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Students call for new guidelines to avoid offensive behaviour

Anna Nørgaard Sørensen from Student Council suggests the University of Copenhagen form a committee in which students and faculty can find common ground in defining offensive behaviour.

#MeToo and the war on offensive behaviour at the University of Copenhagen

February 2018:

A survey conducted by the Danish Association of Masters and PhDs’ member magazine reveals that 11 percent of female students have experienced inappropriate physical advances at their student job sites while 8 percent report similar experiences at the university.

Forty-eight female students from five universities publish an anonymous, open letter to the university rectors in Dagbladet Information calling for measures against offensive behaviour.

June 2018:

The University of Copenhagen releases new guidelines that among other things state, »The employee’s/student’s experience of having been subjected to offensive behaviour is the starting point.«

The guidelines furthermore declare a »zero-tolerance« stance on offensive behaviour. The guidelines are subject to much scrutiny in the media.

September 2018:

Faculty of Law vice-dean Stine Jørgensen urges students not to organize themed social events with offensive stereotypes for the beginning of the semester festivities.

December 2018:

According to the media Weekendavisen, an associate professor at the Faculty of Humanities is summoned to a formal meeting following complaints made by students. The students accuse the associate professor of being sexist, racist, and Eurocentric in his teaching.

An internal investigation exonerates the associate professor from accusations of racism and gender discrimination. It is, however, also concluded that he lacks sensitivity when discussing certain topics. The associate professor is prohibited from teaching for the remainder of the semester and thesis counselling the following semester.

December 2018:

During course evaluation in a biology class a student criticizes the use of statistic material where subjects are categorized as either male or female. In January 2019, the incident becomes the subject of media scrutiny. Subsequently, the Department of Biology institutes a discussion of the practice as part of the course work.

June 2019:

A workplace assessment report concludes that 86 employees at the University of Copenhagen have been subject to unwanted sexual advances in the past year.

October 2019

UCPH revises its offensive behaviour guidelines as critics claim the original guidelines are a threat to freedom of speech and research. In the revised guidelines, the stipulation »the employee’s/student’s experience of having been subjected to offensive behaviour is the starting point« has been removed along with the term »zero-tolerance«.

The guidelines still refer to the overall set of rules determined by the Danish Working Environment Authority in which the starting point of an investigation into allegations of offensive behaviour remains the subjective experience of the aggrieved party.

Source: Berlingske, DR, Jyllands-Posten, Politiken, The University Post, Weekendavisen

More often than not, when students feel offended by statements made by their educators, the problem is a result of old behavioural habits and a generational gap.

This according to English major and member of the Student Council at the University of Copenhagen, Anna Nørgaard Sørensen. She proposes that the university form a committee in which students and faculty find common ground in defining offensive behaviour and devise guidelines on that basis.

»We have to help each other out. It is about having an open discussion, so we can find common ground. We need clear and specific definitions of what constitutes offensive behaviour.«

The younger generations must help the older generations

Professor and head of the Section for GeoGenetics Eske Willerslev tells University Post that he finds navigating the new culture at the university in the wake of #MeToo difficult.

READ ALSO: In the wake of #MeToo, Eske Willerslev leaves his office door open: »It’s a precautionary measure«

According to him, many of his colleagues worry that they will be accused of displaying offensive behaviour. He always leaves his door open when he is in a meeting with a female student or colleague.

»It must be very unpleasant to feel under suspicion simply by having a meeting with a student. We cannot tolerate working conditions where an employee feels under suspicion for simply doing his or her job,« says Anna Nørgaard Sørensen.

According to her, the Student Council is aware of the fact that navigating the behavioural standards at the university can be difficult.

»We know that it can be difficult. The rules are not very clear.«

She adds that the older generations at the university have set ways that can come off as offensive to younger generations.

»There are behavioural patterns that can be changed, but that is only possible when you become aware of them. The students must clarify what they deem offensive behaviour. The faculty members have a hard time responding to something they do not understand,« says Anna Nørgaard Sørensen.

You say the older generations have to revise certain behavioural patterns. What about the younger generations? How can they accommodate the older generations?

»We have to help them recognize our needs. We cannot just get mad at them. We have to help each other out and be very clear about when boundaries are crossed. That goes for faculty members and students alike,« she says.

In a safe environment you can point out offensive behaviour

In order to create an environment where everyone can thrive it is important to address conflicts as they arise, says psychologist and PhD in organization and management, Signe Groth-Brodersen. It is all about being practical.

»In many situations it is about creating a normal, well-functioning work environment where we can talk to each other about what we like and dislike. If for instance you say: ‘I can tell that you have a lot on your mind, but will you please not interrupt me when I am speaking?’ Or: ‘The way you talk about that subject bothers me.’ That gives me an opportunity to say: ‘I am sorry, I will remember that next time.’«

According to Signe Groth-Brodersen, who works as a self-employed organisational psychologist, conflicts can be prevented if you keep an open mind when discovering that your views differ from those of for instance an educator or a colleague.

»We have to take notice of each other, listen to each other, and be willing to explore each other’s point of view. We need a respectful, solution-oriented dialogue in which we are conscious of the fact that we all experience things differently,« she says.

Ensuring a safe environment is a shared task and faculty members should not feel constantly under threat of accusation.

»It is important to address the issues as they arise and ensure that people are comfortable expressing themselves if they feel their boundaries have been crossed,« says Signe Groth-Brodersen. »That opens for a response along the lines of: ‘What you just said is very interesting. Please tell me how you perceived what I said. That was not my intention at all.’«

Translation by Theis Duelund