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Sexual harassment probe rocks College of Europe

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BRUGES, Belgium — The College of Europe in Bruges, a training ground for top European Union officials, is investigating one of its professors over allegations of sexual harassment brought by one of his female students. 

After the College opened the probe into the professor’s behavior, a group of six former college staff and students sent a letter to Federica Mogherini, the college rector and the former EU foreign policy chief, calling for his dismissal after several allegations of sexual harassment over the past years. 

POLITICO contacted all the parties involved and spoke to more than 20 current and former College students and staff. All were granted anonymity to speak candidly about a powerful professor with deep connections to EU politics. POLITICO is not naming the professor for now. 

One of the female alums, among several who now hold high-ranking positions in Europe’s capitals, described the lack of action during her time at the College over the complaints as “omertá,” the mafia’s code of silence. “That’s how I would describe it. It’s ‘please shut up,’” she said. 

Four female former students, who were in their 20s when they came into contact with the now 50-something professor, shared emails they said demonstrated alleged inappropriate contacts from the professor that stretched back more than a decade. 

The current student formally triggered a probe into the professor in an email she sent to Mogherini on Feb. 7 — seen by POLITICO. When asked about the investigation, the College of Europe declined to comment beyond saying: “One formal procedure under the Code of Conduct is ongoing.”

Mogherini held a meeting with the professor to discuss the complaint, which she received on Jan. 10. He has since stepped away from his role temporarily in Bruges, but he continues to work at other institutions. One of the other institutions where the professor teaches told POLITICO it is aware of the ongoing probe.

“I apply to myself a rule of not speaking about the case before the procedure is over,” the professor said, when asked about the investigation. 

My job, your reputation

The complaint at the center of the college’s investigation came from a current student in her 20s, who will spend a total of 10 months in the idyllic medieval Flemish city completing a master’s program.

For at least two months in 2023, the professor exchanged emails with her. Writing from her residence hall where the professor also had a bedroom, the two began communicating about academic work late at night. 

Soon the professor, her thesis supervisor, started telling the student about his personal life, switching to his personal Gmail account for the exchanges.

In one email, he wrote that the image of her walking in the rain inspired “shared feelings” in him and sent her a photograph of a shrimp risotto. 

The College of Europe in Bruges is investigating one of its professors over allegations of sexual harassment | Eddy Wax/POLITICO

“If I dared, I’d propose making you dinner one evening,” he wrote in one email from November, suggesting they eat in his living space. 

In another email that same month, he said: “You really are a mystery, but that too pleases me. I would have loved to have had a drink with you this evening.” 

At this point, the student knew the emails had veered into an uncomfortable space for her as his student, and with someone who could play a role for her future. 

“That was when I had to put him back in his place,” the student said. 

She stopped replying on the advice of a parent — but because of the professor’s role in her education, the student had to meet him in December for her thesis. 

“He’s known in his field, so no one wants to go up against such a figure when we can be working afterwards in the field of research or European affairs,” the student said. 

In November, he had also made a menacing remark about an exchange they had, realizing it could spell trouble with his colleagues. “It could cost me my job, and your reputation,” he wrote. 

After the winter break, at the start of the second term in January, the student — armed with 62 pages of emails — requested a meeting with her university’s welfare officer. That same day, she made allegations of sexual and psychological intimidation by her professor in a face-to-face meeting with the College of Europe’s rector.

‘It had become a hell’

More allegations are emerging. 

The letter from students and former staff sent to Mogherini on Feb. 13, calling for the professor’s dismissal, stressed that his behavior was not a one-off this year. 

“Many women have contacted us, and many still fear reprisals or of reliving such traumas,” the letter said. “They all bear witness to the climate of insecurity deliberately fostered by [the professor] in a position of power conferred on him by the College, to the repetition of the methods used and to the seriousness of the events.” 

When asked about this letter, the professor said: “I have no information about that … I never heard about that letter.”

After the winter break the student requested a meeting with her university’s welfare officer | Eddy Wax/POLITICO

“There is no rule regarding the appropriate or non-appropriate [sic] behavior between a student and a professor,” he claimed. “Sending an email from me to a student is OK, seeing a student is OK, it’s a university, I mean, otherwise the university could not work. The code of conduct is saying nothing about whether it is allowed or not to have a conversation and this is pretty standard at all universities.”

This is not the first time the professor has faced questions and complaints for similar behavior. In 2012, he was told to apologize by his boss for an incident that prompted a complaint.

After a night out in Bruges at the college’s own student bar, the professor contacted a female student on Facebook who had not spoken to him at the bar. “So, you snub me?” he asked in a Facebook message viewed by POLITICO that was sent around 2 a.m. 

After the student complained to another senior administration staff member, Jörg Monar, the professor sent the student a lengthy note seen by POLITICO. “I am absolutely sorry for this misunderstanding and very sorry for my inappropriate behaviour,” he wrote to the student, whose thesis he was supervising. 

In the email exchange, Monar called the situation a delicate one. 

The following year, Monar himself would become the college’s rector, a position he would hold for seven years. While he was rector, the professor was promoted.

In the letter from Feb. 13 from former students and college staff to Mogherini, they claim Monar “knowingly promoted him … [which] largely enabled this professor’s inappropriate behaviour.”

Monar said to POLITICO in an emailed response that the College of Europe had asked him to provide evidence on the 2012 incident. 

He laid out the timeline of the incident, adding: “My own opinion of the case at the time was that [the professor], having the (from my point of view) questionable habit of socializing with students outside of the College in various venues (which was confirmed to me by the academic assistants), had overstepped the borderline of necessary professional distance between professor and student, but with no more far-reaching intentions.”

“Be sure that I will avoid any slip-up of this type in the future,” the professor said in the email to the student in 2012 after the bar incident. 

Still, students came forward with other allegations in subsequent academic years. 

In 2014, another student at the College reached out to the College administration after she said she received an incessant amount of texts and emails that constituted sexual harassment from the same professor. Earlier in the academic year, she claimed he followed her in the street as she walked back to her residence hall. “I don’t know that story, no,” the professor told POLITICO when asked about the allegation.

“I bought a kitchen knife and I said to myself if he gets into my room one day I’ll knife him. It will be self-defense,” said the woman, who added she systematically checked her college bedroom in fear every time she entered it after the incident. The experience with him that year made her anxious, she added, and the trauma has lasted until today. 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” was the professor’s reply to these allegations.

When she raised her concerns to the college, no one listened, she claimed. 

“I didn’t go to the closing ceremony, I just wanted to get out of Bruges, it had become a hell,” she said.

A few years later, the same professor emailed another female student of his from a personal email account, asking whether she would want to have dinner one night. She shared the emails with POLITICO.

“We could meet in a restaurant that no student can afford,” he suggested.

“I would perfectly understand if you would decline, since I know that my proposal is odd, unprofessional, not deontological, embarrassing, whatsoever,” he continued, referencing the power imbalance between the two in his invitation. 

Still, he continued with confidence: “I don’t want to use any kind of authority to convince you; for that, I’m counting only on my charisma, my amazing sense of humor and my … eyes — or, more likely, on your willingness to avoid the canteen for once.”

Two days later, he emailed her again, this time from an email associated with another university where he teaches.

“I did not want to bother you at the drink; You were so beautiful it was hard to believe it was for real. I was pretty intimidated,” he wrote.

The professor doubled as both her thesis supervisor and the sole person who would grade it at the end of the year, accounting for 50 percent of the total degree, she said.

“It put me in a very awkward situation because I thought if I’ll be cutting this off, this may affect my academic career,” the woman said. The emails continued to flood in for the entire academic year. She added, “I felt unprotected in many ways.”

College students and staff were granted anonymity to speak candidly about a powerful professor with deep connections to EU politics | Eddy Wax/POLITICO

When the professor was asked about the emails and their contents, he said: ​​“You’re talking to me again about something I don’t know. I don’t have all the details you have.”

When Students Advocating Gender Equality, a group set up to raise awareness of gender-related social inequalities on campus, sponsored a survey during the 2016 and 2017 academic year, the professor’s name was mentioned in several instances. 

“I have been shocked by the behaviour of [the professor] towards women (comments reducing them to mere bodies),” said one former student. 

But one female former teaching assistant who worked closely with the professor for several years said she “never” witnessed any inappropriate behavior by him. She was granted anonymity to speak freely.

“[The professor] was well aware of the rumours about him. I think he just refuses to change his behaviour because he doesn’t see [anything] wrong about it. It’s a sort of reclaiming the right of a white man in a ‘powerful’ position to be nice and friendly and if you don’t like it’s your problem sort of,” she said. 

Calls for dismissal

“Normally, I’m very distant with students,” the professor claimed in the threatening email from November to the student who initiated the current probe against him.

“As it happens, I write to you because it brings me pleasure and we got to this point by accident. What’s more, I don’t see anything wrong in it, and I think you don’t either. But things could be perceived very differently by my colleagues and the College wouldn’t accept it and do nothing,” he said. 

After Mogherini took on the role of rector in September 2020, her administration established an updated code of conduct and procedure for reporting harassment and sexual misconduct, among other behaviors. 

“The aim of our Code is to uphold a zero-tolerance policy for any acts against the dignity and integrity of each member of the College community (whether in the form of discrimination, bullying, harassment, violence, stalking or sexual misconduct),” the college said in an emailed statement. 

Monar, the College’s rector prior to Mogherini, in his comments to POLITICO added he thought an individual should only face a probe into sexual harassment with clear evidence. “If such evidence is provided, however minor, it is then the duty of the institution to act with full severity and without any consideration of a colleagues’ reputation and circumstances — and I have never had any doubt that the College of Europe would do precisely that,” Monar added.

The college refused to comment on the professor’s case, citing the need to protect confidentiality during an ongoing code of conduct procedure.

“I also strongly reject the defamatory allegations made about me in messages circulating here and there,” the professor said.

In the letter to Mogherini from former students and academic assistants, the group called for the professor’s permanent dismissal. 

“It is now time for the College of Europe, under your leadership, to fulfil its duty of vigilance and protection by taking strong action and showing zero tolerance towards sexist and sexual violence,” the group demanded.

Barbara Moens and Louise Guillot contributed reporting.

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