Research commissioned by the Flemish Interuniversity Council (VLIR) indicates that an estimated 45% of academic staff at Flanders’ universities have at one time or another experienced a form of harassment. This includes both work-related harassment and public insults or 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.

The survey looked at who experienced work-related harassment during their careers, which group suffered the most, and where harassment occurred. It also investigated the impact on their wellbeing and the support and measures offered to victims by the universities’ policies.

Just under half of the respondents (45%) reported having experienced harassment at some point in their career. 15% indicated that this happens on a relatively regular basis. “Based on the responses, we can classify harassment into three types,” says Verhaeghe. “Intimidation by colleagues is by far the most numerous. This can include toxic leadership, restricting academic freedom, pressuring colleagues to publish or to include the colleague’s name in a publication, and thus claiming authorship of scholarly publications. Many academics complain about the workload imposed on them by their hierarchical superiors.”

Harassment from outside the institution is less frequent but not negligible. Often it is outsiders who respond to research or to media reports about that research. “Not infrequently, politicians or well-known opinion makers also respond,” Verhaeghe says. “Or organisations that feel targeted by certain research. It is mainly academics from the human, social and biological sciences who suffer from this the most. They have to deal with public insults on social media, sometimes with racist or sexist undertones, their scientific integrity is questioned, or there are calls for them to be sacked, sometimes even an email to the rectors.”

A third type of harassment comes from students. This often involves students who feel they have been unfairly graded or who, in feedback about their results, criticise their professor. “Overall, we see that more women suffer harassment than men,” Verhaeghe says. “And there is also a very clear ethnic component, with minorities being victimised more often. Very strikingly, people with disabilities suffer the most harassment, especially from their colleagues, and they can also be under a very great deal of pressure to perform at least as well as their colleagues without disabilities. Finally, people with strong political beliefs, be they radical left- or right-wing, also often get a lot of abuse.”

Academic freedom means that scientists can communicate, teach or participate in public debate about their findings unfettered and without consequence. And yet, the survey shows, this is far from always the case.

Measures universities

Because every university faces this problem, the Flemish universities want to make a stronger joint effort to develop a policy framework. This should result in a vision supported by all universities, with concrete proposals for both preventive and curative measures, leading to a unique set of support measures in each university.

VUB professor Pieter-Paul Verhaeghe: “Victims need to be told loud and clear: You are not alone"

Pieter-Paul Verhaeghe advocates a holistic vision. “Victims need to be told loud and clear: You are not alone! They deserve support if they decide to file a complaint, support in dealing with legal threats, psychological support... This is a shared responsibility between the university, the department and the immediate colleagues. This is why I advocate extending bystander training, which is already used to combat sexism and racism, to all forms of harassment.”

Verhaeghe also points to a problem with the work culture in many departments, labs and scientific fields in terms of unhealthy workload, toxic behaviour and academic integrity. “Changing that requires a collective responsibility of all academics,” he says. “To be clear, changing the current work culture need not be at odds with free scientific debate and striving for academic excellence. On the contrary, I believe a more healthy, caring and safe work culture strengthens robust debate and scholarly excellence.”