In this post we included a shortened version of the open letter. The full version can be found through this link.
An Open Letter to the Vice-Rector of Student Affairs
Dear. Professor Feys,
We, as UNDIVIDED, are writing to you because we are concerned that there is a severe problem regarding KU Leuven’s approach to addressing the causes of unacceptable behaviour (that include but are not limited to sexual harassment, discrimination, violence and bullying). We are delighted that you recently tightened the measures of the disciplinary procedures. However, there are still many aspects of the KU Leuven approach that are causing our concern. The problems can be summarised as follows.
Firstly, KU Leuven does not prioritize the individual who filed the report because the staff responsible for handling these cases (confidential advisors, ombudspersons and university officials) takes the interest of both parties into account. This too often becomes an excuse for not taking any action, leaving the perpetrator unpunished and the victim unprotected. In many cases, the perpetrator is being left off without any repercussions for their actions. For example, the Philosophy of Science professor physically assaulted his PhD student, and yet he was not expelled from his function. In contrast, the PhD student did not get any protections from the University and left out of fear for their safety. Secondly, Sanda Dia who, upon experiencing issues with racism, was shortly after killed during a hazing ritual. The students who participated in this murder were protected by the University and let off with an essay to write. They finally got punished two years after the incidents, and most of the perpetrators managed to graduate in the meantime. Thirdly, in the case of the sexual harassment at the Institute of Philosophy, the perpetrator was left unpunished only after the one short discussion with the ‘Confidential Advisor’. As a result, he continued his behaviour, this time not being afraid of any punishment as none was given. At the same time, the victim was too afraid to enter the faculty ever again. It cannot be that victims’ dignity, safety, and even life means less than the extra privileges of some people who use them to abuse more people.
Secondly, there is a tendency to undermine the victim’s experiences by presenting objective facts as the subjective feelings of the victim. Rather than believing the victim and saying ‘she was harassed by so and so’, the staff responsible for taking the reports trivialize the events and gaslight the victim by saying ‘she felt as though she was harassed’. In cases of mistakes made by the staff at the Harassment Help Desk, rather than stating that ‘the confidential advisor broke protocol and violated the confidentiality agreement between advisor and student’, they say that ‘the student feels as though they were betrayed’, when in fact, a formal rule was broken, and the victim was gaslit to believe that nothing wrong took place here.
During our survey conducted in November 2020, we collected 50 testimonies from the student body that unleashed multiple instances of the neglect of KU Leuven towards victims of gender-based violence, bullying and discrimination (please check our detailed analysis). Most of the received testimonies proved the general distrust of students towards KU Leuven that fails to come to a clear, effective, victim-oriented and intersectional Harassment Policy.
While we acknowledge that KU Leuven is not police and hence cannot take the justice system’s role, we still think that it is their duty as the educational institution to ensure the safety of students and staff who study there. Suppose some members of KU Leuven are too afraid to participate in the educational events out of fear of meeting their oppressors. In that case, KU Leuven is guilty of blocking these people from the educational opportunities and failing their educational mission. Even if the recent changes in the disciplinary regulations improved the situation, it is often the staff who does not implement these rules because of the tendency to reduce abuse to the mutual conflict or the subjective feelings. Finally, there is still no feasible solution proposed on how to report cases of discrimination. There is no special desk for reporting such cases, which might discourage many students from diverse backgrounds from reporting their abuse. More information on this can be found in the #DecolonizeKULeuven Manifesto.
As a result, we demand the KU Leuven staff to change their approach (this includes mental health professionals, confidential advisors and the university staff) to stop treating instances of gender-based abuse, violence, bullying as the mutual conflict or the subjective feelings of the victim. For that, we invite you to read seriously suggestion, arguments and demands made by the #TryHarderLeuven and #DecolonizeLeuven campaigns.
Thank you for your time,