José Sanders
José Sanders

Hierarchy, discomfort and reflection

Mariëtte Hamer's recently published advice to the Minister of Education, Culture and Science regarding social safety in higher education confirms what we previously observed within Radboud University: social safety is a topic that really requires more attention now. It has dominated the academic agenda for the past six months. Transgressive behaviour is undesirable and we wholeheartedly reject it, as our Prevent  Care  Cure Action Plan, published in late December, makes very clear.

The dialogue that is now continuing within faculties and departments highlights a variety of experiences of transgression and lack of safety, ranging from very severe to uncomfortable. What is striking is that this has long since ceased to be just about the position of women or students, or more generally about issues of gender and diversity, although it is certainly about these things too. The discussion is much broader and also more fundamental: How do we deal with hierarchical differences at the university? What is the role of the dependency, influence and power arising from these hierarchical differences?

Dependency, influence and power are unavoidable at the university, because they are inherent to the core tasks of teaching and research: assessment, supervision, promotion, and governance. Dependence on the one who assesses, guides, promotes and governs you is inevitable. We see that influence and power are increasingly being questioned, and sometimes contested, by those who are subject to it, and that is a good thing. Our 2022 Code of Conduct offers guiding principles for how we want to deal with one another in this hierarchical context of dependencies. Much is already going well, and more attention was recently devoted to social safety within faculties and departments. But what we need now is for everyone to become more familiar with the standards of good behaviour laid down in the Code, and we need to establish better procedures for when people fail to comply with these standards. These are the Care and Cure aspects addressed in the Action Plan.

However, rules and procedures will not overcome all obstacles and solve all problems. Prevent mainly has to do with the need to reflect on our roles and tasks, which is also something Mariëtte Hamers points to in her advice. Anyone who has influence or power within our university hierarchy must become aware of the responsibility that this entails, and be willing to be held accountable for it. And those who depend on others in a position of influence or power must be able to trust these others to feel and articulate their responsibility. Conversely, those who perform roles and tasks with influence or power should be able to expect others to trust them to really take their responsibility seriously.

Without this kind of mutual trust, teaching and research do not work very well. After all, teaching and research by definition deal with boundaries of knowing and ability, with reaching beyond what you know, with challenge and competition, with trial and error, with ambition and rejection, with effort and discomfort. These are inherently vulnerable situations that require clear rules and agreements: between students and lecturers, juniors and seniors, employees and supervisors; in other words, people in roles that come with inherently different positions of power.

All these hierarchical relationships can sometimes be uncomfortable, so the question is: How can people still maintain mutual trust, and where trust has been compromised, restore it? The diversity of people and their positions requires space for individuality, for naming and sharing one's assumptions and expectations. In teaching, in research teams, and in collaboration. This is a call to leave less unsaid, to assume less to be familiar, and to make more explicit. We need new words to talk about these things. For a start, we need to better articulate our mutual assumptions and expectations, and become used to calling each other out when we make wrong assumptions or when our expectations fail to materialise.

But the work should not only be done by the person who speaks out and calls someone out on their behaviour. We don't need to wait for someone to call us out. Everyone is part of the much needed culture change, and everyone should ask themselves: How do I behave and how do I come across? To this end, supervisors and approvers can also actively request feedback from their employees and students, and ask themselves: Can I adjust my behaviour, and what help might I need to do so? It is precisely the people who believe that social safety has nothing to do with them that we really want to involve in this conversation.

The most important link in a culture of accountability is therefore the receiving party: it requires everyone to listen, ask for feedback, adopt a reflective attitude, and bring awareness to when and how we can trust each other, especially in a hierarchical organisation like ours. That is how we can really make prevention effective, and learn from each other. That is why the Executive Board will be visiting all faculties and departments in the coming weeks to listen to people's experiences and questions, in particular around this important topic.

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Executive Board