The University of Groningen (RUG) has been present in the media for the last couple of weeks with recent further escalation connected to issues about academic freedom and social safety. PNN has followed these events with great concern and we are deeply troubled by the use of violence against students and staff who were peacefully protesting.

In response to these events, the RUG recently launched a social safety campaign aiming to stimulate conversations about social safety. As PNN recognizes the importance of social safety for PhD candidates - a particularly vulnerable group due to their great dependence on supervisors and management - we have reviewed this campaign.

We applaud the initiative of the RUG to launch such a social safety campaign. The zero-tolerance statement and the overview of procedures for seeking help when social safety is violated per group (students, PhD candidates, staff) show a good example for other Dutch universities, research institutes or UMCs aiming to launch a social safety campaign. However, we also have a couple of recommendations:

  • A clear and informative overview: The webpages of the campaign (which are partly located on the intranet and hence not publicly accessible) contain much text and links to various pages on the university website and intranet with even more text. This requires a lot of effort from someone trying to read this - something that should not necessarily be asked from someone who just experienced a socially unsafe situation, is in distress and seeks help. We suggest summarizing information in infographics that can be easily shared (on social media) and provide a clear and informative overview in one glance.
  • Not just words, but concrete action: While much has been written on the website and intranet there appears to be little concrete actions that engage students and staff in discussions regarding social safety. We recommend taking concrete actions to get everyone involved, such as panel discussions, workshops and lectures.
  • Translation between Dutch and English: While the core slogan of this campaign may work in Dutch (“Als je denkt dat het eigenlijk niet kan, check het dan”), it does not easily translate to English (“If it is probably not your task, just ask”). This might not lead to optimal inclusion and may not communicate the same message to all staff and students. While designing a campaign, institutions should carefully consider its content and meaning in all languages it is shared in.
  • Institutional issues and taking responsibility: The most concerning aspect is that the campaign of the RUG appears to be mainly focused on encouraging dialogue between staff and students rather than acknowledging systemic issues. We suggest making it a central part of social safety campaigns to discuss what can be done by leadership and management or how policies can be improved (e.g., regular mandatory active bystander training or social safety training for incoming tenure-track supervisors)
  • Proactive communication The social safety campaign and all communication related to social safety appears to be reactive to the current negative publicity and direct criticism towards the RUG. Proactive communication addressing issues before protests and complaints occur increases transparency and builds trust in the institution. This trust is needed for staff and students to feel safe and confident in reporting issues.

PNN hopes that these recommendations are implemented wherever possible and can help in improving current and future social campaigns. We encourage every institution to launch a social safety campaign targeted at all people affiliated with their institution, to work together towards a safe workplace for everyone.

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