Over the last decades higher education students have been corralled like sheep within academic institutions, forced to toe the line in order to get their credits to get their diplomas to get their jobs to get their lives. As career centres, universities have become more ends-oriented obstacle courses than places of learning and personal development. Stifling free thinking, we have lost several key objectives of higher education: discovery, creativity and disruption. Rather than challenging the next generation to prepare them for leadership, we have been corralling GenZs into a life of followship.
By the time of COVID, the systematic enforcement of rules from an isolated administrative hierarchy answering to the diktats of a ministry above had become hopelessly detached from the mental health carnage that was being imposed on the students below. Simply put, students had to shut up and fall in line. During lockdowns, managing a school with no students became easier – remotely cattle-pronging the youth with weekly rules and limitations. Students with old computers, poor Internet, small rooms and little social support had become intimately acquainted with continuous systemic abuse.
Until May, for 17 years I had relentlessly tried to train wolves to stand up and question the system, challenge the status quo and establish the best paths for their lives. I enjoyed it. Unsurprisingly, this did bring me into conflict with my management – administrators appointed from above with no contact and no understanding of the consequences of their decisions on the student body below. They answered to the ministry, not the students. This vertical structure made universities ripe for abuse upon a student body that had become too vulnerable and too beaten up to speak out.
The Belgian Campus #MeToo Movement
At the end of 2021 to early 2022, there were a series of exposés in the Belgian media of cases of professors sexually abusing female students, with administrations knowing and tolerating such situations for years (in one case more than a decade) in key institutions like University of Ghent, the Brussels Free University (VUB) and Catholic University of Louvain (KUL). The number of claims and the failure of institutions to act has become known as the Belgian university #MeToo movement (see a collection of articles in Dutch).
The victims were often forced to go through disincentivising, public processes and rarely treated with respect by their institutions (in my former school, a student, after raising a complaint, still had to take an oral exam with the professor who had sexually harassed her). And even when they did fight for justice, the institutions often ignored their complaints or gave the professors a light warning.
The Dutch language in Flanders even euphemised the situation with words like “grensoverschrijding” (literally “going beyond borders”) for cases that should have been considered as sexual abuse or rape.
Perhaps administrators treated this issue with kid gloves for far too long as such violations were inevitable in a situation where middle-aged men, often in dead-end careers and spent personal relationships, were engaging with young, consenting adults on a daily basis in a favourable power dynamic. But it was more than that. The vertical management structure in the academic institutions easily allowed for such intimidation, manipulation and harassment.
Sociopaths can thrive in such an environment and indeed they have.
“There was nothing I could do”
So what can a female student do in a situation that is clearly inappropriate (imposed sex, physical touching, explicit invitations, coercive or manipulative conditions, sexual approaches and abusive behaviour)? Who would believe a student over an older man with a PhD and a long list of publications? A student once confided in me that such abuse happens all of the time to young women like her (on public transport, in lines, nightclubs, on the street…) and in the case of it occurring on campus, where students are forced to follow or fail, there was nothing they could do about it.
In any case, if they would come forward and publicly make a complaint, they could make matters worse for themselves (peer reputation, grade, reactions from other professors…). So a victim might just share the story of an abuse with a friend and both of them would try to forget the creep. Such stories were widely shared on student social media groups.
Trusted actors in schools aren’t taught to listen to the tell-tale signs of abuse so most events are missed, quickly forgotten or victims would simply leave school. Most would prefer to believe that “it doesn’t happen here” or “surely not with that professor”. In my former school, students had confided in a trusted coach three years ago and she did not act. How then would a young woman find the courage to confide with an authority figure in a system that had failed to protect her? Any signals she may send fall on deaf ears.
I worked in an international programme with about 400 undergraduate students. A young woman from North Africa or the Middle East who was sexually violated would never come forward – it would bring shame on her and her family. She would not go to the police (not a trusted source for most young migrants) or to sign a public document with a male school administrator. She would be afraid of getting thrown out of school and losing her papers to reside in Belgium. Often 20 or 21 years old, she could be confused if, perhaps, she had accidentally led her professor on. Indeed, there is nothing she could do.
A sexual predator’s dream come true.
The Problem Solvers’ Biggest Problem
Appointed administrators in academic institutions work on one key principle: their job is to make problems disappear. Problems can destroy career paths. Their schedule is filled with eliminating problems like course staffing, grade complaints, academic cheating, room allocations, tuition payments, event details, budget expenditures… They don’t have time for things like proactively listening to students, improving academic standards, providing better services for students or preventing bad things from happening. They are not evaluated on positive achievements but rather penalised for problems that catch up with them. So the main concern government-appointed administrators have is how to stay out of trouble and get to the next appointment. They don’t think like corporates or consultants – any ends that guide these cogs’ decisions are purely personal.
In Belgium, academic administrators are accountable to the Ministry of Education in an upward vertical management structure. Not once in 17 years of academic activity had I been asked to evaluate my management. The ministry sends out regulations and requirements that administrators are expected to implement. During the COVID crisis it was ridiculous. Every week, almost, the ministry would come out with standards for public health and safety on empty campuses and these were duly applied by management without any regard or understanding of the psychological torment they were imposing on students.
The administrators do not have to answer to the students or staff. Their promotions and career prospects depend on how well they fulfil their function – why they are often called functionaries – within the institutional hierarchy. It is almost comical at meetings to hear all of the cadres introduce themselves, say what their function is and what they have done (in line with that function). An unresolved problem or an issue would not look good on their position, so all problems had to be swiftly eliminated or moved somewhere else. The consequences of such implementations or lack of proactive initiatives did not matter.
But this structure invites systemic lying. In a time of crisis, everyone is occupied with covering their asses showing their hierarchy what they did in function of their position and conveniently omitting what they had failed to do to prevent or correct the transgression. Top management relies on information from their cadres who are reluctant to be forthcoming with facts that may affect their long-term career prospects. So even if a rector speaks categorically against, say, tolerating any sexual abuse on campus, he or she is largely left in the dark.
Professional administrators (the ones that get moved around from one institution to another) know very well the benefits of the buddy system (favour bank) and do what they can to protect their colleagues should a problem be insurmountable. In my case, it was so evident how swiftly the wagons were circled and the problem redefined and isolated.
Mind the Gap
At the other end of the spectrum are the students. Every day they study under their professors, research heads or teaching assistants. There is no contact with management. This is a downward vertical structure with only a programme director acting as a liaison between the professors and the management (with the onus on limiting any problems from moving upward to the administrators who literally have no idea what is going on in the classrooms or what their students are feeling or thinking).
Being a programme director is a thankless job, often tasked with both problem elimination and task implementation. Administrators would never come in contact with students or professors (unless they become problems). Student unions are meant to act as liaisons as well, but given the mental health problems decimating student populations post-COVID, the best they can do is simply triage.
Professors are masters in their lecture hall, researchers control their labs, but within the management structure of an academic institution, they are mere shadows. I was in the lift with a person who looked familiar. I had to ask him if he was my faculty director. At that time he had been in that position for four years (and until then, I had not been a problem). In other words, in the Belgian academe, managers do not (need to) know whom they are managing and those struggling to get out with their degree have no idea who is managing them.
Boys will be boys
Put a case of sexual abuse into this dysfunctional system and you can begin to see the challenges and how such abuse can become endemic. Students feel isolated and without support mechanisms; administrators have designed a system where most problem solving is conducted at lower levels (so outside of their accountability); the middle management charged with handling the abuse files are only concerned with protecting themselves and their colleagues; the professors or researchers (who are most often the violators) are outside of the management process and seem to operate as masters of their own universe.
If a young woman is strong enough to file a claim of abuse, there are layers of hurdles and obstacles designed to shield the administrators from any responsibility. In one case, a Belgian university set up a committee to consider multiple claims against one professor (taking years to act). In another case, the school gathered evidence for 11 years. Most students don’t have the tenacity to fight these battles on their own. Often it would resort to a “he-said/she-said” situation and, well, who would believe a student? Life on campus would become a living hell and I often wonder how many good students just quit school leaving the sexual assault unreported. In the last 18 months, I had reassured two student victims they could finish their degree as the lockdown would ensure their safety.
The official policy at my former school, Odisee University College (part of Katholieke Universiteit Leuven), according to the head of human resources, was that they can do nothing until a victim would sign an official charge against a professor (remember, I worked in an international programme where such a condition would intimidate these victims more so than the abuse they had suffered). And I had told him that on numerous occasions.
This was their policy before I had become the “problem”.
A ‘personnel’ note
Last September, I opened a file at my school’s student union on behalf of five female students who had confided in me that they had been victims of sexual abuse by my boss – the programme director (so not merely a professor). A school psychologist interviewed the women, compiled reports and offered counselling. Given they were international students afraid of expulsion and losing their residence papers, we decided to submit their statements anonymously. There were several other cases where the students were too afraid to report to the psychologist.
In November, my boss was presented with the report in front of the administrators and he was given a warning. I sensed then that he was being protected, namely by the business faculty head and campus business faculty manager. I was told, in writing, in January by the HR director that unless a student goes public and signs a complaint, he could not do anything to address the situation. I continued to push on behalf of the students to remove what two student union psychologists had concluded was a dangerous sociopath. More charges emerged this February (as well as news of dick pics he had reportedly sent to a student) resulting in my boss then deciding to (voluntarily) resign (effective six weeks later).
This sexual predator was allowed to continue working, given a farewell party (attended by members of the Odisee management who had known of the contents of the abuse file and still went to salute him) and he was “not obstructed” in his attempt to move to a similar position in another campus within the “Associatie KU Leuven” (until a professor revealed information to that school about the sexual abuse file). At that point, in disgust, I submitted my resignation to my administration citing my view of how the business faculty administration had protected a sexual predator.
The school was staying silent after my boss had voluntarily resigned (hoping the problem would quietly go away). But this person’s sexual exploits were widely known within the student body (he had been “dating” several students and was reportedly active on a student dating app) and they were sick of seeing him still hanging around campus during his resignation period. In April, three student representatives wrote and distributed a petition to demand an official apology for the management’s longstanding inaction, criticised their continued silence and requested the school set up a proper system for students to report sexual abuse on campus (that would allow for anonymity and more protection).
After my boss had finally left his post in mid-April, I signed the petition and shared it with my colleagues, informing them of the file that I had initiated in September, the real reason for our boss’s departure and our management’s relentless inaction. I highlighted the problem they were hoping to let go away.
The school then tried to play down the seriousness of the sexual transgressions in my report as a justification for their failure to act. Later that week, after I had supported the students in a meeting at the director’s office, providing evidence from my report that contradicted the cadres’ justifications for their inaction, I was fired (on grounds of “breach of trust”). Although I had submitted my resignation, they fired me immediately (and two weeks before end of term creating student distress just before exams). As I was obstructing the ability of these public officials to cover their asses, I was identified as the serious threat. They would not fire the sexual predator but they went directly after the whistle-blower who knew too much and was speaking up.
I suppose we can count this as another classic “Monger-Moment”.
After my boss’s departure, a total of 27 (former) students and staff felt safe enough to come forward reporting to me that they had also been a victim of sexual transgressions by this person. To this day, the school still cannot admit any negligence on their part and continues to deny that it was a serious case. Another professor from my programme who had stood up and criticised the administration was quietly fired the day before the school closed for summer break. No more problems.
Alarmingly, the school management used public funds to hire a private law firm to threaten me into silence. No victims were compensated because no one was at fault (except me … for criticising my management). Every functionary fulfilled their functions and are looking forward to their next promotions.
After 17 years of service to students, I leave with my head held high. I did my job and stood up for my students. But the system in Belgium is designed to protect the perpetrators. Unless change comes from the top, it is endemic and such abuse will continue to happen.
Personally, I won’t return to the academe.