'He asked me point-blank if I wanted to have sex with him': VUB professor fired for harassment

'He asked me point-blank if I wanted to have sex with him': VUB professor fired for harassment
Credit: Ahmed Ashhaadh/Unsplash

Multiple women have accused a Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) archaeology professor of sexual harassment, and have expressed disappointment with the university’s approach and lack of response to the allegations.

The professor, identified only as D.T. (age 49) is accused of transgressive behaviour, intimidation and abuse of power, reports De Morgen.

Multiple complaints were made against the professor, and victims say the university did nothing until they contacted the Institute for the Equality of Women and Men (IGIVM) at the advice of nonprofit Punt vzw, an organization that supports victims of sexual harassment.

“It was only when the Institute was called in that things picked up speed,” one of the women told De Morgen.

University ignored repeated complaints over multiple years, victims say

It was only after that contact was made that Professor D.T. was invited for a meeting with the dean and the department chair, despite the fact that the Institute had already received at least seven testimonies.

Unknown to the women making their complaints in the last two years was the fact they were echoing allegations made 10 years earlier against the same professor.

Back then, multiple doctoral students went to the then dean of the Faculty of Arts and Philosophy, but no action was taken.

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The complaints are always the same: D.T. sends inappropriate messages to students and shares personal stories. Sometimes this ends in a sexual relationship. Those who refuse his advances are intimidated and made to feel uncomfortable.

Over a decade of sexually harassing female students

“‘You look beautiful in that dress. We should go for a drink sometime this summer,’ he told me during an oral exam,” said one victim, now 38 but a student of 24 at the time. Eventually, some time later, she would have a relationship with him lasting several weeks.

“He told me even then that he regularly had sex with female students,” she recalled.

Another student said that “he asked me point-blank if I wanted to have sex with him” at a time when he was supervising her thesis. When she declined, internships she had been promised were given to another student.

“A career in archaeology suddenly appeared impossible for me,” the former student said. “I did finish my studies, but a doctorate was no longer an option.”

© Lectrr

Both victims know of other students who received similarly inappropriate messages from the professor or who entered into a sexual relationship with him.

“Now I realize that he has actually been following the same pattern for almost twenty years,” one victim said.

Disciplinary procedures to begin at the end of the month

Disciplinary procedures from the university will start at the end of January 2021.

After victims complained that they had to beg for information about the investigation, Rector Caroline Pauwels acknowledged that the communication could have been better.

“We are working on that. I can only emphasize that we immediately shot into action when the rectorate was informed at the end of 2020,” Pauwels said.

“I have now also heard that there would have been reports in the past, but I have not been able to find anything about that. As soon as I was informed, a thorough internal investigation was conducted, and the man was also fired. That shows how seriously we take this.”

The professor appealed his termination in November but it was upheld. Rector Pauwels and the accused admitted that a settlement had been reached.

VUB Rector Caroline Pauwels, here during the graduation ceremony in 2020. Image from BELGA.

Victims were told to keep quiet, that ‘people deserve a second chance’

“For us it was especially important that he can no longer make new victims,” the victims said, “but the VUB indicated that we were not allowed to communicate about it.”

They identified rector Caroline Pauwels by name as having urged them and several other victims to not speak of the matter.

“The rector told us to keep quiet, that people deserve a second chance,” several women confirmed to De Morgen, despite the fact that the professor seemingly had a two-decade long track record of sexually harrassing students.

“A university is not a court of law,” Pauwels said in her defense. “We cannot and should not just contact other employers and warn them about what happened. There has been an end to his activities at the VUB, that is a very serious decision.”

Disappointment with VUB’s response

Victims point out the length of the abuse in complaints about the university's settlement with the professor: “This is someone who has been committing the same kind of abuse for years. Surely he should not be allowed to come into contact with students anymore, yet he can now apply elsewhere undisturbed.”

One victim said “it feels like everything has been for nothing. How the VUB has reacted has hurt me more than the transgressive behavior itself.”

De Morgen spoke with seven of the 23 women who reported transgressive behavior and abuse of power. Some wished to remain anonymous, but their names are known to the editors. Mail traffic, messages, screenshots and confidential documents confirm their stories.

Anyone with questions or seeking help for sexual transgressive behavior or abuse can call helpline 1712.

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