By Anita Lombardo
Details in this article have been kept vague and names have been altered to preserve the anonymity of those involved.
The recent cases of police violence in the United States remind us once more that discrimination is still profoundly engrained in modern society, and is often manifested through the acts of those occupying roles of particular power and influence. Hence, the stark manifestation of violence towards George Floyd has sparked public indignation and mobilisations all around the world against social injustice and discrimination.
Indeed inequality and discriminatory attitudes are very much part of our everyday life, often in such a subtle form that we can hardly notice them. One such form of inequality often demonstrated through an abuse of power is sexual harassment: an unwanted physical or verbal behaviour that offends and humiliates, and which has often a long-lingering effect on the psychological state of the individuals experiencing it. According to a study conducted by the European Union Agency for fundamental rights, 35% of European women over the age of 15 years old have experienced sexual harassment by somebody known to them, and 32% by somebody from their professional context. In Belgium, sexual harassment and violence are in fact regarded as psychosocial risks in the workplace.
Although it may feel and seem like a protected environment, the university realm features episodes of violence and discrimination that can turn the student experience into a very stressful and negative period.
Unfortunately, this is the case for Emily (not real name), a young student at KU Leuven who approached The Voice with her story. She says she has been under a lot of psychological pressure due to the struggles she has been through in the past year. “I was harassed by a boy from my university. He was my friend, but later on, with full awareness of the implications of his actions, he decided to emotionally abuse, blackmail, objectify and humiliate me” she revealed.
After her refusal to be more than friends with another KU Leuven student, Emily went through stressful months of stalking and oppressive messages, written with increasingly aggressive and offensive tones. This experience changed the course of her academic and personal life, overturning her mental well-being. “I spent over a month of my life in bed, I was diagnosed with depression and succumbed into anger and frustration, not finding joy in my studies or social life”, she says.
However, when she learned that what happened to her had also happened to others and after a long internal battle, she decided to report the case to his faculty. She felt certain that when she had told the entire story and presented evidence of the repeated episodes of blackmailing and intimidation, her aggressor would have been undoubtedly removed from his position as student representative, which he had held for the past year. She sent a first email to the student representatives and her story was immediately reported to the head of the faculty and an ombuds person. A harassment centre to report unacceptable behaviours is among the services offered by KU Leuven, which was then soon informed about Emily’s experience.
When asked about how she felt in the first stages of the process, Emily says that the responses were encouraging and reassured her about the fact that her requests would be treated seriously.
What ensued in reality was what she defines as an emotionally draining process, a game with unclear rules which costed her time and energy and which sadly did not pay off.
After long exchanges of contradictory emails with multiple and apparently uncoordinated stakeholders, she was invited to testify at the centre, where a confession of painful memories took place. Nevertheless, soon after she opened up at the centre about her experience, she was informed that they had no power to remove the harasser from his position of power within the student representative body nor to expel him without an official police investigation. By then, she was too exhausted and disillusioned to go through the whole process for the second time. The only thing that the centre could do was invite him for an hour-long talk with him to evaluate his psychological state.
Emily is clueless about what was said during that meeting and the only thing she knows is that no further investigation on the harasser was conducted since the meeting with him, which marked the last relevant intervention from the centre’s side. “Three months after the reporting I feel only more powerless” she confesses. She received contradictory and vague versions of the outcomes from the meeting and she was told that the centre was willing to mediate between the two if she felt comfortable with it, which she did not.
This is not the first time a case of aggression within KU Leuven makes it to the news: in 2016, an incident between a teaching assistant and a professor in the faculty of philosophy was reported by Veto. A few days after the incident, which involved physical aggressions as a result of which the police was called, the professor gave a seminar that would have normally been given by the teaching assistant, as she was asked to stop working together with him to avoid further escalations of tensions between the two according to a statement by the dean of the Higher Institute of Philosophy. The unevenness of allowing only the professor to continue teaching did not go unnoticed among some of the students, who tried to boycott the lectures and asked for a suspension of the professor for the sake of a just and impartial investigation, but members of the university staff claimed that their aim was not to take sides and simply to prevent any future problems while the case was under investigation. However, as a result the course was temporarily suspended and then taught by someone else. Over a year later it was reported by De Morgen that, although both filed complaints against each other, the teaching assistant eventually successfully defended her thesis and the professor was allowed to resume teaching the course.
In Emily’s case, there was no lack of people at the university to seek for support and understanding, but multiple misunderstandings and miscommunications between them as well as with Emily only enhanced her feelings of frustration and powerlessness. She had to write the same version of an email to four parties and act as a mediator between vice praeses of student representation, harassment centre, vice dean and ombuds person, which should not have been her role. She was also only told at a very late stage what the powers of the harassment centre actually were.
A combination of lack of communication, lack of clarity, lack of responsibility and lack of outcomes; that’s how she describes her experience with the system to tackle harassment put in place by the university.
An institution of the calibre of KU Leuven should be able to set up a process that empowers emotionally fragile individuals instead of generating confusion and tensions. The functions and competencies of the different bodies and actors involved should be established and clarified from the beginning, and a coordinated system of information transfer among them should be in place. This would help to make communication with those seeking for help more transparent, and minimize the misunderstandings and confusion that arose in Emily’s case.
With academia being the place where ideas and visions that shape the future of our society interact and flourish, it is crucial that fundamental rights are surveilled and protected as best as possible. Fighting sexual harassment should be an essential part of policies that foster a friendly and safe environment for everyone regardless of their gender. Moreover, gender equality among students and staff members should be regarded as a piece of a much wider mobilisation against the discriminatory and violent practices still lingering within modern society.
Finally, through this article, Emily also wanted to express her solidarity with other victims of harassment and abuse who have tried to get justice but failed.