Flemish universities continue to face #MeToo issues
The last two years, the Belgian media reported several cases of professors sexually abusing female students and employees, with administrations aware of the situation in University of Ghent, the Brussels Free University (VUB) and Catholic University of Louvain (KUL). "The number of claims and the failure of institutions to act has become known as the Belgian university #MeToo movement," says David Zaruk, an EU risk and science communications specialist who holds the blog "Risk-Monger".
A KU Leuven professor was sentenced to 4,5 years in prison for the rape of a student in Barcelona in the summer of 2016. In recent days, reports emerged that the university was immediately informed of the crime but did not intervene. The professor was able to remain a further four months after an official complaint was lodged in 2018. He continued to publish research on behalf of KU Leuven and even received an award.
The complaints are similar to the ones against professors at VUB and UGent, where students told the Belgian media "The Bulletin" that academic staff abuse their positions of power and “too often get away with a reprimand, and the transgressive behaviour is therefore often repeated”.
While at least one woman from KU Leuven decided to stop her doctoral research as a result of the harassment, women researchers at VUB told "The Bulletin" that professors “killed” their careers by blacklisting them from job opportunities for rejecting their advances or speaking up about the harassment they experienced.
"The Dutch language in Flanders even euphemised the situation with words like 'grensoverschrijding' (literally “going beyond borders”) for cases that should have been considered as sexual abuse or rape," denounces Zaruk. "The vertical management structure in the academic institutions easily allowed for such intimidation, manipulation and harassment," he analyses.
As consequence, Flemish minister of Justice, Enforcement and Tourism Zuhal Demir is now putting on hold a government subsidy for the KU Leuven university and demanded an explanation from KU Leuven rector Luc Sels, requesting to know exactly what he and the university knew about the case and when.
"People who were aware of this crime but failed to act do not belong in academia," Demir stated in a press release. "We have to be tough on an institution that does not immediately condemn rape. As the largest university in the country, you cannot be first in line to receive Flemish subsidies but hide from taking up your social responsibility," she added. The university answers that it was the victim that demanded secrecy.
The subsidies amount to at least €1.4 million. They would be disbursed by Tourism Flanders and intended for construction works for the celebration of 600 years of KU Leuven. The subsidies had not yet been formally approved by the Flemish government.
French actress Ludivine Sagnier performs the play "Le Consentement", in the "Me Too" context, on October 3, 2022. © Belga Photo (Clement MAHOUDEAU / AFP)