BY LUC SELS. Last week, the court in Tongeren convicted a KU Leuven professor for raping a female student in 2016. What this student has been through is revolting and deeply unsettles all of us. Some media reports suggest that the University has been lax in this particular case and even covered up facts. This is not true. Allow me to offer some clarification. Not to justify our actions in this case, but to clarify how our confidential network and disciplinary procedures work.
Last week, the court in Tongeren convicted a KU Leuven professor for raping a female student in 2016. What this student has been through is revolting and deeply unsettles all of us.
In the past couple of days, some media outlets have questioned the way KU Leuven handled the case. I can understand that. The way in which university colleges and universities deal with cases of inappropriate behaviour has been the topic of heated debates for quite some time now. The question as to whether we have the necessary tools to prevent misuse of power, sexual abuse, verbal aggression, discrimination, and other forms of inappropriate behaviour has been the topic of debate inside and outside the University, and rightly so. Many members of the KU Leuven community, too, have expressed concerns about the adequacy of procedures and the efficacy of hierarchical action at all levels of our large organisation. There is room for improvement; that much is clear. But that progress is being made year after year thanks to the dedication of many colleagues and student representatives is hopefully clear as well.
Some media reports suggest that the University has been lax in this particular case and even covered up facts. This is not true. Allow me to offer some clarification. Not to justify our actions in this case, but to clarify how our confidential network and disciplinary procedures work. If we don’t do that, victims of inappropriate behaviour will be left feeling that their reports and complaints are not taken seriously, while we are doing everything we can to encourage them to speak out.
Those who report an issue are in control
In this case, an official report reached the Rector’s Offices in 2018. Media articles claim that the University was already informed in 2016 and failed to act. However, in our procedure, it is far from uncommon for the upper echelons or the Rector’s Offices to not be notified of a report. Problems are often reported in an atmosphere of confidentiality, sometimes even with an explicit request to remain anonymous. This must remain the case, as our procedure relies on guaranteed confidentiality and/or anonymity for those who want it, and our approach seeks to respect the situation and views of those who report an issue and victims at all times. Someone who reports an issue must be able to stay in control. Otherwise, some people would no longer consider a a report, and certainly not in the case of delicate situations that deeply affect them personally or when they cannot bring hard evidence themselves.
Confidentiality is an important guarantee meant to encourage people to seek help and guidance from a confidential counsellor when necessary. As a result of this confidentiality, however, follow-up steps cannot always be taken automatically. In the case of criminal offences, a confidential counsellor will, of course, always try to persuade someone to report such offences to the police so that a proper investigation may be launched. Contrary to popular belief, however, a report does not automatically lead to action. This also applies to the case that is now under public scrutiny for good reason: until the official report in 2018, only confidential counsellors had information that was second-hand and came with the explicit request to respect confidentiality.
Convincing a victim or someone reporting inappropriate behaviour to take formal steps is a precarious process that takes time, as was the case here. But as soon as the victim is ready, the University takes action, in this case in close coordination with the police and judicial authorities.
Aligning disciplinary action and criminal law
Understandable questions have also come up about the fact that the professor in question continued to teach for some time after the report reached the Rector’s Office. Important to know is that the case concerned serious offences and the public prosecutor’s office as well as the examining magistrate were obviously in charge. They gave the Rector’s Office unambiguous instructions not to do anything that might alarm the suspect.
There was great concern that alarming the suspect would jeopardise the judicial investigation and subsequent trial. Any kind of order-restoring measure would have revealed that ‘something’ was afoot and might have led to lost evidence. Unfortunately, this stage of the judicial investigation, with the explicit request to not take action, lasted until September 2018. All this time, the Rector’s Office has asked for permission, repeatedly and in writing, to act and take responsibility as soon as possible.
Faced with such situations, the University cannot but comply with the judicial authorities’ explicit instructions. This context, too, is important to correctly assess ongoing procedures: we live in a state governed by the rule of law, and our disciplinary procedures must not in any way hinder the normal course of justice.
Where do we go from here?
Now that the court has reached a verdict, we can restart the disciplinary procedure. But, even more importantly, we need to look ahead, beyond this crime that has now led to a strong conviction.
Addressing the issue of inappropriate behaviour is high on the agenda. Such behaviour, in whatever form, has no place at the University. In the past couple of years, many efforts have been made to create a safe and positive working environment and an open feedback culture. Furthermore, in February 2022, I outlined several ambitious objectives to improve our approach to inappropriate behaviour. These objectives have resulted in an action plan with five action items that were launched in the past months and now have priority:
- An external committee of experts will evaluate the current policy on inappropriate behaviour and present recommendations and inspiring good practices to adjust that policy. This committee was appointed in September and will schedule its activities in the coming months.
- We’re working on further clarifying roles and responsibilities to improve the follow-up of reported cases. For those considering a report, we’re currently developing a clear decision tree with correct expectations for the various reporting channels.
- We’re focusing on training and communication, with projects including bystander training, a #metoo-related initiative for doctoral students, clearer information about channels to report incidents and what to expect from them, and the integration of a number of ‘basics’ in existing on-boarding and training initiatives. This is partly in the implementation and partly in the preparation stage.
- We’re thoroughly revising the disciplinary regulations for academic staff. This project is high on our current list of priorities and will be finalised in the coming months.
- We’re compiling existing information on rights, duties, and deontology in a clear code of conduct for staff members to offer a clear framework for what we expect from them, for instance when it comes to the use of corporate resources, independence, manners, proper research and teaching practices, and so on.
We cannot let ourselves be discouraged by current media coverage. We cannot allow the current attention for this issue on many echelons of our University to wane. With combined forces, we have to achieve our objectives as soon as possible and follow up with even more new steps, for instance in the area of prevention and (psychological) safety in the workspace. Together, we can make it happen.