Off the Record – Heleen Murre-van den Berg (part II)

First of all, congratulations on your appointment as the Dean of our faculty. 1 You have challenging times ahead of you. To what extent did a sense of duty play a role in your acceptance of the position?

I would say that a sense of duty certainly played a role. However, now that I have held the position of Dean for about two and a half months, I also notice that I enjoy it. It is a privilege to be in this position and to lead this organisation – I realise that more and more. As vice-dean, I was, of course, already involved in the process, but it is rather different to actually be in charge.

Can you give an example of the more fun aspects of your new position as the Dean?

Despite the problems and issues of recent times, the FFTR is a beautiful faculty with a wide variety of interesting people. I always enjoy catching up with our faculty members and to hear more about the current stage of their research – with interesting stories, news or even breakthroughs that they have been experiencing in their field. It’s a friendly group of people to be around every day.

Additionally, the university is going through an exciting period and, connected to this, the question of what we want to do with our education. The issue of social safety also remains topical: what kind of academic culture do we want to build together? I find it interesting to investigate how we can move from a culture that is driven by competition to one that is driven by joint progress. It is an excellent opportunity to be able to take the lead in this and to set its agenda.

Our faculty is in good shape: there are no acute financial worries. Nevertheless, funding,  depends on so many things, and it is therefore never 100% stable. You always have to keep an eye on what has priority and what the other possibilities are.

What sort of topics are on the agenda?

In addition to the topic of social safety, there is another broader topic that I would like to address, namely, the academic climate more in general: what kind of context fosters healthy collegial relationships and creative and innovative academic work? Consider, for instance, the enormous competition to win a NWO grant.2 Sometimes it seems that we are each other’s competitors more than colleagues, both within the faculty and between faculties and universities. This is partly a financial issue, but also a substantive one: are there ways through which we can facilitate and advocate for cooperation? Can we, for example, initiate more joint projects? How can the combination of philosophy, theology and religious studies be made more fruitful within our faculty? In this respect, e.g., there is probably more to be gained regarding the track Philosophy Politics and Society (PPS). There are many cross-links to be seen between various disciplines, both in pure research and in terms of societal relevance and impact. Think, for instance, about the connection between sustainability, the inclusive society, democracy, religion, and health and disease. If we can further develop and strengthen these kinds of cross-links, great things can come out of it. It is important to stimulate people to work on such cross-cutting themes, and we are going to draw up a policy plan with that goal in mind. I would like to make concrete plans on how we can stimulate this sort of thing, financially and practically.

In this document we would like to state how we, as a faculty, “view ourselves”, state the norms and values we stand for.

It is not only you who acquired a new position in our faculty but also Annabel Dirkzwager who is this year’s student assessor. Last year the two of you viewed how to handle the “cultuurtraject” following the Paul Bakker incident from opposite directions. How has this influenced the contact between you and Annabel

[Laughs:] The contact is fine, sure enough. The students nominate the assessor, and afterwards, we as a board speak with whoever is being nominated. If that goes well, the assessor is appointed. With Annabel, we certainly saw no reason not to have her appointed as assessor. It is as simple as that, and I am pleased with this decision. She is closely involved in the current trajectory and participates actively in all our discussions in the board. Every assessor brings their own themes and contacts with them, and the decisions of the board surely benefit from that.

Let us focus on the discussion of social safety within our faculty. Students were promised to be kept informed about the developments of the cultuurtraject. So far, the updates have been vague in content. Can you tell our readers about the process that has taken place “behind the scenes”?

At this point [September 2021], we are at a kind of turning point. We have completed the cultuurtraject, which was guided by Twynstra Gudde. Yet that was only the start of a more elaborate follow-up process. The earlier discussions, in which case studies were discussed, went well. Certainly these contributed to a better understanding of the issues involved, and how they could be handled in the future. Soon, there will be a meeting with the faculty in which we aim to draft a document that focuses on the social climate of our faculty. In this document we would like to state how we, as a faculty, “view ourselves”, state the norms and values we stand for and define the appropriateness of the various relationships between students and teachers, as well as between staff members. In addition, the conversation must continue: we cannot stop once we have this document.3 The reporting and reviewing procedures must also be as transparent as possible for students. We just had our first meeting with students, who provided some good suggestions. It is a complicated process in which there is room for improvement. We are therefore trying to involve students: after all, it is not only about how lecturers relate to students and colleagues, but also about how students can relate to lecturers and each other as well. Besides the meetings with students, we continue to discuss these issues in the FSR.4 At the moment, we are looking for a fruitful way to take the discussions further, and whether students can also have conversations among themselves, for example.5 By early March 2022, further conversations among staff and students have taken place, procedures for reports and complaints are improved and made accessible (also online), we’ve restarted our training program for staff (that because of Covid-19 was mostly discontinued), and an Advisory Committee on Social Safety and Inclusion (ACSSI) to the Faculty Board, which also includes students, has started its work.

I think it is inevitable to reflect on the return of Paul Bakker. Has he regained the trust of the faculty?

Indeed, in the sense that we expect him to teach again in the future and take up his work in the faculty. Those who have been involved in the reporting have been included in this process. They know what is happening, and can live with it. At the same time, though I am confident that a workable situation has arisen, we also know that students continue to have a lot of trouble with the idea that Paul Bakker will return to teaching, and we take this very seriously, aiming to involve the students in this conversation.6 As things look now, we work towards Paul returning to teaching during the upcoming academic year, though we’re still discussing the details of that. As a board, we will continue to work on this. Paul himself is certainly aware that there is still a lot of work to be done here.

Were there elements in the cultuurtraject that had to go back to the drawing board?

No, what the cultuurtraject mainly does is to get the discussion going. For a large part, it is clear what is right and what is wrong. In the Bakker case, for example, which we indeed discussed during our talks, no one said, “oh, it’s not that bad.” The issue was that many of the regulations were not made explicit, and in certain respects, the way we deal with each other at the faculty was left very vague. This is a recurring problem in academia. What do we do, for example, with students who aggressively interrupt a lecturer? Or senior lecturers who bully younger PhD students or staff? We tended to let this kind of behaviour go and only intervene when it really got out of hand. This is ingrained in the system and also partly the result of the individualistic way we work at the university. For a long time, some people who were higher in the hierarchy, such as full professors for example, believed that their academic status would let them get away with a lot of things. We started a conversation on this, and this contributes to keeping everyone accountable in the future. We have been too cautious and self-focused for too long, which is also due to the climate of competition and rivalry that I mentioned earlier.

We have been too cautious and self-focused for too long, which is also due to the climate of competition and rivalry that I mentioned earlier.

So far, in the updates on the cultuurtraject, we have seen few conclusions from the various rounds of discussions.

That is absolutely right; we are only just starting to get there. At the moment, concrete documents are being drafted. The document we are working on now is mainly a staff document. It would be nice if we could draw up something similar for the students. I think that two different codes of conduct would be helpful. An “A” and a “B” version, so to speak, with more or less the same structure. The main thing is not to circulate too many versions and interim reports of discussions because then soon no one will remember what you are talking about. Ideally, we should be able to present one version that can be amended once or twice, something substantial to work with in the coming years.

Speaking of which: there is now also a confidential advisor for academic integrity.

This position actually has been around for a while, but thanks to our discussions, the value of it has come back into the picture. There are many issues within this academy: what do we do in case of plagiarism, for example, or how do we deal with data from PhD students? Especially in the last ten years, there has been a lively discussion about these kinds of issues. This is also closely related to the competitive environment. The first public cases involved people who, at a certain point, felt so compelled to keep publishing to stay at the top of a ranking that they started making up data. Ideally, you would quickly remove such poisonous structures from the academy, but that is a long process. In any case, you still have to deal with limited funding that has to be divided among many people; also in the future there will be many applicants for one job. There is no way to change this overnight. Yet these issues are increasingly being discussed, also in consultative bodies such as the KNAW or the UvN7 – and, by extension, national politics. Ultimately, it is at least partly a money issue: competition for scarce resources plays a significant role in how people treat each other.

In our previous interview, you said that we used to have confidants within the faculty but that this did not work well. Now we have contact persons at the university level whom students can approach in case of undesirable behaviour. Are they specially trained for this?

Indeed, the old system has been overhauled. Some of the counsellors have stayed on, but a significant part of the group has been freshly hired, paying more attention to training and competences; in the past confidential counsellors were often not well enough equipped to deal with this type of reports. In addition, of course, students can always turn to the student advisors with a problem. The student advisors can function as intermediaries between students and confidential advisors. How we organise this for PhD students – another vulnerable group – is still under discussion.8

What happens behind the scenes when someone reports a problem to a confidential advisor?

That depends very much on the person reporting. Sometimes it suffices to leave it at the initial report – for instance, because the person who is reporting wishes to remain anonymous and doesn’t want a follow up involving the Faculty or University board. If a number of reports – there may be five, but sometimes one or two reports are enough – strongly point in a particular direction, the dean is contacted. The confidential advisors might inform me about the outlines while protecting the anonymity of the reporter(s) and the person reported about, depending on the reporters’ wishes. It is challenging to take concrete measures if there is no concrete complaint. Ideally, we should also be able to respond to vague complaints. By this, I do not mean that the events reported are vague, but that they cannot always easily be converted into a concrete complaint or report. In addition, the principle of hearing both sides of the argument also applies: initially, you have to adopt an unbiased attitude towards the person being complained about. Sometimes, it is possible to start a conversation via an anonymous report. In other cases, this is more difficult.

Sometimes, it is possible to start a conversation via an anonymous report. In other cases, this is more difficult. 

Let us discuss a concrete problem: we know the story of a student who was assaulted by a fellow student. That student went to a confidential advisor and was then offered the choice of talking to the person in question or entering into the official complaints procedure. Both options seem traumatic to us. Can such a person not be helped in any other way?

I cannot say anything specific about this, except that some things were discussed in the background between the confidential advisor and us. In general, as a university, it is difficult to do anything in cases where it concerns only students. Someone who works for us can be held accountable. With students, this is much more difficult.

Suppose someone who has been reported applies for a position as a tutor or student assistant. Does the report have any influence on that?

That depends on all sorts of things. If the one who is selecting the tutor or student assistant is aware of the report, it will probably influence their chances of getting the job. In most cases, however, the information will be confidential. As a board, we constantly discuss whom we want to nominate for a specific position and whom we do not want to select. There is always a tension between being meticulous and careful on the one hand, and protecting the privacy of the people concerned, on the other. Ultimately, our job is to put the right people in suitable positions.

Is there feedback from the confidential advisor to the student advisor when a report is made, or does a student have to report the same thing twice to different people?

That depends on whether the person reporting gives permission for this to happen and whether the line of communication was already running through the student advisor. Since last summer, I have had relatively much contact with the confidants. They call or e-mail me when something is wrong and let me know what I should pay attention to, as far as this is possible within their framework of confidentiality. I really believe that this way of going about it works. In my previous positions, for example, we received an overview once a year of the incidents that had been reported to the confidential counsellors. At that point, there was little you could do as a board. So, this mutual communication is a good thing, but it remains complicated: not everything can be passed on to us.

Suppose that the conversation with a confidential counsellor is unsatisfactory for a reporter. Where else can they turn to?

Students are always free to approach another confidential counsellor. There will also be an ’ombudsfunctionaris’ for employees.9 This person will deal with general matters that cannot be resolved through the usual procedures. This may relate to confidential counsellors, but, for example, also to whistle-blowers who are unable to get anywhere after they have raised an issue within their faculty. This person will mainly deal with more general issues and not with individual cases. However, if it ultimately turns out that the confidential counsellors do not function well, then this might be a matter for this officer. At this point, there is not yet a national ‘ombudsfunctionaris’. National regulations for matters such as this have advantages and disadvantages: when such an officer is further removed from local university politics, they can look at specific issues with a fresher view. However, this distance can also turn it into a body that has no real power.

Thus far, we have mainly discussed the reporting procedure. Here, the focus is primarily on the moment when a report is submitted to a confidential counsellor. The person reporting must then find their feet again at the university. To what extent can the university provide psychological support to whistle-blowers?

Of course, there are student psychologists, but the problem is that there are not enough of them. However, this problem is nationwide: there are also enormously long waiting lists at the GGZ.10 I know quite a few people who need help and can’t find it. Still, you raise a good point here, and I think it is indeed a good idea to look at how we can tackle this and increase the number of student psychologists or other kinds of support for both students and staff members.

To what extent does the process and your role in it live up to the expectations you had beforehand?

To a large extent, it meets my expectations. Because of the pandemic, we have been rather limited in our possibilities. I am looking forward to upcoming consultation sessions with students that will again take place physically. The online discussions we have had so far have also gone very well, but something was missing there. If you can’t meet in real life, for example, to have coffee after a meeting, it is more difficult to gauge whether you’ve got everyone on board. The starting points are now largely clear; it is now a matter of bringing them to life. In a sense, the past period was a dry run: there was much discussion about relationships, but online contact has a different dynamic than contact in the corridors and lecture halls. We will have to get used to that dynamic again. Now that the university has reopened, it is an excellent time to get on better terms with each other than before. In this respect, it helps tremendously that everyone is happy to be back at the university: people are really looking forward to it again and are prepared to do their bit. This will only help this process.

  1. This interview was translated by Janneke Toonders en Mireille Kouevi. The interview took place in September of last year (2021); the text has been somewhat updated to reflect the context of early March 2022.
  2. The NWO is the Dutch Research Council (Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek).
  3. In October, the faculty board decided on the basis of the discussions with the staff that this draft document would not suit the needs of the Faculty well enough, and decided to wait for the (more concrete) University Code of Conduct; at this point (early March) the University Code of Conduct has yet to be finalized.
  4. The FSR is the Student Faculty Council.
  5. Editorial note: A few students started the “Social Safety Care Club”. They wrote a statement that you can also read in this issue.
  6. As of early March 2022, the faculty organized two rounds of conversation in which also the rector, prof. Han van Krieken, is involved.
  7. The KNAW is the The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (Koninklijke Nederlandse Academie van Wetenschappen) and the UvN refers to the Universities of the Netherlands (Universiteiten van Nederland).
  8. In the meantime the faculty board has decided to continue to have a Faculty Counselor for PhD students.
  9. “Nancy Viellevoye benoemd als ombudsfunctionaris Radboud Universiteit,” Actueel, Radboud Universiteit, 20 December, 2021,
  10. The GGZ is a national mental health care organization (Geestelijke Gezondheidszorg).