Outgoing Ombudsman pleas for empathy

Ombudsman Job van Luyken has left TU Delft after two years and nine months in office. How does he look back on his term of service? “It is always about social safety.”

Job van Luyken: "Evasys is a public pillory and teachers cannot defend themselves." (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

In September 2017, the TU Delft Works Council submitted a proposal (in Dutch) on a long held dream: appoint an ombudsman to whom employees could turn if all other avenues have not helped or are not available. They could be employees who feel unfairly or badly treated by their employer and for whom the only alternative is to go to court. One-and-a-half years and many discussions later it happened: Job van Luyken took office (in Dutch) as the first Ombudsman for TU Delft staff. Another one-and-a-half years later he included students in his target group.

Van Luykens’ appointment was part of a pilot at four universities (in Dutch) whose purpose was to see if all universities should have an ombudsman position. This is now the case – from July of this year, universities are required to appoint ombudsmen. In turn, Van Luyken resigned from TU Delft on 1 December. His successors – one Ombudsman for staff and one for students – will start on 15 January.

Why did you decide to resign as Ombudsman at TU Delft?
“It is good if you do not fulfill this position for too long. On top of that, the type of appointment does not suit me. TU Delft wants to hire someone on a permanent contract while I decided a while ago to never work anywhere on a permanent contract. This is independent of the question as to whether an ombudsman should be completely independent. I am still debating this, but my gut feeling says that it is better to do this work as a neutral freelancer. It means that you are more independent. I also don’t see how two people can spend 38 hours working on this (Van Luyken’s two successors have both been appointed for 19 hours a week, Eds.)

Why not?
“For personnel 19 hours is fine, but for students it’s debatable. The complaints desk for students at TU Delft works very well. I thus only see the exceptions of the exceptions. I will wholeheartedly accept my error if it turns out that I am wrong, but I believe that appointing two people is extremely inefficient as it means that all the meetings, such as with the Executive Board, Human Resources and Legal Affairs have to be done with two people.”

‘It just people feel better when someone is listening’

Isn’t it a good thing if they have someone to brainstorm with?
“I brainstorm with Ombudsmen outside TU Delft and that works well. My two successors can act as back-ups for each other and this should give staff and students a choice.”

Is this because you may have a better click with one person than another?
“It’s not really about who is in office, but the role, though. The Ombudsman is objective and neutral, regardless of gender or origins. If you go to court, you can’t choose the judge either. An ombudsman needs certain life experience and legal knowledge, as well as experience in mediating and listening without criticism. The rest is less important. I often hear that people are happy that they can finally tell their story, even if they know that they were not entirely in the right. It just makes them feel better that someone was listening.”

Apart from the type of appointment, TU Delft takes the position of Ombudsman seriously, doesn’t it?
“Yes it does. I am extremely happy that it is hiring people, including for students, as this is not the case at every university. It’s just that 19 hours is not needed at TU Delft. I know the student ombudsman at Leiden University. He handles about 200 cases a year and with this volume you do need 19 or more hours. The number in one year at TU Delft is just a handful. My predecessor and I had half a day a week for students and it was more than enough.”

TU Delft’s student psychologists still have waiting lists though. Do students not end up at the Office of the Ombudsman because of this?
“I have spoken to quite a lot of students in that time, but few had real complaints. They were sometimes just looking for support so the discussions were more like coaching sessions. I was able to put them on the right path, but I am not a psychologist. In that respect, I would have preferred that fewer hours went to an ombudsman for students and more to an extra student psychologist.”

‘You do not need to agree, as long as you think about it’

Has your work improved the organisation?
“I was not always received with coffee and biscuits and my advice was not always followed, but at least I had a listening ear. I hope that this had an impact and that things go differently the next time. You do not always need to agree, as long as you think about it. The best thing is that an ombudsman can act as a mediator. I did this about 40 times. It did not always lead to a permanent solution in all cases, but it did help, even if was just that I could help people see common sense. Staff members sometimes feel so alone, for example if they have an army of HR or Legal Affairs advisors across the table who inundate them with rules, knowledge and expertise. This is then a very unfair battle. People know that they are not always right, but they do want to be heard and understood. It is always about social safety.”

What advice did you give the Executive Board when you left?
“That they introduce my successors properly. Not afterwards as was the case with me. I sometimes came across people who did not even know that there was an Ombudsman and who would have come to see me earlier if they had known. That is not right. I had to introduce myself to a lot of people. I hope my successors are properly introduced.”

Without the Works Council, your position would not have been created in 2019. What is your advice to the Works Council?
“I think it could be more proactive. It has the right of initiative and can take things on. For example, the Works Council could demand that the performance evaluations (Evasys, Eds.) be organised differently, but instead it lets itself be put off by the Executive Board. Even in my first year I was faced with teachers who had openly been burned out by students and who were in a dip. This was not only because of the hard evaluations of students, but also because of the direct manner in which supervisors used the outcomes in performance interviews.

‘Often the attitude is: if you feel bad, it is your own fault’

What could the Works Council propose as an alternative?
“I do not think that supervisors should only depend on the course evaluations, but should go and sit in on a lecture unannounced. Course evaluations are not representative. Students with negative experiences write negative things more easily, but a couple of evaluations do not say much in themselves. You cannot manage satisfaction entirely. Imagine that you are a teacher that has to teach a module of extremely dull information. You simply have to do it, you cannot make it more interesting.

Of course there are bad teachers, but the point is that every student can simply unscrupulously write down anything they want about teachers as it is anonymous. This would be fine if the evaluations were not made public but would only be shared with the supervisors or the relevant faculty’s Programme Board with the purpose of improving the module. But Evasys is a public pillory and teachers cannot defend themselves. That is not good for their social safety. Rob Mudde of the Executive Board has said that he just shrugs off unpleasant comments or foul language. He calls them incidents. But I think that it’s not about him or what he thinks. He is not the yardstick. To my mind this shows that he takes no notice of teachers that really, and justifiably, have problems with this.”

You also work at other universities. In your eyes, what is the culture of TU Delft?
“At present I am working in different capacities at different universities. (Van Luyken does not wish to specify which universities these are, Eds.) At one university where there are issues I work as a process coach. At others I work on assessing the culture, reports and complaints. Of course I see differences between universities. TU Delft is business-like in everything. Sometimes you would like to see more compassion – not good or bad, right or wrong, but nuance. Everyone in a conflict situation is both right and wrong. If you are part of one, have the guts once to say that you understand that the other person feels bad in the situation and ask what you can do to make it a little better for him/her. Being seen and heard can help so much. But the attitude often now is that the other person is wrong so should not complain and if they feel bad, it is their fault.”

Do you have any advice for your successors?
“Do not let anyone make you crazy, but follow your own course of action. Be aware that you won’t always make progress as one of the challenges of this position is that people can cast your advice aside. They can ignore everything you say and this does sometimes happen. Don’t let that frustrate you. In the end, you do have influence, perhaps not in those particular cases, but hopefully people act differently the next time.”

Editor in chief Saskia Bonger

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