Rector: ‘Code of Conduct will foster discussion’

The new TU Delft Code of Conduct is designed to help staff and students solve problems and dilemmas. What lessons does Rector Magnificus Tim van der Hagen take from it?

Tim van der Hagen: “For me, tolerance is an important but sometimes difficult principle." (Photo: Jeroen Bouman)

Why do we need a Code of Conduct?
“The Code describes how staff and students should behave with each other. We had previously incorporated our values in the Strategic Framework but the question is what do we really mean by diversity, integrity, respect, engagement, courage and trust (the acronym is DIRECT, eds.)? These are now described in the Code of Conduct.”

Do you expect everyone to read the Code?
“Well, yes. They are our core principles. It means that you can address someone if something is amiss. Some things are clear. People see black and white, they see that we do not want criminal behaviour. That’s clear. But if you talk about dilemmas – which can give rise to great discussions – you enter a grey area. Hopefully, the Code will foster discussions on subjects that are not that easy or logical.”

Can you give an example?
“Yes, dual use. This is when a technology is used in a different way than the designer intended. Or when you carry out research for a company or country in which you do not have a comprehensive view of human rights. We need to discuss these things. What do you do if it appears that something is not what it seems?”

‘If one person hurts another, then my tolerance comes to an end’

You say ‘we’ need to discuss things. Who are you referring to?
“First of all, our own community. Our colleagues or supervisors. In complex cases the supervisors will probably want to talk to their colleagues. They’ll go to them and say ‘gosh, this and that has gone wrong, what would you do?’”

How do you handle this yourself?
“Problems that cannot be solved by deans or directors often land on my desk. These could be anything. They could be about intimidation, dealing with intellectual property, disagreements about a R&D evaluation, someone who does not get an appointment or feels badly treated and so on. These type of cases are always complicated as they often have a long history. I always try to first have a two-way discussion. If necessary, I seek advice before taking a decision.”

Are there any dilemmas that you find tricky?
“For me, tolerance is an important but sometimes difficult principle. What do I do if someone is intolerant and excludes other people with their ideas? The extreme end of the tolerance spectrum would be for me to say ‘fine, you have a right to your opinions’. But I think that is going too far. If one person hurts another, treats them unfairly, does not respect them anymore, then my tolerance comes to an end.”

In the case of Marc de Vries, the TU Delft professor who signed the Nashville Declaration, you acted in his defence. Why was that?
“The Code of Conduct also states that we need to listen and learn to have a discussion. We need to be careful that we don’t take a position too quickly. There are nuances to this story. Marc de Vries was asked if the text was a literal translation of the Bible. He was not asked if he agreed with it or not. I don’t want to go into this case too much, but many people jumped to conclusions. I tried to handle it carefully. You can write codes of conduct until you’re blue in the face, but the point is to discuss issues openly.”

Are there areas where it doesn’t go well?
“During the open meetings on integrity over the last year, I heard a lot of things that made me wonder ‘how can this be?’. Take the authorship of articles. Sometimes senior scientists take too much credit. They may give a presentation at a conference for example, while the work was actually done by a tenure tracker. This is wrong.”

How should a tenure tracker discuss this with his/her professor? The professor is in a position of power.
“We would always advise to first discuss an issue with the relevant person. It could simply be a misunderstanding. If the person thinks this is too risky or the discussion doesn’t lead anywhere, they must take a different route. In this case, they can approach the Confidential Adviser or the Ombudsman. We are also thinking of opening up a route to Confidential Advisers from other universities.In extreme cases, people may feel safer going there. We need to make it as easy as possible as it’s really awful if something happens to you while you are in a dependent position.”

‘I learn every day’

Should staff and students go on behaviour training?
“We do have these courses, indeed. People in the sciences and mathematical fields can be pretty single-minded, rational and think in terms of cause and effect. It’s also about how people behave when they attend events, how they feel and what they don’t say. I learn every day. I have held many open meetings in my time. In my first year, someone came to me and asked me if I was aware that I ‘do not let women speak as much as I do men?’ I was completely unaware of this. Unintentionally and unconsciously I was not doing the meetings well. Maybe I still don’t, but I’m trying to be more aware of it.”

What happens to people who do not adhere to the Code of Conduct? What kind of sanctions are there for a professor who intimidates a PhD Candidate for example?
“He or she could be given a warning, a warning with notice or be dismissed. Dismissal is rare. A warning with notice, with someone’s full name on the website is also going very far as it could put an end to your career.”

Many people experience a very high workload. How does this fit in with the Code of Conduct?
“It is to the credit of our people if they teach or submit a subsidy application instead of taking a leave, but it’s not right. The base is not good and the Government should do something about this. We need more people and more resources. In the meantime, let’s discuss the workload issue openly and give people the freedom to set their boundaries.”

Editor in chief Saskia Bonger

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