KU Leuven rector’s Mea Culpa does not combine well with Censorship & Cover-ups

Opinion/Politics

21 oktober 2020
Article
KUL's position and promises on “inclusivity”, “safety” and “respect” do not seem to match its actions for everyone and some of those voicing their discontent feel they have been met with censorship

By Marit Pepplinkhuizen

Opinion/Politics Section Editor 

Since the academic year 2019-2020, KU Leuven started to frame their policy around the values “inclusivity”, “safety” and “respect”. However, though it may seem that KUL took a stride in a noble direction (who could be against more inclusivity and more respect?), these words not only completely oppose rector Luc Sels’ policy of the past years, but they are also contradictory with the practices of KUL, with the death of KUL student Sanda Dia as the most glaring example. 

Recollecting the events that led to Sanda Dia’s death

KUL student Sanda Dia saw a membership of the fraternity Reuzegom as his ticket to a better life. He thought access to that life was worth enduring Reuzegom’s hazing ritual. During the hazing, he was forced to drink an excessive amount of alcohol, chug fish oil until he vomited, swallow a live goldfish, and stand outside in an ice-filled trench. He died in December 2018 of multiple organ failure. His death was seen as an accident, as hazing going wrong. However, from a recent article published in The New York Times we learn that the police recovered deleted WhatsApp messages which “show fraternity members — the sons of judges, business leaders and politicians — scrambling to cover their tracks.

Almost immediately after Mr. Dia’s death, Reuzegom members began deleting text messages, removing Facebook and Instagram profiles, and hurriedly cleaning the cabin and Mr. Dia’s room on campus.

“Everything clean,” an investigator wrote when he arrived at the cabin. KUL never suspended the Reuzegom members, ordering them instead to write a paper on the history of hazing and do 30 hours of community work. Eighteen members of Reuzegom are now under investigation, with prosecutors recommending charges of involuntary manslaughter, degrading treatment and neglect, The New York Times informs us.

The rector’s Mea Culpa in the speech at the opening of the academic year

While we knew about Sanda Dia’s death since 2018 already, the rector only now gives an official response at the opening of this academic year. That it took this long did not sit well with Ousmane Dia, Sanda’s father, who told Belgian newspaper De Morgen in August of this year that he was particularly bitter about the actions of rector Luc Sels. Sels’ only contact with the family was when he offered brief condolences at Sanda’s funeral, Ousmane Dia told De Morgen. Sels said he would have responded differently if he had known all the facts, and that he feared prejudging the investigation.

To be fair, Luc Sels did offer a sincere sounding and humble Mea Culpa in his speech. According to Sels, “the Reuzegom 'baptism' dishonours everything that KU Leuven stands for”. He calls the traditions of Reuzegom “dangerous and inhuman and recognizes that Reuzegom was presumably aware of this, as its members did not want to abide by the rules of the university.

Sels’ rightfully says the university has to question itself after these events.

He says the university may have been naive and that it is time to grow and learn. That he will use the criticism that has been voiced as a bedrock to do better. “Help me and point out my mistakes if necessary”, Sels even says. All the more surprising it is that a few weeks later, comments of students were deleted from KULeuven pages.

Censorship by KU Leuven

Sarah Hashmi, volunteer manager at Undivided, an organisation for inclusivity and diversity at KU Leuven, posted a critical comment on the YouTube channel of KUL, only to find out that the comment was deleted afterwards. “If this was true”, Hashmi wrote as a response to the “inclusivity” video of KUL, “then the students who killed Sanda Dia would have been expelled rather than protected. If this was true then Luc Sels would not ask to forgive them before they are even prosecuted.” Sels did indeed call for “forgiveness” of the Reuzegom members, something he also addresses in his speech. He says he asked the question: “Apart from the justified condemnation and understandable revulsion, how can we remain close to the accused, as people who can grow and are worthy of forgiveness?” Then he emphasizes: “It was a question, not an answer, nor a deed.” Even though he goes on to say that “The question never intended to overlook the terrible suffering inflicted on Sanda, his family and friends, our university and our society”, it is still hard to get over the fact that he called for forgiveness of the perpetrators more so than reaching out to Sanda’s family. Also, responding with a “I did not mean it that way” after getting justified criticism, does not seem to combine well with his call to point out his mistakes. Is this really what it means to use criticism to become better? This flip flopping is reminiscent of the contradictions in Sels’ speech at the opening of the academic year 2019-2020, where he said he did not want to go in the direction of the elitist Ivy League American universities, asking huge sums of money from students. Yet, it was Sels who raised the tuition fees with enormous amounts for non-EEA students last year. 

When Hashmi found out the comment had been removed, she posted it again. And again. Every time she reposted it, it got removed.

Therefore, Hashmi added to the comment:  “You can keep trying to censor the responses of your student body but we will not stop. Are you really this scared of people knowing the truth?”  After that, the comment section got disabled. A week later, KU Leuven claimed that the comment section had always been disabled and that  “it is now possible to comment.”  When  The Voice  asked Hashmi for a response on this message from KUL, she said: “ The situation is quite complicated as they claim that the comment section was “disabled” and that they weren’t removing the comments. To me, this does not line up, because when the comment section is disabled it does not let you post at all. I have a screenshot which shows that before 14h52 my comments were being posted but quickly being removed. If they were simply not being approved (as there is an approval system for comments many YouTube channels use) the commentator can still see the comment themselves, but it is simply not viewed by the public until approved or removed. As I was no longer able to see them either, the argument that they were not approved does not make sense.”

It has been brought to our attention that KU Leuven is censoring certain comments on their recent videos on 'a pact for...

Posted by Undivided for KU Leuven on Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Hashmi is particularly not happy with the KUL trying to frame it as a “misunderstanding”: “There would not have been any ‘confusion’, as the KUL said in their response, if the comments were not being filtered or removed to begin with. If the KUL has proof to argue against me then I would love for them to present their case instead of just labelling this, like every other incident they deal with, as a ‘misunderstanding’.” After Hashmi’s comments got deleted, many people started sharing her comment on different platforms such as Instagram and Facebook, which KUL obviously could not censor. Hashmi emphasizes that there is many inconsistencies in KUL’s story of what went down, which, she says, “made it seem to me that they initially thought they could shut me down because I was just one commenter, and they didn’t realise that I can take screenshots.”

It seems to me that instead of only working towards more respect and inclusivity, we as a student body also will have to point out to KUL that they will have to be standing behind their own policy. No more misunderstandings, contradictions, flip flopping and inconsistencies. If KUL really wants to bring this university together, then her student body needs to be taken seriously. Censorship is not the way to make your student body feel heard. KU Leuven, do accept feedback from your students and do as you preach, thus, learn and grow from your student body’s fair criticism.


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