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Foto: Monique Kooijmans (UvA)
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‘Poisoned atmosphere’ in Rotterdam - how former UvA rector Dymph van den Boom went down

26 juni 2019 - 17:18

Dymph van den Boom was a dean and rector at the UvA for twenty years. Recently, she left as an interim dean at the Erasmus University Rotterdam. A week later, national newspaper NRC wrote an article accusing Van den Boom of plagiarism. It’s no coincidence, faculty staff says. What happened? A reconstruction. ‘I call this character assassination.’

It’s April 1st. In a room on campus Woudestein, Ana Uribe Sandoval, chair of the ESHCC faculty council, is leading a staff meeting about the future of her faculty. Everyone has been invited, except for the management and interim-dean Dymph van den Boom, who has just presented her advice about the future of her faculty.

 

With a MentiMenti is an interactive online tool to make world clouds with multiple people at once., Uribe Sandoval tries to gauge the staff’s opinions. She asks questions; staff can submit their answers anonymously. What do you think about the merger? What are your concerns? All the answers pop up on the project screen.

In brief
  • There’s a poisoned atmosphere on the faculty of the Erasmus University where former UvA administrator Dymph van den Boom was appointed dean ad interim, faculty staff says.
  • Opponents of the merger, including the Management Team (MT) were determined to block possible merger plans, even before Van den Boom was appointed. Employees say ‘the discussion ended up as a personal vendetta’.
  • The Executive Board of the Erasmus University has decided to postpone the merger plants and appointed an independent research bureau to do a ‘culture review’.

Then something unexpected happens. At the last question – what wishes do you have for a possible merger? – some people present continue to send responses to the screen. Two words, always the same. After a few seconds, these are displayed in bright colours in the middle of the screen: ‘No Dymph.’

 

Such acrimonious incidents are no exception at Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication (ESHCC). There’s a culture of fear in the department, say faculty staff. According to insiders, it had been clear for a while: the faculty’s management team wanted to shelve the merger advice.

 

They got their way. The merger didn’t go ahead and Van den Boom left.

 

(To read the next part of the story, please scroll down.)

Foto: The Campus of the Erasmus University
Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam (cc, via Flickr)

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In March 2018, Van den Boom, former rector magnificus at the University of Amsterdam, is appointed interim dean at the ESHCC faculty for a year and a half. A reliable administrator, according to the Executive Board, with a multidisciplinary background and a pleasant personality. The board calls her a ‘bridge builder’ who will make the faculty ‘more robust’. However, the faculty’s management team does not welcome the arrival of Van den Boom due to the lack of consultation.

Cooperation

For this article, we spoke to 21 current and former staff members from Erasmus University Rotterdam and the University of Amsterdam. This article was written in consultation with Erasmus Magazine, the platform for independent journalism at the Erasmus University Rotterdam.

With around two hundred academic staff, the ESHCC is one of the smaller faculties at Erasmus University. For years, the faculty has been characterised by high pressure of work and financial vulnerability. A merger with the Erasmus School of Social and Behaviour Sciences (ESSB) is mooted.

 

These small departments can’t do much alone. A small faculty has a weaker position of power among big faculties like Erasmus School of Economics, Erasmus MC and the Rotterdam School of Management.

 

Vulnerable

On her appointment, Van den Boom was tasked with exploring future scenarios for ESHCC. The faculty could continue to operate independently or merge with another faculty. Consecutive Executive Boards have felt that something had to happen, says Professor of Sociology Liesbet van Zoonen (dean of the graduate school of the ESHCC, the ESSB and the ESPhil). ’It’s a vulnerable faculty; even the department of communication studies at the University of Amsterdam is bigger.’

‘There was immediate concern in the faculty about what Van den Boom had actually come to do’

There had previously been talk of a merger with the philosophy faculty, but there had been a lot of resistance to that idea. The merger did not go ahead.

 

Van den Boom completed her investigation in March of this year. In her report, she expresses a preference for a merger between the ESHCC and the ESSB. The plans are extremely unpopular. The fields are too different, according to the opposition, they have different visions and would get in each other’s way. The faculty would become too big after the merger.

 

The ESSB had recently undergone a reorganisation and in 2014/2015 the History department had already needed to reorganise, creating a great deal of uncertainty among staff. ‘Everyone was worried about the identity,’ says Arjo Klamer (Economics Professor of Art & Culture at the ESHCC), ‘and for his or her position.’ Van Zoonen agrees. ‘There was immediate concern in the faculty about what Van den Boom had actually come to do.’

 

(To read the next part of the story, please scroll down.)

Foto: Geoff Stahl (cc, via Flickr)

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It’s April 23rd. The editing team of Erasmus Magazine finds an anonymous tip in its post box. It was addressed: ‘Dear editors of EM.” It continued: ‘We have found out that the interim dean of ESHCC committed plagiarism in her advice. The attachment shows the details. It is a case of straightforward copying and repeated failure to include sources.’ The writers of the letter report that this is a serious breach of academic integrity. Five A4s with highlighted yellow texts are enclosed. On the left side there are texts from the merger report, on the right side texts from, among others, the World Economic Forum or from the Berkeley University site. The texts are identical. The letter ends with ‘Sincerely yours, The Integrity Squad’.

 

By then, a tip about the copy and paste work in Van den Boom’s advisory report had already arrived on the desk of the faculty’s management team (MT). The four-member MT consists of department heads Maria Grever, Susanne Janssen, Filip Vermeylen and education director Jeroen Jansz.

‘She was here as an administrator, not an academic. Opponents of the merger played very dirty’

After seeing the claim about the advisory report, the MT does not consult interim dean Van den Boom, but immediately submits a request to action to the university’s Executive Board. The board rejects this, but asks Van den Boom to produce a new version of the advice in which the missing sources have been added.

 

‘Poisoned atmosphere’

Several professors feel don’t see any issues with the alleged ‘plagiarism’: this isn’t an academic piece of work, so it’s ‘completely irrelevant’ for Van den Boom’s position, says Professor of Social and Economic History Hein Klemann. ‘She was here as an administrator, not an academic. Opponents of the merger played very dirty.’ Another member of the faculty staff says that ‘you don’t do this if you’re colleagues’.

 

According to faculty staff, this is typical. Within parts of the ESHCC, there’s a ‘culture of fear’ and a ‘poisoned atmosphere’, they claim. Even before the appointment of Van den Boom, the MT was set on opposing any merger. Filip Vermeylen, Professor of Global Art Markets and member of the MT, says in a response that he ‘tried to take a constructive approach’. ‘But we had a different view about the merger. Nevertheless, we still acted respectfully to each other.’

 

Insiders interpret the facts differently. ‘The MT immediately responded negatively and didn’t engage in an open dialogue with Van den Boom from the very start,’ says Professor Arjo Klamer. ‘I felt it was extremely rude.’

Foto: Tessa Hofland
The Novotel Hotel Rotterdam Brainpark

Not all the faculty staff experience the culture of fear – some counter the accusations. There are people who talk about a ‘friendly and polite atmosphere’ with ‘some disagreements, but these were always resolved’. The problems therefore don’t apply to the entire faculty, staff emphasise. Conversations present an image of a faculty at war, where personal interests are often prioritised.

 

Conversations in Novotel Hotel

After a critical, written response from the MT to her draft report in January, the relationship between the MT and Van den Boom cools. Van den Boom decides – with the knowledge of the Executive Board – to talk to various groups of up to four staff members in the Novotel Rotterdam Brainpark. She decides to do this because she feels that people aren’t willing to talk freely about the merger and the culture at the faculty in their own department.

 

‘I was quite surprised that she’d decided to do that,’ Vermeylen says. According to Susanne Janssen, Professor of Sociology of Media & Culture and also member of the MT, these conversations ‘caused a lot of unrest’. ‘Staff felt they were rather ridiculous.’

 

According to various faculty staff members, unease grows when Grever, who planned to retire in the autumn, requests Van den Boom to delay her retirement date. Her request was refused. ‘Grever was furious,’ says Klamer. ‘She wanted to fight tooth and nail for her research centre, which she’d built up herself.’

Staff worried about their position and feared the consequences of not signing an anti-merger petition, say insiders

MT member Janssen sees it differently, she says later in a conversation. ‘As the management team, we’d said: it’s not a good idea for Grever to leave in November before a review has been completed. She was asked to stay longer, which initially she didn’t want to do. Eventually she was persuaded to stay.’ After Van den Boom leaves, the rector decides that Grever can stay longer. ‘I regret that fact that there’s now the suggestion that she did it for herself,’ says Janssen. ‘By doing that, she’s demonstrating a great sense of responsibility.’

 

Under pressure

Three academics decide to write a letter to the Executive Board of Erasmus University against the merger. This is signed by 121 members of staff. The MT put faculty staff under pressure to sign this letter, say several professors. Staff worried about their position and feared the consequences, say insiders. For example, faculty council chair Ana Uribe Sandoval was asked by education director Jeroen Jansz why she hadn’t signed it yet. She fobs him off by saying that the council wants to adopt a neutral position and that she doesn’t need to explain herself to him. ‘He then asked me: why can’t we work together?’

‘I felt that the process was becoming increasingly personal. The substantive business discussion ended up as a personal vendetta’

Asked whether the MT put pressure on the faculty council, Janssen says: ‘I think that’s very unlikely. At least, I didn’t.” Vermeylen adds: ‘I did have a phone conversation with someone. He asked me: what are the arguments against the merger? And then you calmly explain. That’s not putting anyone under pressure, is it? We’re all academics, we can form our own opinions.’

 

Smear campaign

There’s been talk of a ‘smear campaign’ against Van den Boom, say several members of staff. ‘I felt that the process was becoming increasingly personal. The substantive business discussion ended up as a personal vendetta,’ says Professor of International Business History Ben Wubs, who was also present at the staff meeting with the word cloud in April. ‘They just wanted to humiliate her. I felt it was terribly childish.’

 

The MT is inside a bubble, say insiders. They think: if we fight as hard as we can against the outside world, then nothing will happen to us. Wubs: ‘Very stupid, because ultimately the Executive Board takes all the decisions. I’d expect smarter actions from people with a PhD.’

 

(To read the next part of the story, please scroll down.)

Foto: Screenshot from NRC

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At the end of April, Dymph van den Boom takes a seat at a table in the chic American Hotel on Leidseplein in Amsterdam. Opposite her is NRC journalist Frank van Kolfschooten, who has studied her scientific publications and speeches. His conclusion: Van den Boom committed plagiarism in nine university speeches and in her thesis from 1988.

 

Van den Boom responds calmly. The speeches were written together with the communication department, she says, and plagiarism rules at that time can’t be compared with plagiarism rules now (see box).

Plagiarism
  • In the article by Frank van Kolfschooten in NRC, Dymph van den Boom was accused of plagiarism in university speeches and in her thesis.
  • In nine speeches given on the university’s birthday, he claimed that Van den Boom had used literal quotes without referencing them. He claimed that she did the same in her 1988 thesis.
  • According to Van den Boom, plagiarism rules of today are now being retrospectively applied to her thesis. She says that she complied with the rules of back then.
  • Van den Boom finds support from Professor Lex Bouter and emeritus professor Kees Schuyt, experts in integrity rules.
  • Van den Boom says that she didn’t write her speeches alone, but together with the communication department. However, the University of Amsterdam denies in NRC that text writers contributed.
  • The University of Amsterdam set up a two-member committee to investigate the academic integrity of Van den Boom.

She will meet Van Kolfschooten on two occasions. Later, when she sees the article for publication, she talks to Professor Klamer of a ‘ruinous article’. ‘She was absolutely shocked,” he says. ‘I call this character assassination. Or better: intellectual murder, because now she is unable to work in academia anymore.’

 

Several professors and deans, who had heard about the case in advance, sent a letter to the newspaper to stop publication of the article. They regard it as a ‘settlement of a feud,’ one of them says. In the letter, they point to members of the MT. The newspaper sends an e-mail saying that the article has ‘no relationship with her advice about the faculty of history, culture and communication’.

 

Too coincidental

The writers of the letter think they know more: someone wanted to trip Van den Boom up. The timing was too good; this was too coincidental. And furthermore, the professors and deans write in the letter: ‘If a violation is suspected, a complaint should be submitted to the local Academic Integrity Committee.’ They conclude: ‘Through these serious accusations, the article resembles an ‘assassination’. The intention is to discredit Van den Boom as an academic, seriously damage her reputation and thus shelve her advice.’

 

On 28 May Dymph van den Boom announced that she was resigning as interim dean with immediate effect. Her departure comes as a bolt from the blue. There is no successor and no official farewell has been planned.

 

Just under a week later, NRC headlines with: ‘How the former rector of the University of Amsterdam committed plagiarism in speeches and thesis’. Academic journalist Frank van Kolfschooten writes about plagiarism in nine of her university speeches and in her 1988 thesis. It is unclear how he stumbled on this subject. ‘More or less by accident when I was Googling Dymph van den Boom and I found one of her speeches on the Internet,’ says Van Kolfschooten in a podcast for NRC.

 

(To read the next part of the story, please scroll down.)

Foto: PersianDutchNetwork (cc, via Wikimedia Commons)

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Twelve members of the academic staff from History, including Professors Wubs and Klemann, write in a statement on 17 June to the Executive Board about intimidation, manipulation, non-transparent decision-making and unauthorised pressure on the faculty. In addition, interim dean Van den Boom had been removed for ‘political reasons’. ‘There is proof that the campaign against Dymph started inside the faculty,’ they write.

‘There is proof that the campaign against Dymph started inside the faculty’

The signatories lose confidence in the faculty’s management team – including their own department head Maria Grever. About her they say: Grever ‘shouldn’t be involved in this at all […] due to the manipulative, intimidating behaviour and her focus on her own gain’. The signatories ask the Executive Board to dismiss the management team and appoint a new team that communicates transparently ‘to heal the deep divides that exist within the faculty’.

 

No merger

In the same week, the Executive Board announces that it has postponed the merger plans. ‘Despite wide support within Erasmus University for the ambition to create a stronger cluster of Social Sciences and Philosophy and a broad desire to intensify the cooperation between both faculties, based on the advice of the faculty councils, the Executive Board concludes that achieving a formal merger would not currently benefit this shared ambition.’

 

The board also appoints a new interim dean: Frank van der Duijn Schouten. The board praises him as a ‘bridge builder’, exactly the same term they used over a year ago to mark the arrival of Van den Boom.

‘This isn’t how universities foster good academic. Or nice people.’

At the beginning of July, an independent research bureau embarks on a ‘culture survey’ on behalf of the Executive Board in response to signals of ‘tensions and division’. ‘This will give everyone better insight into the current organisation culture and with that knowledge we can embark on a process to work better together where necessary and increase mutual trust.”

 

‘Out of control’

A communications staff member from another faculty who wishes to remain anonymous complains about the attitude of the Executive Board. ‘The rector said in Erasmus Magazine that he found the issue “problematic”,’ he says. ‘I’m amazed that they didn’t publicly come out with a statement earlier. They should have sympathised with Van den Boom and said that this should have taken an official route. This attitude is typical of an unsafe working environment.’

 

Van Zoonen calls it ‘sad that it has gotten so out of control.’ ‘Constant lack of finance and fierce competition lead to a culture of every man for himself – we know that from all universities,” she says. ‘Apparently the pressure becomes so high that you mercilessly just humiliate someone. This isn’t how universities foster good academics,” she concludes. ‘Or nice people.’

 

Susanne Janssen and Filip Vermeylen talked to us on behalf of the management team. Jeroen Jansz and Maria Grever did not want to comment. Janssen and Vermeylen say that they do not recognise themselves in the description of intimidation, culture of fear, manipulation or a ‘smear campaign’ against Van den Boom. ‘Such unfounded accusations are hurtful,’ Janssen says. ‘We don’t understand it or recognise it. It’s damaging for the faculty and for the two inspections that are due. I don’t know what people want to achieve by this.’ Vermeylen: ‘If this is how they feel, there’s an integrity coordinator or an ombudsman. That’s the great thing about a university, that you have these institutions. We really have no idea about concrete complaints in that respect. It’s in everybody’s interest that people are able to work in a safe environment.’

 

They both strongly deny having spoken to the NRC about the plagiarism issue. Nor can they imagine their colleagues Jansz or Grever having done so. Janssen says she finds it ‘tragic’ to learn that the article about Van den Boom was published in the newspaper.