There are limits … but where are they exactly?

(21-10-2019) What’s wrong with having a laugh? Or a little flirt? Or simply speaking your mind? Nothing, of course. But there are limits.

That’s currently being addressed by posters at all Ghent University locations. So, what’s the scoop? Vice-Rector Mieke Van Herreweghe, confidential advisor Lore Vermeulen and Djahid Benafla, psychology student and Event Manager at Faculteiten Konvent, explain.

Posters and a video show us that there are effectively limits with regard to behaviour. Was this necessary at Ghent University?

Mieke: “With the entire #MeToo movement, boundary-crossing behaviour has become a hot topic in the media. However, it is still the subject of numerous taboos and clichés. We want this campaign to break them.”

Lore: “There is an extensive network of counsellors available at Ghent University, from student psychologists to student doctors, ombudspersons etc. The only problem is that these services are not centralised. From now on, Trustpunt will serve as a single point of contact for everyone confronted with transgressive behaviour within the context of Ghent University. We want to make sure that students are aware of these extra services.

Distinct and personal boundaries

Lore.jpgWe are treading on thin ice, because when do you cross the line in terms of transgressive behaviour?

Lore: “There’s no question about it when it comes to criminal offences like breach of integrity, rape or racism. In cases like these, a distinct boundary is being crossed, which is determined by law. What’s more subtle are personal boundaries. This depends on how someone was raised, their cultural background or past experiences. Often, we are not at all aware of a person’s background. So, sometimes we subconsciously cross boundaries.”

Mieke: “We get to know people better by probing their boundaries and stretching our own. Let’s keep doing that. Still, this does not necessarily mean that everything is permitted. Remember that when you inadvertently cross a line, this may come across as very hurtful, and it can undermine someone’s dignity. This is something we want to clarify through this campaign.”


“Sometimes, we subconsciously cross boundaries” – Lore


More than just sex

Which types of boundary-crossing behaviour do you see among students?

Mieke: “Just like in any other large organisation, we get all kinds of transgressive behaviour. What will probably pop into your mind straight away are sexually explicit remarks or acts, but that’s only a small part of it. We are more often confronted with verbal aggression: sexist (or near-sexist) remarks, comments with racist undertones, bullying, and so on.”

Djahid: “Complaints from students about their lecturers are sometimes brought before the Student Council, for example. A specific remark that was offensive, for example, but nobody dared speak up about in class. The hierarchical structure of the university makes things like this even more complicated.”


“Complaints from students about their lecturers are sometimes brought before the Student Council” - Djahid

Slander on Facebook

Djahid_FK.jpgTransgressive behaviour is not always visible. What about cyberbullying, for example?

Lore: “We have indeed received reports on inappropriate posts about lecturers or fellow students in WhatsApp messages or closed Facebook groups. Perhaps the time has come for a Code of Ethics concerning the use of social media within the context of Ghent University.”[MD1] 

Djahid: “Most of these closed groups are created by the Student Council or associations linked to a faculty or a specific study programme. So, if we had a Code of Ethics these associations could help keep an eye on things.”


A listening ear

Now, what if I knock on the door at Trustpunt. What can I expect?

Lore: “First of all, the confidential advisor will take all the time needed to listen to the problem, discreetly and unbiased. Next, we will ask you what you expect: which steps can be taken to follow up on the situation, and are you open to them? Perhaps you want advice about how to discuss the behaviour of the other party concerned. Alternatively, mediation could present an adequate solution. Or you may just want to learn how to set your personal boundaries better.

Sometimes, we propose a referral to a student psychologist, Unia, the Care Centre for Sexual Abuse at Ghent University Hospital, and so on. But in many cases a listening ear is enough. We respect that too.”

Respect as a basic premise

What can you do if you witness boundary-crossing behaviour?

Lore: “You could respond directly when something happens, or discuss the incident with the people involved later on when things have calmed down. You can also turn to Trustpunt if this isn’t possible, or if you can’t find a solution together. Trustpunt will be organising a so-called active bystander training course for students in the near future. We will be teaching students a number of techniques to deal with transgressive behaviour.”

Djahid: “I once acted as the sounding board for someone who was unable to contain his verbal aggression, of which I was a witness. A person like this will often feel uncomfortable or grapple with feelings of guilt, because it was never their intention to hurt someone.”

Won’t we be risking a tattle-tale culture?

Mieke: “On the contrary, what we want is to restore relationships between people. The basic principle has to be: treat others with respect and be assured that others respect you too. And if someone nevertheless crosses a line, try to speak about it calmly.”

“Not a tattle-tale culture, but restoring relationships between people” - Mieke

Faculty antennae

How do other universities deal with boundary-crossing behaviour?

Lore: “Some universities experiment with what are called “student antennae”: networks of students that serve as an initial point of contact within the faculties. We are also looking into ways for students to participate in dealing with and preventing that behaviour.”

Djahid: “A special role could be created for this within the Student Council. Or even within the student associations, because these are really low-threshold. In any case, it would be a good idea if students could participate in this. We are the requesting party in this, after all!”



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