful and necessary. For example, since 2018, we have also anonymously reported on the breaches handled by the Commission On Research Integrity and the associated follow-up. This allows the university to learn and draw conclusions about which topics deserve more attention in a prevention policy. Such disclosure is also useful and necessary around the topic of unacceptable behaviour. This is already happening, but it needs to be made more visible and public, and with an increased focus on lessons learned.

Quality cycle. An external audit must not be a one-off. We need to think more in terms of a fixed quality cycle, with a regular external review of our processes and procedures from a multidisciplinary perspective. The cases of unacceptable behaviour that have been in the media recently rightly draw attention to a problem that we have been working hard on for many years; it is a persistent problem that needs to be given renewed attention again and again in a rapidly developing organisation with ever-changing generations of students and researchers. This calls for a regular critical review—on a six-year cycle, for example—to assess where we stand.

How can we work together?

The debate in public opinion is focused on whether an independent, external help desk is required. I have some doubts about this; it further removes the person making the report from the university that will ultimately have to resolve the matter in remediation, follow-up or a disciplinary procedure. The increase in the number of reports at KU Leuven shows that a well-developed help desk, supported by an accessible confidential network that can rely on the expertise of an external partner, can work. Victims clearly find the way to the help desk more quickly.

However, I have no fundamental objections if there are convincing arguments favouring an external help desk. I am willing to consult with the other universities and the relevant ministers to determine how an external help desk can best complement a confidential network’s strengths. I want to emphasise that we should not hide behind this plea for an external help desk; even if it is established, it does not absolve us from our duty to become even better at handling our responsibility.

I want to emphasise that we should not hide behind this plea for an external help desk

In any case, continued cooperation is of great importance between universities and university colleges governed by the Flemish Interuniversity Council (VLIR) and the The Flemish Council of Universities of Applied Sciences and Arts (VLHORA). In 2018, VLIR published an ambitious Charter on Unacceptable Behaviour that is soon undergoing its first evaluation. Developing a shared vision, exchanging best practices, and building a learning network are all steps to help unite universities and university colleges.

Luc Sels, Rector
Also on behalf of the Vice Rectors and the Managing Director