Interview: Tim van der Hagen

Rector magnificus: ‘You cannot say that a culture of fear dominates TU Delft’

Tim van der Hagen, Rector Magnificus and Chair of the Executive Board at TU Delft, does not think he made a misjudgement by threatening the Inspectorate with a lawsuit. How does he justify this when it took three weeks of protest before he changed his mind?

Rector magnificus and Chairman of the Executive Board Tim van der Hagen at the Dies 2024. (Photo: Thijs van Reeuwijk)

You published the Inspectorate of Education’s report on 1 March and said that you intended to take the Inspectorate to court. You revoked that decision on 20 March after a flood of criticism. Why did you take that decision at that point in time?

“The report stirred up a lot of things, for all of us. We have heard a lot of stories from people who had been treated badly. It is clear that we all have a lot of work ahead of us. The most important thing is that we put all our attention and energy into creating a safe environment for everyone.

A lot of signals have come in, from external people too. What all these reactions have in common is that we move forward with the recommendations in the report and do not fight the investigation in court. We need to get moving and we need to do so together. We have a long way to go and judicial actions will only distract us. We do not want this.”

Journalistic accountability

On 20 March, Delta could meet with Tim van der Hagen for 15 minutes pending a longer interview that would initially be held on 23 March and was rescheduled to 28 March. In advance, Delta had agreed to share the subjects that it wanted to discuss in the longer meeting with his spokesperson. This did not happen as on 26 March, the spokesperson informed Delta that Van der Hagen was only prepared to look ahead in the interview and not back. Apart from the brief interview on 20 March, Van der Hagen has not yet publicly reflected on the Inspectorate’s findings, so Delta did not agree to this. For this reason we are now publishing the conversation we had on 20 March. Some of it was already in this news item.

Did the Executive Board assess the situation wrongly?

“We are a learning organisation. We too are learning in this process that must be done with the utmost care. We initially sincerely thought that there were aspects that deserved to be criticised in the report. It put people with their backs to the wall which could make them feel unsafe. But people are now letting us know that we need to focus on improving the culture.”

‘From the outset our message was that the report contains an important message’

That strategy has caused a lot of unrest and has taken much energy that could have been put into improving the social safety. Why did you not see this coming?

“From the outset our message was that the report contains an important message and that we have much to do. The social safety is not in order at TU Delft. People feel unsafe.

Apart from that, we were critical about the methodology used by the Inspectorate. We see that a lot of people do not agree with this and we are listening to them. So we will not continue with a court case.”

How did the decision to start a court case come about? I hear from different sources that employees are challenged internally and externally on that decision, and not always in a friendly way.

“It was not a decision, but an intention. We were sincere about it and had the best of intentions to protect our people as the whole of TU Delft was affected. But we also now see that it is better for us to focus on improving the social safety, and to become a leading university in this area. That creates a lot of energy among directors, deans, rectors and pro vice rectors, the Works Council, the Student Council and so on. We are rolling up our sleeves and getting going.”

This sounds good and will get a lot of attention, but let’s go back to the last three weeks for now. Some said the Board’s strategy is a telling sign that it is not safe to express criticism at TU Delft. What do you say to that?

“We embraced the Inspectorate’s recommendations. It is a pity if people see the intention to start a court case as criticism of the Inspectorate.”

Taking someone to court seems to be the most severe form of criticism.

“It was about the methodology, and not about improving the social safety. But indeed, these became intertwined and that is a pity. Again, we too are learning here. We are trying to do things carefully and with each other.

What occurred on 1 March is not nothing. It has had a huge impact on everyone. We have received a lot of signals and will move forward on them. There are a lot of emotions, about the social situation as well as about the legal process. We have given everything much thought and will work with that.”

‘I do not mean to discard serious incidents at all, but accusing the whole of TU Delft is going too far’

In your official view to the Inspectorate’s report you emphasised that the number of people lodging reports was low and that there was no adversarial procedure, thus putting their experiences down to non-proven facts. Can you imagine that this felt like a slap in the face for those people?

“Right from the start we said that every report was one too many. If an incident is reported, you are too late. We take each case very seriously. What we would possibly base that lawsuit on is that in the report, the entire HR directorate, all the executives and all the professors were put with their backs against the wall. I do not mean to discard serious incidents at all, but accusing the whole of TU Delft is going too far.”

In its own documents the Board emphasises that there were 148 people reporting incidents and 24 people were interviewed against 12,000 employees and guest employees. read-more-closed . That was not to indicate that few people are affected?

“No, that is not the case. If there was even just one case, that would be one too many. But the investigation does not reveal anything about the culture. That was what we meant. You cannot say that a culture of fear dominates TU Delft.”

‘However hard it is to do so, let your voice be heard and share your stories’

Over the next few months meetings will be held in which students, staff members, and alumni can say what they would do differently at TU Delft and how. But what would you say to the people reporting incidents? What helping hand would you extend to them?

“I do not know them, but we are inviting all students, staff members, alumni and guests to share their experiences so this includes them too. There will surely be even more people who have experienced unpleasant situations. However hard it is to do so, let your voice be heard and share your stories. Then we can improve the situation.”

What about others who have left in recent years after experiences of social unsafety – with or without the obligation of confidentiality? Should you not re-examine those cases, should you not be keen to know if that all went well?

“I do not know right now. There is a lot of work to be done. What I do know is that we need to talk to each other and that we need to listen closely. We will look at where the main lessons lie. I recognise what you are saying. In cases where action has been taken or where people have been sent away or whatever, some things may not have been sorted out satisfactorily. We need to do this better. We cannot solve everything in one go. We will need to work on this for years, perhaps even continuously.”


The Inspectorate of Education investigated transgressive behaviour at TU Delft from December 2022 to November 2023. In the resulting report, the investigators speak of intimidation, racism, sexism, bullying, exclusion, gossiping, social insecurity due to lack of leadership and a culture of fear, among other things. For instance, employees are said to be afraid to voice their opinions and hold each other accountable for behaviour.

The effects among TU Delft employees who have reported to the inspection are often long-lasting and hampering. The inspectorate speaks of psychological and physical health complaints, absence from work and a general feeling of insecurity. Stress, burnout, depression and PTSD, crying and tense home situations also occur, as do illness, vomiting at work, panic attacks and heart palpitations.

The inspectorate reports that TU Delft’s university administration has a lot of information regarding what is happening in terms of social safety, but that they ‘omit to add everything up so as to create a complete picture’. ‘The management’ also ‘does not adequately manage in terms of appropriate measures’. The Inspectorate believes that this is mismanagement.

Read the news and background articles on the Inspectorate’s report in our dossier.

  • Delta is looking for current and former TU Delft staff members who are willing to share their experiences. This can be done anonymously if preferred. Email
Editor in chief Saskia Bonger

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