Power Imbalance at University and

How to Deal With it

By Christina Kordes | Campus | February 5, 2022

Cover Illustration: Hands holding together, showing support. Priscilla Du Preez / Unsplash

Campus reporter Christina Kordes discusses how to reach out for help when possible power imbalances occur in the university.

The University of Amsterdam’s (UvA) Code of Conduct says that students and staff should treat each other with respect and that “the UvA is committed to clear communication”. Nevertheless, this communication can sometimes be hard due to the imbalance of power between professors, teachers and students. It can be difficult for students to gather the courage to address their teacher when they are feeling uncomfortable or unfairly treated. The UvA offers a variety of points of contact that can be reached out to in a case like this. One of these are the Confidential Advisors.

Every department at the university has its own Confidential Advisors, but students are free to contact any of them, regardless of which department they are in. Eloe Kingma is one of these advisors and underlines the importance of students being aware of the support she and her colleagues offer. “The field I deal with is very diverse; it is not just one topic that students approach me with. Also, the severity of issues differs from student to student.” According to Kingma, many students are worried about being regarded as difficult or concerned that addressing issues with their teachers could affect their future grades. Nevertheless, she says it is important for students to come forward and address the issues they have; problems with teachers do not occur in a vacuum and often speak to a bigger picture. “Many complaints can be very individual, but they can also add up with other experiences. That is why it is important for the faculty to be made aware of problems.”

Kingma would always advise students to start a conversation with the teacher directly and explain the situation to them. If the student does not feel comfortable with that, they can approach her or her colleagues. “In my experience, it often already helps students to express their feelings. They feel relieved after and go on with their course.” In more severe cases, harsher measures could be taken, such as filing a complaint. “I would always advise against that, though, because it puts a lot of stress on all parties involved and the outcome is hardly ever satisfactory for anyone”, says Kingma. “It is always better to reach out for support and address issues early on before they are getting worse.”

“It is always better to reach out for support and address issues early on before they are getting worse.” – Eloe Kingma, Confidential Advisor of the Faculty of Humanities at the UvA

The Confidential Advisors are solely there as a point of contact for students. The regulations at the UvA explicitly state that they do not mediate between students and teachers and that they do not approach the teacher to also hear the other side. Their role is to support the students and take their side of the story as the only important opinion. They can also come along to meetings between students and teachers as moral support for the student. If students wish to have an intermediary who can arbitrate between them and the teacher they are having issues with, they can reach out to the Program Coordinator.

The Program Coordinator can also be a helpful point of contact for a larger array of issues within specific faculties because they have different fields of expertise compared to the Confidential Advisors. As each course has its own Program Coordinator, they are mostly concerned with more logistical questions regarding the program. This could be the case, for example, if a student feels unfairly graded. With regards to course related questions such as deadlines, students can also contact the Study Advisor. Another very important person is Samera Ouchene. She is the newly appointed Ombudsperson at the UvA. In her role, she can mediate between students and teachers, collect complaints and if necessary, start an investigation. Eloe Kingma notes that “it can be important to contact her because she can effectively take action.” Lastly, there is an independent reporting point that is not associated with the University where complaints are being collected anonymously.

The imbalance of power between students and teachers can make it difficult to articulate problems or concerns. However, the University tries to offer a variety of contact persons who can help in these cases. The ones mentioned in this article are just a few. More information is available online in the UvA Social Safety Guide

Eloe Kingma feels very positive about the increase in awareness at the University regarding social safety for both students and staff. In the end, she stresses, it is very important for students to come forward with their concerns and approach the University for guidance. Only in this way can structural problems be tackled and a comfortable work and study environment be maintained.

Christina Kordes is a student at the University of Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer. 

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