Persona non grata at the UG?
The Joost Herman case
Op-ed: Persona non grata at the UG?
Last week, I travelled to the court in Leeuwarden to attend UG arts professor Joost Herman’s appeal against his dismissal.
After a long session which clearly exhausted Joost Herman, the court’s chair, speculating on the appeal’s outcome, asked him whether he sees himself having a future at the UG.
Herman answered: ‘I worked with amazing colleagues for twenty-five years and I loved my work. My conflict is with a few directors. I would like to return to work.’
The chair then turned to the UG representatives to ask if the university felt it could continue to work with Joost Herman if the verdict was in his favour. After a quick consultation with the UG representative through the corona-proof plexiglass, the UG lawyer answered, without any visible attempt at hiding a nasty sense of triumph: ‘The university considers mister Herman persona non grata.’
As someone who works at the UG, I couldn’t believe my ears. I’ve been around the university for a while, and just like Joost Herman, I’ve loved my job. After twenty-five years of dedicated service and so much great local, national, and international work, how could they treat an employee like this and not feel a sense of shame?
What is going on? Why are they treating him so harshly and aggressively? Why do they feel the need to belittle and humiliate ‘Joost H.’? In that courtroom last week, I wanted to get up and shout that these men weren’t allowed to treat my colleague this way in the name of the university. I wanted to say that enough was enough. But I knew the rules and kept my mouth shut.
These men aren’t allowed to treat my colleague this way in the name of the university. Enough is enough
Perhaps I should have mentally prepared myself more. After all, this wasn’t the first time Herman had been treated this way.
There’s a long list of previous incidents: they never gave Joost Herman the opportunity to tell his side of the story; they didn’t take his burnout into account, or the fact that he was getting psychiatric treatment; they publicly accused him without any proof; they started damages proceedings for 1.2 million euros far back as April of 2019 without basis; they blocked his bank accounts; they seized his house; they cancelled his UG computer accounts; they blocked access to his office; they withheld documents Herman wanted to use to aid in his defence; they tarnished his name during meetings in Groningen, The Hague, and Brussels; and they tried to stop him from getting any sickness benefits.
So what is going on? Why couldn’t they have changed gears halfway through and decide on a more respectful approach? They’ve had plenty of opportunity. But so far, the UG directors ignored all the chances they had to be a little more humane in this case.
For example, the board of directors completely ignored a letter sent to them by Herman’s fellow professors and lecturers asking them to dial it back. After listing an overview of all the impressive things Herman had done for the UG, the letter read: ‘Yes, mistakes were made, and he admits that he made them, but surely you could sit down together and find a solution that everyone is happy with?’
But the board gave no response, not even to acknowledge the letter had been received. So much for administrative manners at the UG.
I knew all this had happened, of course, but the announcement that the UG considered Herman persona non grata still came as an unpleasant surprise.
It’s likely that his dismissal, which had already been ratified by the Groningen courts, will be confirmed once again. Mistakes have indeed been made, and it apparently doesn’t take much to fire someone, even if Joost Herman didn’t pocket a single euro and all the money was spent on the NOHA programmes.
But as I said: enough is enough. Only the university community can stop this heartless legal attack and put an end to the way professor Joost Herman and his family are being ruined.
Jacques Zeelen is a professor of lifelong learning and social intervention at Globalisation Studies Groningen