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Foto: Maartje Strijbis (UvA)

Committee says: Tax law department paid too little attention to conflicts in external positions

Sterre van der Hee,
12 januari 2023 - 10:15

The tax law department at the UvA has “paid little attention to the special position of employees with two positions,” an independent investigative committee concludes. Folia reported earlier on indications that Zuidas offices were influencing the publications of tax law staff. 

According to the independent investigative committee, consisting of associate professor Yvonne Erkens (Leiden University) and former professor of tax law Sjaak Jansen (Erasmus University Rotterdam), the test when granting permission for external activities “does not indicate that possible conflicts in the field of integrity were considered or discussed,” neither at the time of appointment nor during employment. Work with an external employer would actually be beneficial for the position at the university, the department argued, and “consequences for the structure of the Tax Law Department as a whole and/or the academic focus areas were insufficiently considered.”

It cannot be ruled out “that some influence, conscious or unconscious, emanates from the external employer or work environment”

In February last year, Folia reported on the Tax Law Department at the UvA, where almost all professors had jobs at large law or tax consulting firms. It showed signs of a conflict of interest between academic integrity and private concerns. For example, several large tax advisory firms reviewed articles written by tax law associates for publication, and employees were sometimes even compelled to adopt revisions from higher-ups. Both GroenLinks and CDA asked questions in Parliament, education minister Robbert Dijkgraaf promised an investigation into the scientific code of conduct, and the law school showed signs of a policy change. 


The Erkens/Jansen committee emphasizes that interviews did not reveal any direct influence, but it does state that it cannot be ruled out “that some influence, conscious or unconscious, emanates from the external employer or work environment. This does not so much concern substantive influence on the investigation as much as it concerns the choice of subjects.” According to the committee, this is not so much an Amsterdam problem, “although the number of double appointments combined with many small part-time appointments at the UvA stands out.”


Erkens and Jansen welcome the fact that the UvA recognizes that this is an issue. “In the future, both faculty and department must adopt an active attitude towards the special position of employees with dual functions. If insufficient attention is paid to that position, it could create conflict [...].” In doing so, Erkens and Jansen argue that the composition of the department should include more major appointments and “should be more balanced in terms of external positions.” 

Foto: Diederick Bulstra (UvA)
Dean of Law André Nollkaemper

Dean of Law André Nollkaemper, who commissioned the study, calls the large number of staff with small appointments in tax law “undesirable. Good connections with professional practice are important for our teaching and research, but should never lead to doubts about our independence.” According to him, the department is actively seeking more balance, both in the number of appointments and in different tax focus areas. In 2022, recruitment was underway for a full-time professor who will also be department chair; recruitment for a full-time associate professor will begin this spring. In addition, the UvA wants to further tighten the supervision of external activities: the administrative system will be updated, employees will be required to update external activities, and sources of financing for special chairs must be clearly indicated. 


Nollkaemper commissioned two other investigations: one into the establishment of the special chair on the topic of international aspects of (collective) real estate investment, and one into publications by the professor involved, Hein Vermeulen. Vermeulen, who mainly researched the tax position of real estate investment institutions, resigned last year because his chair was sponsored by a lobbying group for real estate investors from 2012 to 2017, but he had neither reported this to the UvA nor mentioned it in his publications. Even after Nollkaemper inquired with Vermeulen “following a signal,” the professor denied the payments. By contrast, Vermeulen's other employer, Zuidas office PwC, did know about the sponsorship.


Research and consulting firm Berenschot also concluded after an investigation that financial agreements were not transparent, unreported payments had been made to Vermeulen, and procedural errors had occurred in his appointment, as an internal candidate cannot qualify for a special chair. Another committee, consisting of emeritus professor Leo Stevens and emeritus professor Henk van Arendonk, stated that a review of his publications found “no trace of suspicion,” that they were at odds with principles and standards of scientific integrity or that “the method of funding the research had influenced the scientific findings.”


The department will hold a faculty-wide discussion session on scientific integrity on February 7th at 3:00 p.m.  


Nollkaemper called Vermeulen's failure to provide transparency about the financial construct “unacceptable” and argued that the process concerning the establishment and oversight of the chair was “substandard”. In the past few years, the procedures in place have been “inadequate”. Lately, procedures regarding special chairs have already become stricter and the process as it existed at the time (including for the appointment of the advisory committee and trustees) could not occur again now. This is not to say that further improvement is not needed; procedures in terms of financial transparency are being made more rigorous.