A Series of Unfortunate Events:

Sexual Assault at the University of Amsterdam

By Rebecca Jacoby | May 13, 2021

Cover Illustration: The Oudemanhuispoort in early March 2020. It is located in the University Quarter, home to the University of Amsterdam’s Faculty of Humanities. Kira Guehring / The Amsterdammer

Stories of sexual harassment in clubs, bars and parties are frequently shrugged off as something ingrained in our society, something almost inevitable. A perfunctory gasp, some token condemnation and we move on. But what about the harassment that happens in the brightly lit classrooms of a university, at the hands of professors who are tasked with fostering the growth and learning of future generations? 

In May 2019 and June 2020, articles by the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad shed light on a systemic issue, of sexual harassment by certain professors in the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Humanities, and the university administrators’ inadequate responses to the numerous complaints in regards to it. The Dutch Network of Female Professors (Landelijk Netwerk Vrouwelijke Hoogleraren, LNVH), in a 2021 report about social safety at the UvA, defines sexual harassment as “any conduct with a sexual connotation that has the purpose or effect of affecting a person’s dignity. It can be verbal (comments, innuendo), non-verbal (inappropriate staring, certain gestures), or physical (touching)”. 

“According to a UvA 2021 social safety report, 1 in 5 female students are sexually harassed during their studies.”

According to a UvA 2021 social safety report, 1 in 5 female students are sexually harassed during their studies. Statistics regarding harassment amongst students are well documented, but less is known about what happens in university classrooms where the power dynamic between students and teachers can foster exploitation. 

In many cases, the inappropriate behaviour of an educator is not reported due to fear of retribution. Universities further enable this fear by inadequately handling the cases that are reported. Chanel Miller, in her 2019 memoir, raises the question of why we have such low expectations of our universities, she asks, “why is it rare to hear the occasional story in which the university responds correctly and works with the victim to improve campus safety?” This is the question at the root of this issue. What structures and policies are in place to provide a prompt and just response from the university, ensuring that wrongdoing will be met with consequences? 

“Female students experience 95.5% more harassment than their male counterparts, with international students, PhD students and women of color bearing the brunt of the harassment.”

There is a clear precedent to include harassment at the hands of professors in this debate, yet they are too often excused from it – too often ruled out as `potential` abusers. Fred Weerman, the dean of the Faculty of Humanities, stated that there is a “duty of care towards the teacher.” What about the students? Female students experience 95.5% more harassment than their male counterparts, with international students, PhD students and women of color bearing the brunt of the harassment.

In their 2020 code of conduct, the UvA laid out preventative policies concerning sexual harassment: referring to the employment of a confidential adviser for staff, who “holds an independent position within the university and is therefore protected from any employer influence” and is tasked with assisting in filing formal complaints, supporting those who have made complaints and searching for solutions. They lay out the aforementioned complaints procedure, ensuring a confidential process, and involving an independent complaints committee in addition to the adviser. The 2021 UvA social safety report issued established guidelines for all members of the university, including students, PhD students, support and academic staff, faculties and the executive board. The information and potential for support is seemingly present, the responsibilities of the university laid out in clear terms: ensure the students are protected and create a channel where they can place complaints if the protection falls short. But does this work in practice? The article published by the NRC found that despite repeated complaints in 2014 and 2016 about a humanities professor, a complaint in 2019 was the first to be officially included in the teacher’s file. The longevity and recurrence of this issue shows that despite presenting a set of guidelines, they are not always followed, and in the two recent cases it seems that the administrators failed in their responsibility to protect victims. 

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