Research indicates that an estimated 45% of academic staff at Flemish universities have experienced some form of harassment at one time or another. This includes work-related harassment as well as public insults or other similar behaviour from outside the institution. The survey was conducted by VUB professor and sociologist Pieter-Paul Verhaeghe and ran from 9 May to 13 June 2022. In total, 2,488 academics took part, including professors, postdocs and doctoral students from all five Flemish universities. In response to the report, VUB is now refining its policy on harassment of academics.

β€œThe VUB has decided to take a pioneering role in this,” says VUB rector Jan Danckaert. β€œOur university was already taking steps toward a concrete policy on harassment of academics. What’s important in this is the role and status of the confidential counselor. From now on, they will be able to proceed themselves in following up specific cases of harassment. Their role as confidant will be adjusted and strengthened by the VUB. Cases will therefore come more quickly to the attention of our services.”

Harassment from inside and outside the university

For his report, Pieter-Paul Verhaeghe investigated both internal harassment of academic staff – this mainly concerns bullying behaviour, toxic leadership or the failure of managers to recognise the scientific input of academic staff and violations of rules on intellectual property – and external harassment from outside the university.

β€œThe latter is new,” says vice-rector for Research Pieter Ballon. β€œFor all forms of harassment, we are putting in place both a preventive and a curative approach. Preventively, we will provide appropriate bystander training, along the lines of the existing actions we have launched in the context of transgressive behaviour. This applies in particular to internal harassment cases. We will also train our scientists. An important component will be training in better external communication, especially by learning to handle it very carefully and by staying close to their research.”

Task for confidential counselor, marketing and communications, and HR

There is also an important curative component, where the confidential counselor will have extensive powers, but where VUB’s Marketing and Communication (MarCom) department will also play a more important role. β€œThat service will help academics who are being abused to identify the often anonymous abusers and to better manage their own social media,” Ballon says. β€œIn doing so, MarCom will be able to enlist outside professional help from online forensic agencies specialising in the matter. They will initially calm the communication flows and if that does not help, they will file a complaint with the appropriate agencies. With both internal and external stalking, it is the employer who must act to protect their employees. And that’s what we’re going to do.”

People&Organisation – VUB’s personnel department – will also have an active role in handling cases, with the central question of what the legal protection of VUB employees could look like. Everything else is covered in the context of VUB’s YANA (You Are Not Alone) policy, a protocol that was developed when it became apparent that transgressive behaviour was occurring at universities in Flanders.