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Latvia's university ethics codes probed by LTV

After the ethics scandal at the Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Academy of Music, questions arose about higher education ethics in general. The codes of ethics of the largest state-owned universities most often contain general requirements to observe "good behavior" or "generally accepted norms of behavior", according to Latvian Television's De Facto.

JVLMA case

When the LTV program "Culture Shock" shed light on alleged cases of sexual harassment and emotional abuse at the Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Academy of Music (JVLMA), several other episodes of abuse were subsequently brought to light, both formally and informally.

There have been only two formal reports of alleged sexual harassment at the Academy in the last seven years. One of them was written by Anete Ašmane-Vilsone, while she was still a student at the Academy of Music in 2017, under the previous rector. The application was made two years after the incident when the lecturer applied for a higher position.

"I wrote my personal application then, but also - I was the head of the student council at the time - students had also approached me about unacceptable actions on the part of this teacher. [..] First we all submitted it not to the Ethics Committee, but to the Council of Professors, which participates and votes in elections for academic posts. And then the Council of Professors probably forwarded it to the Ethics Committee," said Ašmane-Vilsone.

She attended the Ethics Committee meetings together with a lawyer. The application was under review for a couple of months. But in the end, it was concluded that the Ethics Committee could not resolve it because of a lack of evidence.

According to the information provided by the JVLMA, the next submission to the Ethics Committee came at the beginning of 2024. A Rector's order on the rules of conduct of the Academy's employees followed on February 8. This was a very detailed elaboration of what the Code of Ethics means in terms of compliance with generally accepted norms.

The order explains: no swearing, no harassment - physical, verbal, or written, no drinking together, and a whole range of other prohibitions.

Rector Gunārs Prānis hopes that this list will also work as a deterrent.

"I think there may be other aspects, some psychological aspects, why these signals did not always reach the Ethics Committee, did not reach the people who can help deal with it. And this is where I see that a lot needs to be done to make it completely different," said Prānis.

Only general requirements

The codes of ethics of Latvia's largest public universities are mostly limited to a vague requirement to comply with "generally accepted norms of behavior". Exceptions include Rīga Technical University (RTU), where the Code of Ethics does not allow for "imposed intimate relations with students against good morals", and the University of Latvia (LU), which has a policy against sexual, emotional, or other forms of violence. LU also publishes anonymized decisions of the Ethics Committee.

Lauris Liepa, a lawyer and member of the Academic Ethics Committee of the University of Latvia, said:

"When it comes to improving codes of ethics, I would be against so-called particularism, where we try to describe every possible case in detail. That would be ridiculous, because you would have to write a thousand pages of different things that should not be done or should be avoided, and there would be 1,001 things that are not written down.

"I would base it on this sensible approach that we define principles. (..) And if these principles are defined, then the assessment of each particular case is relatively simple, and this stems, among other things, from the culture and tradition of the institution, of the people, of this particular era," said Lauris Liepa.

He believes that it is important to provide an environment in which people who have been wronged are not afraid to come forward and speak out.

Seeking legal ways to draw the line

At the request of the Ministry of Education and Science, the state university councils have submitted reports on their codes of ethics and the improvements needed.

Jānis Paiders, Deputy State Secretary for Human Capital, Science and Innovation Development at the Ministry of Education and Science, said: "When we are talking about longer-term improvements to the system, some changes to the law are potentially possible. But what is important now is what we can do in the relatively short term specifically with universities, with university councils, with getting academic codes of ethics in order, with better information campaigns - things that are not necessarily about the law, which is also important, but about getting the instruments we already have in place, working in an appropriate and meaningful way."

The JVLMA is preparing training for all staff, which will be mandatory, followed by tests. They are also looking at how to legally clarify that there should be no private relationships of any kind between staff and students. This would exclude discussions in disputes about how consensual the relationship was.

The Latvian Art Academy, where reports of sexual harassment have also come to light, meanwhile, does not intend to draw such strict boundaries. But it has studied and compiled experiences from other countries that have already been developed and will specify in its documents what constitutes unwanted behavior and violence.

The Latvian Education and Science Workers' Union (LIZDA), which also includes university staff, has only recently started to write its own code of ethics, which would be binding on all teachers. It will only contain general principles of good behavior for teachers and that violence of any kind is not allowed. Asked whether the events at the JVLMA  mean that the Code of Ethics should include that unjustified physical abuse or texting of an intimate nature is not permissible, the head of LIZDA, Inga Vanaga, replied that "in a code of ethics, at the national level, we cannot determine all these cases".

The Ministry of Culture also wants to create an ombudsman, outside specific universities, to encourage reporting.

"We need to make sure that these situations simply don't arise, that it's nipped in the bud, which is an extremely challenging goal. But it is the only way we can ensure in the long term that the environment is safe, because dismissals, criminal proceedings - that is the last step," said Agnese Logina (Progressives), Minister of Culture.

 

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