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State deputy Bella Gonçalves’ account is one of several accusations made against the University of Coimbra professor

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14 de abril de 2023
17:55
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“The violence that I suffered led to even more violent processes. That’s why I stayed silent for so long”. These are the words of Bella Gonçalves, a Brazilian state deputy who has spoken out for the first time about the sexual harassment she has claimed she was subjected to by the prominent academic Boaventura de Sousa Santos. The abuse is alleged to have taken place while Gonçalves completed her PhD between 2013 and 2014 at the University of Coimbra’s Center for Social Studies (CES), for which Boaventura de Sousa Santos was her supervisor.

Gonçalves testimony, which she shared with Agência Pública, is part of a series of allegations of sexual harassment made by female students against the world-renowned professor and sociologist, that have recently come to light following the publication of a study about sexual misconduct in academia.

In the text, published in March this year, three former students share their accounts of sexual harassment carried out by professors at the CES. They do not name any names, but do write of abuses of power against “young female researchers who depend on academic approval in order to build their careers”, as well as of “intellectual and sexual exploitation” and “impunity”. There are references to sexual harassment carried out by one “star professor” and his assistant, who is referred to as “the apprentice”.

One of the episodes described is that of Bella Gonçalves, a state deputy for Minas Gerais, Brazil’s second most-populous state , although her identity was protected in the article. As the article gained traction and further women came forward with new allegations, Sousa Santos himself has admitted to being the “star professor”. The “apprentice” is allegedly Bruno Martins, an assistant professor at the CES. Sousa Santos has described the allegations as “revenge” and has vowed to press charges against the authors of the article.

“I decided to speak out because of how he [Sousa Santos] took a stance of denial and [sought to] discredit [his accusers],” Bella Gonçalves told Agência Pública. Gonçalves spoke of how the sexual harassment took place in 2014, when she was 26 years old. Sousa Santos was already over 70 years old at the time. Gonçalves met the professor during her undergraduate studies, when she participated in an exchange program at the University of Coimbra. Later, when she returned to the Portuguese city to do her PhD, Sousa Santos became her supervisor.

Bella Gonçalves, state deputy for Minas Gerais, says that she was the victim of sexual harassment during her PhD studies

“One day, he asked me to meet with him in his apartment. He put his hand on my leg. He said that people who were close to him gained a lot of advantages and suggested that we deepened our relationship.” Gonçalves says she left the meeting feeling dazed and shaken.

The following day, the state deputy said, the professor invited her for a chat along with her ex-partner, who was also studying at the CES. “He humiliated us and our work. My ex-partner cried a lot,” she recalled. “That’s when I realized that you could gain advantages by forming affectionate and sexual relationships with professors. But, if you rejected them, you would be punished for this.”

Gonçalves ended her supervision with Sousa Santos. In search of someone she could turn to, she sought support from other professors at the university, even from female professors dedicated to researching feminist issues, but did not receive the support she needed. “They all said that I wasn’t the first. They were sorry [about what had happened], but they didn’t offer any support or a way out”. Gonçalves says that she even asked Sousa Santos’ assistant professor, Bruno Martins, without knowing that accusations of harassment had also been made against him. “He advised me not to speak out about it”.

At the time, Boaventura’s former student found the university’s structures to be totally lacking in support, and she was unable to find any official channels through which students could receive pastoral care or psychological support, nor were there structures in place to handle complaints of harassment at the university. “It’s a very hierarchical,sexist, [and] patriarchal structure. Boaventura’s abusive behavior was already known. He humiliated students in public, insulted female researchers, and behaved inappropriately at parties. But he was the director of the academic center. I knew that nothing would happen to him”.

Dropping out in the second year of her course meant that Gonçalves not only had to give up on pursuing her PhD, but also had to repay in its entirety the scholarship that she had been awarded. “I had so many sleepless nights, thinking about how many euros I would have to pay back. My hair started to fall out. My mother said I was crazy to let go of a scholarship at an overseas university.”

According to the state deputy, CAPES, the Brazilian Ministry of Education affiliated body responsible for awarding scholarships, offered her no alternative way of keeping the scholarship, despite her reporting of the harassment.

Even so, Gonçalves decided to return to Brazil. She paid for the travel expenses necessary to take part in a new selection process out of her own pocket, but eventually managed to maintain her research linked to the University of Coimbra, with the supervision of her project based at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG). Even so, she had to bear the costs of her studies at the CES and lost her scholarship. She had no choice but to go back to working.

“He [Sousa Santos] organized an online meeting with me to apologize. He said that he had fallen in love [with me], that it was a normal thing to happen between two adults. He wanted to carry on supervising my thesis. I wasn’t interested,” Gonçalves said. “I had suffered psychologically, emotionally and financially [from the harassment]. I left the country, I gave up on a scholarship, the damage done is irreparable. I don’t want an apology, I want [to make sure] that no one else goes through the same thing.”

The whole process delayed the completion of Gonçalves’ doctorate by two years. In 2018, she passed with honors and distinction in both the CES and UFMG. It was in the same year as this that the first graffiti against Boaventura de Sousa Santos started to appear on the walls of the University of Coimbra. The graffiti said: “Boaventura Out. We all know”. Sousa Santos traveled to Minas Gerais’ capital, Belo Horizonte, the same year. “He showed me photos of the graffiti, as though to suggest that I was the one behind it,” Gonçalves said.

Graffiti against Boaventura de Sousa Santos on the walls of the University of Coimbra

Bella Gonçalves, now a trained political scientist, was first elected as a city councilor for Belo Horizonte before becoming a state deputy for Minas Gerais in 2022. “I’m a woman with a background in social movements. I speak out about things in all sorts of ways, but I didn’t find any way to denounce the harassment I suffered. I was trapped in a larger web of power.” Gonçalves says that “retaliation against women in the academic world is widespread”. “Female professors can’t speak out because they will be sacked, [and] female students are silenced by the fear of not being able to finish their studies.”

The state deputy is currently working on a legislative proposal that will make it compulsory for universities and research institutes in the state of Minas Gerais to offer channels for reporting harassment and for receiving psychological support. She intends to work with party colleagues who represent her party, The Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), in the Brazilian Congress to take the issue to the national level.

“CAPES and CNPQ [the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development] need to have these channels. It’s inadmissible that research programs are interrupted by situations of harassment. It’s not just about Boaventura’s case. It’s about a number of professors who have behaved in the same way.”

Agência Pública contacted the University of Coimbra to question them about the lack of channels to report cases of harassment and about the fact that the institution had not taken action on student complaints that were made over the course of several years. No response had been received by the time this report was published.

Agência Pública also tried to make contact with Boaventura de Sousa Santos. After the publication of this report, he responded to our email, stating that “due to the reports that have appeared in the press this week, and in understanding of the need for everything to be rigorously clarified, I have taken the decision myself to take a step back from my activities at the CES. This decision aims to ensure that the institution, with all the independence it needs, can carry out an investigation into the information that has been presented and follow it up with the process of an internal investigation led by the independent commission that has been established, without any interference from any party.”

The governing board and presidency of the scientific council of the University of Coimbra’s Center for Social Studies (CES) has also released a statement in which it states that it is going to set up an independent commission that will conduct an investigation into the events. “During this process and until the release of its findings, the CES would like to state that Boaventura de Sousa Santos and Bruno Sena Martins have both been suspended from every position they occupied.”

In a statement, CAPES said that, in cases of sexual harassment, the institution’s ombudsman has “specific procedures” that include ensuring confidentiality and protecting the identity of the complainant, as well as forwarding complaints to the relevant competent authorities. It also stated that, in instances where such cases of harassment occur abroad, “it makes return travel to Brazil and support to continue studies in another institution possible”, but if “the scholarship recipient has received 48 months of a scholarship abroad, they are not allowed to receive a scholarship for the same purpose.”

Agência Pública was unable to make contact with the assistant professor Bruno Sena.

This article was first published here in Portuguese by Agência Pública and translated to English by Matty Rose from the Latin America Bureau.

You can also subscribe to the weekly Agência Pública newsletter in English here.

Daniel Protzner/ALMG
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