Transparency is a term that scores highly on the list of demands advanced by action groups DNU, ReThink UvA and Humanities Rally. And it isn’t hard to see why. The current academic context is characterized by a top-down management structured in such a way that managers are effectively unaccountable vis-à-vis the academic community they are supposed to serve. The demand for more transparency in this context is in fact a demand for more accountability. For example, under the heading “democratization and transparency,” the DNU website articulates demands like openness of financial management, possibility of recall of executive functions, and binding referendums. It is hard to disagree with these demands, since they are just and are aimed at making the university a place run by the academic community rather than a group of professional managers (“bestuurders”) who are only accountable to the Minister and their peers (of which the revolving-door dynamic between the Supervisory Board en Executive Board is but one example).
I nevertheless wish to argue that as a movement, we should remain reluctant bedfellows with transparency. It is instructive to go back to Jeremy Bentham, one of the prime thinkers on transparency. His writings helpfully clarify the governmental logic of transparency as a moralizing agency: making persons and things public provides a stimulus for moral actions:
The more men live in public, the more amenable they are to the moral sanction. The greater dependence men are in to the public, that is, the more equality there is among them, the clearer the evidence comes out, the more it has of certainty in its results. The liberty of the press throws all men in to the public presence. The liberty of the press is the greater coadjutor of the moral sanction.
The demands made by DNU and Rethink are indeed aimed at doing this: by making power more transparent, we hope to make the university’s power brokers morally responsible for the actions they undertake (with dismissal as the ultimate moral consequence). But for Bentham, transparency applies not only to the powerful. He also stresses that there should be transparency from the governors to the governed, or top-down transparency. He wishes that “every man’s name were written upon his forehead as well as engraved upon his door. It were to be wished that no such thing as secrecy existed that every man’s house were made of glass”. The model of society he proposes here is similar to that of the panopticon, with its 24/7 observation of inmates and individual identification. Bentham sees no opposition between transparency of the governors and transparency of the governed: both are integral aspects of transparency’s moralizing force, one that requires little actual intervention, yet locks governed and governors alike in a moral cage of socially-sanctioned behavior.
The protest groups’ demands make clear that we are asking for one type of transparency, namely transparency of the governors. Ewald Engelen is right in saying that the current university is characterized by asymmetric transparency, with the governors demanding transparency from the governed but not the other way round. But I fear that if we embrace the logic of transparency too enthusiastically, we will end up canceling out that other crucial demand, namely a reduction of rendementsdenken. After all, rendementsdenken is top-down transparency on a rampage. It is, quite simply, the way management makes faculties and departments transparent through tools like input/output indicators or toetsdossiers. We have worked long enough under its yoke to know that this kinds of panopticon is hardly a desirable model for our ideal university. And we are all too familiar with the moralizing injunctions of neoliberal transparency to realize that there is little liberation –let alone happiness– to be found in measurements and rankings that are set up as zero-sum games, where the advances of one come at the expense of the others (a remarkable way of measuring quality, if one looks at it from a distance).
This is not a plea against transparency per se. It is rather a call to consider carefully what we are asking for precisely when we demand more transparency. Transparency is a tool that can be put to emancipatory as well as to oppressive use, so the question should always be: “transparency with which goal?” And since we by now seem to have begun the hard work of reinventing the university, perhaps it’s a good idea to rise to the occasion, and look for logics of governance that do not rely on distrust and public shaming as their prime motivating force.