The case of professor Susanne Täuber (s03e04)
In season 3, episode 4, we talk through the case of professor Susanne Täuber and try to make some sense of it.
[00:00:00] Chris Hartgerink: Hi, and welcome to the Open Update. For Liberate Science. I'm Chris Hartgerink.
[00:00:03] Sarahanne Field: I'm Sarahanne Field.
[00:00:05] Chris Hartgerink: In the Open Update we talk about power imbalances in research and society more broadly. We're in the fourth episode for this season; today we will talk about the case of Professor Susanne Täuber, who was recently fired from the Dutch University of Groningen after being employed there for 14 years. This employment started back in 2009, and we want to dive into the origins of this situation, why it's relevant within the discussion of power imbalances.
That's pretty much a spoiler to the whole episode. It's not just a regular firing because something happened, it's deeper and it's getting a lot more traction as a result of it. This case specifically is very important regarding the effects of trying to struggle for equity. The case is getting some attention in Groningen, in the Netherlands, but not so much beyond it. We felt that because Sarahanne is going to go to University of Groningen and I am Dutch by origin, so I can read the court case that, this would be a great opportunity to relay some of this information to you, our audience.
We're gonna dive in. We're gonna try and do our best in those 15 minutes. We're also gonna be chatting a bit about what this does with incoming staff at the university.
To start us off with this case it really is important to set the stage around who Susanne Täuber is, because Susanne Täuber is a scholar who's very well known for their work on social safety in the workplace. Working on reports highlighting a lack of it and working for gender equity. For example, for the Young Academy of Groningen she documented events of sexism and beyond. She is also a vocal critic of systemic issues. When we talk about the patriarchy, sexism at institutions beyond just the university and really trying to undo some of those effects as well.
As many academics know, an academic career isn't easy. You start off, you try to find a tenure track position or a postdoc. Then if you wanna stay in academia, you have to go through a certain mill of requirements to be able to get to the next stage to be promoted.
Professor Täuber to was situated within Groningen through a gender equity program, the Rosalind Franklin Fellowship, to make sure that more women, became professors at the university. That's an important bit of context within this case. What happened over the years is that there were conversations around what is required to be promoted, and one of the points being that there were shifting goalposts. So there would be requirements, say you need to publish four papers and these journals, and then subsequently it would either be very close to those requirements or even pass them, and then there would be new requirements.
I don't know about you, Sarahanne, but that does sound frustrating,
[00:03:13] Sarahanne Field: Yeah, of course. Absolutely.
[00:03:15] Chris Hartgerink: As a result, there was this statement in a evaluation conversation "okay, you need to publish more in high impact journals." We disagree with the idea of high impact journals, but okay. There's many details we can't go into, but there was a paper back in 2020 in the Journal of Management Studies, which in regular vernacular it has an impact factor of almost 10, I believe.
If I remember correctly that's quite high impact.
[00:03:43] Sarahanne Field: It is.
[00:03:44] Chris Hartgerink: So this is a result of these conversations as well, having to publish in high impact journals. This paper is open access, so if you want to read it, we'll provide a link, but it's called "Undoing Gender in Academia, personal Reflections on Equal Opportunity Schemes."
This is where, what I just said, the Rosalind Franklin Fellowship is a very important part. These personal reflections, they relate to the experience at the University of Groningen, which, if you are a woman at an institution, it's very likely you're gonna experience the effects of a sexist system.
In this paper, some of these systemic effects and how they took place in Susanne Täuber's life are made explicit. That was really the start of a big problem for the employers at the university. They took this as personal accusations of sexism and subsequently said that these were unfounded and that this disturbed the employment relationship.
That, in a nutshell, is the idea of why Susanne Täuber was fired.
So Sarahanne, and when I say this what does this case make you feel like on a very visceral basis?
[00:05:02] Sarahanne Field: For me it's, it's, I feel a lot of things, you know, because on the one hand, from the perspective of being an incoming faculty member, I start my position in August with the University of Groningen.
I did my PhD and my research master at the University of Groningen. I've taught there previously. I'm really proud of the university. In the last years it has made a lot of steps towards open science improvements towards recognizing science reform. One of the key things that I'll be doing there as a faculty member is pursuing my own research in the science reform movement. In the CWTS Leiden ranking, of the universities in the Netherlands, shows that it comes first in open access publications. It's about 87 or 88% of the publications that come out of the RUG are open access, which I think is really great.
There are a lot of elements that I'm really proud about the University of Groningen for.
But this is obviously really troubling and I think this says, a lot. It's, it's a real big indictment, of universities, in general. Universities are about learning to be critical, right? They're about learning to, to speak and learning to, to think critically about issues in society, about systemic issues in particular, I think.
I dislike that a court in the Netherlands can just say, "oh yeah, we, we think this person can be fired on the basis of a damaged employer-employee relationship." I find it problematic, the idea that such a relationship can be damaged by being critical. That the employer-employee relationship between a university and a faculty member, that that can be damaged irreparably by the employee speaking critically. Not about the university per se, but about a program within the university that caused her problems and caused her, upset in the past.
That is troubling to me.
[00:06:58] Chris Hartgerink: It's very important that you share this because I think this is a sentiment that goes around a lot. On Twitter and on Mastodon, there was this hashtag #AmINext, by people who were following this and they asked themselves "well, if I speak up, does that mean I disrupt my employment relationship and that I can be fired as well?"
I know for myself and from my own experience, that this disrupted employment relationship is something that is utilized. At my old university, I was told that if I did a certain thing that it would disrupt the employment relationship and steps would be taken. So in that sense, it really goes through this fundamental of academic freedom in that sense.
Can you say what is necessary? Not even just academic freedom, but also freedom of speech. And I'm not the first person who will start talking about freedom of speech that often. There's another case, that was highlighted as well where there was a regional vocational school and there somebody was also fired for a disrupted workplace relationship for something they said . That ultimately went through appeals processes to the European Court of Human Rights, and they said that it was invalid that they were fired on these grounds because, if employment sanctions are in response to speech, it infringes on the right to freedom of speech. So I find that very interesting in this case.
And also to highlight that, Susanne Täuber is trying to make an appeal as well, and there's a crowdfunding campaign to make that happen. We'll be sure to make that link available as well.
14 years into an employment relationship means something big needs to happen for that to, to be dissolved. And in the Netherlands, it is the case that when this disrupted employment relationship, is a valid reason to fire somebody legally, right? Not ethically per se, then there will be some compensation necessary because the person who is bearing the brunt of this is not gonna be the institution, it's gonna be the individual.
[00:09:02] Chris Hartgerink: I checked out this original paper and there's plenty of people who have read this already, but it's just seven pages.
It's really, really quite short. You could probably read it in like 20 minutes. And there is no, no personal accusations in this. It's very fascinating to see that apparently these employers felt very personally affected by this.
I wanna highlight something that recently came to mind again, is this idea of, misogyny as the policing mechanism of the patriarchy. So the male dominance, and this is really that it punishes, women specifically, but in general punishes people who speak out against male dominance. And this really made me, remember this concept from Kate Manne in the book Down Girl specifically, that there is Susanne Täuber speaking out about these issues. And then subsequently it's being policed, by way of legal procedures.
[00:09:57] Sarahanne Field: Another thing that this makes me think of is the fact that you hear so many cases where a male faculty member has been in trouble for harassing either students or other female, members of staff and they remain employed or, they get a smack on the wrist, but, but they still basically remain in, in good graces with the university
It feels offensive, unbelievable to me that someone can be fired seemingly so easily by just being critical about a program at a university. Yet, people who commit documented harassment, that they can just retain their employment.
I've heard of so many cases like this, it's not just an isolated instance. That kind of rubs me up the wrong way as well.
[00:10:42] Chris Hartgerink: This is a very good point because what is necessary to disrupt the employment relationship? Who is the employer and what is being disrupted?
If that is from this position of power, then that's gonna be validated by saying "that's not a disruption of that employment relationship." But vice versa, if somebody's trying to change something, then that is much more threatening to the employers, so that disrupts the relationship.
[00:11:07] Sarahanne Field: To me, it would've been good for them to retain Susanna Täuber as an ally, as a way of saying "Look, we value employees that hold us up to scrutiny" and to use her scholarship as a way of criticizing themselves and interrogating their own practices and becoming better. I think that would've been a really good way for the university to use her scholarship and to use her thinking.
So it's disappointing to me also that that was not an opportunity taken, but rather they saw her as a threat.
[00:11:43] Chris Hartgerink: Part of this is also the point that it's not about the individual case, it's about the system.
If I read this court case, both parties, Susanne Täuber and the university, they agree the employment relationship has been disrupted. They don't contest that either way and every side has failures. But here the clear power imbalance is that the university is an institution and the professor is not. It's the punching down idea very much. It's so prototypical of what happens in many places. And this is one of the few times where it played out, from my recollection, as publicly as it has in result to a academic publication, which is really astounding.
[00:12:31] Sarahanne Field: I wonder what the university will do because obviously, I mean, I would be surprised if it would be able to just ignore the activism and the protesting that's gone on as a result of this. Do you have any forecasts?
[00:12:45] Chris Hartgerink: Many institutions will mitigate risk, and that will mean they will deflect, distract. But I feel like they're not really responding at this moment. They always will say "because the legal procedure is pending." There will be an appeal.
The communications department of the university is never really gonna provide us with an honest answer on this, I'm afraid because, having a frank discussion about this is incredibly difficult. If they would do it, it would be really good for them because I think this is the crux here. To really make steps in in these systemic issues, you need to have those spaces to really have tough conversations, work through it, and resolve that conflict to the degree that it's not necessarily a compromise, but that things move forward.
[00:13:28] Sarahanne Field: What do you think is preventing that? Like what do you think is preventing the university from, from taking such an unprecedented step? What would prevent them from doing that?
[00:13:41] Chris Hartgerink: What prevents a lot of institutions from doing that, I think, is partly imagination. Simply the fact that the procedures are set up to deal with things to mitigate risk and to minimize the issues. And I think that's, where places such as Amsterdam, the municipality, or, and this is also not without flaw, the Dutch government, apologizing for slavery, have more broadly thought about how, these systems of white supremacy affect the current day people in the world. I think there is opportunity to do this, but it really requires imagination and a lot of courage to do this. After a decade or 15 years of cutting costs, there isn't much space to do.
It is ultimately about the university as a business. You need to cut costs, gain income and make sure that, stuff keeps running and you perform well in the rankings, and then it's very hard to do this.
I would say, the work that we do is inherently related to these issues as well. We are, by improving research and improving the conditions for research, we're creating space for these things to even be possible.
I'm encouraged by these events to do more.
[00:14:55] Sarahanne Field: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I'm, I'm still very pensive about it. With the shroud of secrecy that still remains in place around things like this. I mean, we have details of the court case, but still there's a lot of details that have been obscured from the public knowledge. Just makes me wonder what other things went into this and how to navigate those myself. Because I don't wanna be fired. Certainly not for speaking out. I have to believe that it's more than just this, this paper and the conflict that arose about her promotion. I don't know. I'm just very pensive about it.
[00:15:53] Chris Hartgerink: From my own experiences, there probably isn't much more information that can be gotten to that will explain it to you. These are incomprehensible, conflicts. And, people have these feelings and they feel offended. They feel defensive, they feel accused. And then subsequently that escalates. I specifically talk about the employer's position here. For example, "by helping the male protege up the organizational ladder, the senior academic can expect general generosity later." I think this is one of those quotes where, if you are a senior academic helping or potentially helping a male protege, you're not sure whether you've done that, whether you have privileged them, then you might feel very insecure.
Instead of dealing with those feelings of uncertainty, does my behavior indeed promote, men over women, that implicit bias then it's a possibility that you lash out. I think these relationships are very complicated. We try to stay in an employment relationship for longer, especially at academic universities, but we'll have to see how this plays out.
Additional information is really not gonna make it much clearer because the problems seems very fundamental.
We're at risk of making this a long episode. So we'll be rounding up for this episode today. We will be following this case along. If there's any new developments that are important to share with you, we will. We hope that you learned something about this case. If you feel like we missed something, please do let us know. We are happy to make corrections.
We will be back in another two weeks with the next episode, and we are not yet sure what we'll be talking about then. If you have recommendations, please do get in touch probably really fast because the recording isn't happening on the day of because we have to do editing. With that please don't forget to rate us on your podcast provider of choice if you have not done so. Subscribe, tell people about the Open Update, if you think this is interesting. We will be back in two weeks. And yeah. Sarahanne, thanks for chatting about this difficult topic.
[00:18:08] Sarahanne Field: Yeah, thanks for sharing as well.