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KU Leuven and other Belgian universities grapple with sexual harassment claims

Students at KU Leuven
18:03 07/02/2022

KU Leuven is facing allegations that complaints against professors who repeatedly engaged in inappropriate behaviour towards students weren’t adequately followed up on. It follows similar assertions earlier this month against Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) and the University of Ghent (UGent).

Several students at Leuven went to De Standaard with allegations against a professor in the Faculty of Science. They said he would reward women who were receptive to inappropriate advances with extra financial support for their research and trips to prestigious conferences.

If a woman wasn’t receptive, “he threatened to fire you and called you ungrateful,” said one student who started her PhD at KU Leuven around five years ago.

The university confirmed that there were reports of transgressive behavior from a professor in that faculty, but said that the perpetrator took part in a remedial programme and showed “much progress”, so they didn’t consider it necessary to conduct a follow-up.

Following the recent media reports, the university said it would review the case. 

Similar accusations at other Belgian universities 

The complaints are similar to the ones against professors at VUB and UGent, where students report that academic staff abuse their positions of power and “too often get away with a reprimand, and the transgressive behaviour is therefore often repeated”.

While at least one woman from KU Leuven decided to stop her doctoral research as a result of the harassment, women researchers at VUB said professors “killed” their careers by blacklisting them from job opportunities for rejecting their advances or speaking up about the harassment they experienced. 

In the case of the KU Leuven student, two male colleagues confirmed that they witnessed the ways in which women became victims of harassment. They also ended their PhDs as a result, adding that the professor in question often made people cry by “calling them names”.

As in the cases at other top Belgian universities, the man accused had multiple complaints lodged against him, which victims said were ignored or not taken seriously. At each university, the professors were allowed to keep their jobs until testimonies were shared in the media or an outside organisation against sexual harassment became involved. This was the case with the VUB professor who was only fired recently despite over a decade of complaints. 

“I reported it several times and was told that a sanction would follow, but I never heard anything about it,” one KU Leuven student said. “In the end, I was mentally not able to work anymore. I thought: if a job makes me so unhappy, it's not worth it.”

Photo: Students at KU Leuven

Written by Helen Lyons