Science - March 27, 2008

‘Talk about unacceptable behaviour’

Students can report intimidating, denigrating or bullying behaviour by teachers or other students to Carla Haenen, the confidential adviser for students at Wageningen University, or to Inge Koenis, one of the confidential advisers at Van Hall Larenstein. ‘It doesn’t necessarily directly help the ones who lodge a complaint, but by doing so they can help the organisation to prevent other incidents and improve the climate.’

Inge Koenis en Carla Haenen
A student has an appointment with her supervisor to discuss her thesis. The supervisor makes unfriendly remarks and reacts angrily. The student doesn’t know why. On top of that, he stands right in front of her, not quite touching her. She finds the situation uncomfortable and feels intimidated, but she doesn’t dare to say anything as she is scared of getting a low grade for her work. Another example: a student goes to his examiner to ask about mistakes he made in the exam. The examiner explains things and sits down very close to the student. The student is uncomfortable and moves up a little. He feels awkward as the examiner moves closer again. The student is so embarrassed by the examiner’s behaviour that he is unable to concentrate.

These examples are not real, but according to Carla Haenen, the confidential adviser at Wageningen University, similar situations occur regularly. Haenen has published leaflets in Dutch and English explaining what unacceptable behaviour is and what a confidential adviser can do. Unacceptable behaviour includes all behaviour that ‘you find such a hindrance that is has a harmful effect on your studies’. Bullying, (sexual) intimidation, threats, stalking and gossiping are all types of unacceptable behaviour. Because her work is confidential, Haenen stresses that she cannot say how many complaints she has received or talk about actual cases. ‘Students must be able to talk about matters confidentially. The threshold must be as low as possible.’

Haenen’s work consists primarily of listening: ‘As a confidential adviser, by definition you support the person who has come to you. My own opinion is not relevant. I try to obtain clarity on what is bothering the person. Students are often relieved just to be able to talk.’ What happens after the first talk depends entirely on the person involved. For some, talking is enough, but Haenen will approach the other person in the matter if the student wants. People react differently when the subject of inappropriate behaviour is brought up. ‘People are not always aware of their behaviour. You may come across differently than you intended.’

The confidential advisers at Van Hall Larenstein in Velp and Wageningen received no reports of unacceptable behaviour last year. In Leeuwarden there were complaints from students, tells confidential adviser Inge Koenis. The number of official cases averages out at about three a year, but twice as many informative discussions take place. The threshold is still high, and that needs to change in Koenis’ opinion. ‘What shocks me is that students are afraid to talk because they still need a grade from a teacher. Things seem very open here; students often know my colleagues better than I do, if you hear them talking about how to get a good grade from a certain teacher. But when it comes to unacceptable behaviour the threshold is high –often months go by before they come and talk.’

Students who think that something is wrong must be prepared to talk about it, Koenis emphasises. ‘There is no other way to make these matters visible. It doesn’t necessarily directly help the ones who lodge a complaint, but by doing so they can help the organisation to prevent other incidents and improve the climate.’ She thinks Wageningen UR should encourage people to report unacceptable behaviour. ‘My experience is that students find it valuable to be able to tell their story. Conversations are always confidential and the student decides whether he or she wants to take the matter further.’ / YdH

Information on the confidential adviser for WU students can be found on the university website, under student facilities. To make an appointment with Carla Haenen, mail vpstudent@wur.nl Information for VHL students is on the intranet.

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