Interview Tijo Collot d’Escury

Supervisory Board: ‘It takes time for changes in leadership and culture to become visible’

In its report about social safety at TU Delft, the Inspectorate of Education was critical about the role of the Supervisory Board. Outgoing Minister of Education Dijkgraaf subsequently had several meetings with the Supervisory Board and set out four points of attention in a letter. In this interview, the Board’s Chair, Tijo Collot d’Escury, responds on behalf of the full Supervisory Board.

How this interview was produced

The interview with the Supervisory Board was not by telephone or face-to-face which Delta had repeatedly asked for. Its Chair, Tijo Collot d’Escury, wanted to consult the other members of the Board on the answers. In the end, we emailed our questions. This meant that it was not possible to go into an issue in more detail. Nevertheless, this way of questioning and receiving answers is preferable to not being able to ask any questions at all.

What do you think of the outgoing Minister of Education’s comment that you ‘should maintain a critical distance from the Executive Board’?

‘The views of the Minister reflect those of the Supervisory Board, given that the Board is subject to legalities and to the principles of good governance. In short, this means monitoring the Executive Board and acting as a sounding board and sparring partner. This calls for some distance between the Executive Board and the Supervisory Board, and the Supervisory Board adheres to this.’

How do you maintain that critical distance?

‘By sticking to our assigned task, meeting without the presence of the Executive Board, obtaining information from other sources than only the Executive Board, giving our support or expertise when needed, and undergoing a self-evaluation every year.’

When did the Supervisory Board and the Executive Board talk to each other about and because of the Inspectorate report over the last year? How often was this?

‘The Supervisory Board has regular consultation meetings with the Executive Board. Social safety is a fixed agenda point every time and gets a lot of attention. On top of that, the Supervisory Board has appointed a temporary internal social safety committee. The committee meets regularly and has extra consultation meetings with the Executive Board to discuss progress.

‘If we read that students, staff members or anyone else experiences breaches of social safety, we are saddened and pained’

Initially, this was about the creation of the Plan for Change. After the Plan was submitted to the Inspectorate on 15 May, it has been about the follow-up by the Executive Board. On average, there has been contact between the Supervisory Board and the Executive Board on social safety every week.’

Has the Supervisory Board discussed social safety with the representation bodies and the trade unions since the Inspectorate of Education’s report was issued? What was discussed and what are the outcomes of those discussions?

‘There have been several discussions, both formal and informal, between the Supervisory Board and the representatives of the relevant bodies. The Supervisory Board listens carefully, and its members also talk with other staff members and students from the TU Delft community informally. These discussions cover the whole breadth of issues connected to social safety: motives, causes and consequences, the dominant culture, the change that is needed, how this can best be handled, whether everything is in place to report incidents safely and so on. Everything we hear about in the discussions we include in our monitoring and sounding board role.

Given its role as employer, the Executive Board is the right group for the trade unions to talk to, not the Supervisory Board.’

Portret van Tijo Collot d'Escury

How does the Supervisory Board hear ‘signals that emerge from the organisation in different ways’, as Minister Dijkgraaf calls this. For example, what is your reaction to the articles in the AD and NRC newspapers and Delta about the lack of social safety at TU Delft?

‘We invite guests to Supervisory Board meetings by holding meetings on locations at various parts of the organisation, and by talking formally and informally to representation bodies collectively and individually. We hold discussions with deans and directors during their appointment process. We take part in events at TU Delft. We read the reports of confidential advisors and ombudspersons, and discuss these with them, and we familiarise ourselves with the Employee Monitor.

‘It is harder for us if concerns or complaints are expressed anonymously as it is hard to weigh them up and interpret them properly’

We naturally follow the media’s reports with interest. We may be supervisors, but we are also human beings of flesh and blood. So if we read that students, staff members or anyone else experiences breaches of social safety, we are saddened and pained. That this information reaches us helps us to fulfil our task. It is harder for us if concerns or complaints are expressed anonymously as it is hard to weigh them up and interpret them properly.’

It appears that staff members sometimes have no other option than to go to the media. What do you think that says about the internal culture at TU Delft?

‘We see that social safety is highly prioritised by the Executive Board, both in the issues they think about and in their actions. And rightly so. The Executive Board puts itself in a vulnerable position and recognises that a change in culture is needed. The members are doing their very best to regain trust. They must be given that chance. We stand behind them and support them where we can.

Social safety is a joint task for everyone in the TU Delft community, and not just for the Executive Board. The Executive Board should set a good example of course, but a change in culture is not something that you just proclaim and take a decision about. It involves people throughout TU Delft changing their behaviour.

‘Report incidents to your supervisor, colleagues, or the confidential advisor. That’s what we are there for’

That people go to a newspaper is regrettable to the Supervisory Board from the perspective that apparently the internal routes have not provided a solution. That people prefer to do this anonymously out of fear of reporting, we find even worse. It goes against everything that a university community stands for and it only gives rise to more social unsafety. However, I would still like to encourage people who experience incidents to report them to their supervisor, colleagues, or the confidential advisor. That’s what we are there for.’

In its report, the Inspectorate wrote that the Supervisory Board was surprisingly positive about the mechanisms used to ensure social safety at TU Delft, while reports had shown the contrary for years. What is your response to this?

‘It is not for us to comment on the ideas of our discussions partners. In its supervisory role, the Supervisory Board monitors all the safeguarding mechanisms at TU Delft, including those related to social safety. This is standard so we were doing this even before the investigation by the Inspectorate of Education.

We saw that the reports from the confidential advisors and the ombudspersons were showing improvements at the time, although there certainly was room for improvement. And over the last few years, the Employee Monitor was showing positive developments: the percentage of respondents that said that they had been affected by transgressive behaviour had just about halved since 2017.

‘The role of the Supervisory Board is for us to determine whether staff members can approach us if something goes wrong, especially in regard to the Executive Board’

With hindsight, we can see that the tools were not adequate and that more measures were needed to safeguard social safety. This is not unique. The newspapers are full of examples from other universities and other sectors of society. Just like a lot of other organisations in the Netherlands, TU Delft is still learning about this.’

Why was the Supervisory Board unable to answer questions about social safety at TU Delft during discussions with the Inspectorate?

‘The Supervisory Board cannot quite place this question and does not recognise this picture. The Minister of Education, Culture and Science clarified his position on the task division between the Executive Board and the Supervisory Board at a meeting between him and the chairs of supervisory boards on 20 November 2023. In that meeting, the Minister said that the everyday responsibility rests with the executive boards and that the supervisory boards have a monitoring task. This means that they check that there are enough tools and institutions, that they hold discussions, coach, monitor achievements regarding social safety, and so on.

It goes without saying that the Supervisory Board is directly responsible should there be an issue on social safety within the Executive Board. The role of the Supervisory Board is for us to determine whether staff members can approach us if something goes wrong, especially in regard to the Executive Board.’

How can it be that the Inspectorate believes that the Supervisory Board ‘has not contributed enough on the social safety of staff members’ and has a ‘minimal information structure’?

‘These are questions for the Inspectorate. We have not received any further explanation as yet. This does not mean that the Supervisory Board is not taking this issue seriously.’

Why did the Executive Board and the Supervisory Board jointly decide not to have the Inspectorate report presented by the Inspectorate itself, but to precede them by a couple of days?

‘We received the report and were of the opinion that staff members should not read the Inspectorate of Education’s conclusions in the newspaper, but should hear it from their own organisation.’

Why did you also jointly consider going to court and to make this known?

‘To start with, and as was also stated at the time, the Supervisory Board embraces the recommendations of the Inspectorate of Education to improve social safety. That we do not agree with the investigation methodology used, has nothing to do with it.

‘With hindsight, it would have been better to have shared our views in two separate letters’

Independently of each other, the Supervisory Board and the Executive Board reached the same conclusions about the investigation methods and how the Inspectorate drew its conclusions. Each also had its own advisor. With hindsight, it would have been better to have shared our views in two separate letters. But this was unknown territory for everyone. The Inspectorate of Education had never investigated social safety before.’

What does the Supervisory Board think of the storm of criticism that then burst forth?

‘It was justified as we did not explain our core message, which was that we recognise that improvements needed to be made regarding social safety, properly. It meant that staff members felt hurt. That was naturally not our intention, but this is what happened. We should have handled it differently.

Supervisory boards must be free to share their opinions about sensitive methodologies, and certainly in an academic community where discussions are content driven. The Supervisory Board thought about it and sought advice from external experts (Professor of Law Marjan Olfers and Doctor of Law Anton van Wijk).’

How did the Supervisory Board check if there is still trust and support for the Executive Board within the organisation, as the Minister asks you to do?

‘We have full confidence in the Executive Board. We check this among our Supervisory Board members, with the functionaries with whom we work, other people at TU Delft, and other people who we meet. And we will continue to do this.’

In the eyes of the Supervisory Board, how is the Executive Board showing the ‘credible self-reflection and behaviour change’ that the Minister would like to see?

‘The Supervisory Board sees that the Executive Board has already taken some action in reflection and self-reflection and is being coached. The Supervisory Board sees that the Executive Board is taking this seriously and acting on it. It takes time for changes in leadership and culture to become visible.’

How is the Supervisory Board itself showing that ‘credible self-reflection and behaviour change’?

‘We do self-evaluation and self-reflection exercises every year. This year, one is planned for after the summer and will be done with external facilitation. The Supervisory Board went into the subject in detail recently, including having had meetings with Mariëtte Hamer, the Government’s Commissioner on Sexually Transgressive Behaviour and Sexual Violence, and other experts on social safety. And of course the Board talks to the Minister regularly.’

What is the Supervisory Board’s judgement about the ‘intimidation, racism, sexism, bullying, exclusion, gossip and the lack of social safety’ that the Inspectorate refers to?

‘Each of these facets of socially unacceptable behaviour are abhorrent. There is no place for any of them at TU Delft.’

The Inspectorate says that the university administration has plenty of information about what is going on in the area of social safety, but ‘fails’ to ‘add them up to reach a complete picture’. What is the Supervisory Board’s judgement about this failure? How can the Supervisory Board be properly informed if the Executive Board does not compile all the information and thus does not share it with the Supervisory Board?

‘Several meetings were held with staff members and students in connection with the Inspectorate report and the need to improve social safety. During the meetings where members of the Executive Board were present, they apologised, joined break-out sessions and listened to criticism and suggestions for improvement from staff members and students.

‘We have full confidence in the Executive Board’

During the meetings, the Executive Board explained that while there may a good system for safeguarding social safety on paper, it did not work adequately in practice and change was needed.

The Executive Board had commissioned a system integrity check and the analysis showed that adjustments need to be made to the system. The change needed is included in the Plan for Change that was offered to the Inspectorate of Education. This plan came about thanks to valuable suggestions that emerged from the meetings, including those which the Executive Board consciously did not attend in case there were people present who would then feel less free about speaking out.

Information was also obtained from physical and digital mail. And from information on best practices outside TU Delft. ‘External eyes’ (external advisors) also looked on. If you add everything together, this gives the Supervisory Board the confidence that the lack of social safety is now clearer than before and that action will be taken as soon as it is needed.’

  • Want to know more about the Education Inspectorate’s report and everything related to it? Then check out Delta’s dossier on the matter.
Editor in chief Saskia Bonger

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