Leuven university also facing claims of transgressive behaviour

Leuven university also facing claims of transgressive behaviour
KU Leuven library. Credit: Visit Flanders

The University of Leuven (KU Leuven) is the latest among Belgian institutions to face charges of transgressive behaviour by staff towards students.

In previous weeks, several students and staff members of universities in Brussels (VUB) and Ghent (UGent) have come forward with testimonies of professors or doctorate students behaving inappropriately. De Standaard reported on Monday that several women at KU Leuven were also victims of such behaviour.

One woman who started her PhD at the university five years ago was being supervised by a professor at the Faculty of Sciences, who started regularly sending her messages and e-mails about her private life and later buying her presents.

"If you let him, you were allowed to go to the best conferences and got extra financial support for your research. If you didn't, he threatened to fire you and called you ungrateful," the woman said. She eventually stopped her research as a result of these experiences, as did many other women.

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She argued that academic staff too often get away without really being punished for their behaviour. She was told by a faculty staff member that other complaints had been made against the man. "Some steps were taken. These were insufficient to avoid this behaviour in the future."

Various women who were victims of transgressive behaviour from superiors working for the university said that, despite filing complaints, the perpetrators remained in their positions.

The KU Leuven professor took part in a remedial course in the two years following the report, and the university said he reportedly showed "such progress during this course" that further follow-up was not deemed necessary, and that no more complaints were received about the man afterwards.

Repeated lack of action

These latest testimonies of transgressive behaviour by university staff that go unpunished follow a string of reports that made headlines last week and put a spotlight on the abuse of power among various ranks in universities, along with a failure to respond to such incidents.

A professor at the University of Brussels (VUB) who was fired for inappropriate behaviour towards students and colleagues contacted his victims after his dismissal, despite it being forbidden to do so, while one UGent student received inappropriate messages from a PhD student supervising her exams in January 2020.

In both cases, victims criticised the slow or lack of response of the universities in dealing with such incidents. In the case of the UGent student, the Disciplinary Committee is now expected to announce a decision soon, two years after the incident took place.

Universities say they'll do better

In response to the reports, UGent stated that regulations for such Disciplinary Proceedings were amended in May 2021 to provide a maximum time limit for a decision to be made when it comes to reprimanding the perpetrator, but that this particular incident took place before these new regulations were introduced.

"The case in question was started under the old regulations (which did not yet provide for time limits) and is also being dealt with under those regulations. But it goes without saying that this cannot, must not, will not be an argument to drag the case out longer than strictly necessary," a UGent spokesperson told The Brussels Times.

The university will also appoint a person who will be responsible for each report, who will follow up on the different stages of the process and keep those involved informed. "Both the person who reported the incident and the accused person can obtain a state of affairs from this person at any time."

Meanwhile, KU Leuven told De Standaard that in light of the latest testimonies, it will review the case in particular, as well as other reports of transgressive behaviour by the same professor dating back to 2019.

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