On June 11th, this Thursday, Tilburg University is organizing a debate with DNU Tilburg, the Executive Board, and some other (national) parties such as Hans Radder of Platform Reform Dutch Universities, Sarah Rijcke of Science in Transition, Ad Verbrugge of Better Education Netherlands, Arthur Kok of Rethink Tilburg and Eric van Damme of Researchers First, Tilburg. This article is about the national importance of this debate and hopefully it will persuade you, students and staff, to attend the debate in large numbers.
This debate, called The Future of the University, was originally intended as a debate between the Executive Board and Eric van Damme, a full professor at Tilburg University. Developments in Amsterdam and elsewhere in the country have, however, shifted the focus of this debate from local issues to national ones. Which is somewhat regrettable, for it is often forgotten that for some time even the idea of having a public debate where the policies of our Executive Board could be criticized was out of the question.
In order to give some context to the difficulties we encountered in realizing such a debate, it is important to go back to the summer of 2014, long before the occupation of the UvA buildings occurred. Eric van Damme and five other full professors at TiU put together an online petition in which they called upon the Executive Board to reconsider their Strategic Plan for the years 2014-2017. The Strategic Plan was according to the professors ‘trashcan worthy’. In a report that formed the theoretical foundation for the petition, van Damme stated that the plan mostly contained ‘quasi-academic nonsense’.1 The burning question that was asked by the six professors was a simple one: where were the academic values in this plan?
So what did the deans and the Executive Board do with the criticism that was put forth by the six professors and 161 others who had signed the petition? Virtually nothing. With their official response the Executive Board and the deans invited ‘the authors of the petition and the entire academic community’ for some coffee and so-called constructive dialogue.2 A response so disappointing that the six professors wrote the following in a letter to the Board3,4: ‘When differences of opinion exist, there are two possible responses: pretend that they are not there and continue; or discuss them, in order to sharpen the view on the merits and weaknesses of the different points of view. In your response, you have chosen the first option.’
Although the official response of the Board painted a picture of an administrative layer that welcomed discussion, one can safely state that behind the scenes many were reprimanded or lulled into silence.5 Mainly the form in which the criticism was presented – a public petition – was not appreciated by everyone in the aforementioned support layer: one should not wash their dirty linen in public! One source reported to DNU Tilburg that the Board had made the request to the six professors to postpone debating the petition in public, at least during the summer. The board promised to have a public debate further down the road, much, much further. Several TiU-employees confirmed that it was almost as if a ‘cordon sanitaire’ was brought to bear on the subject matter. Consciously or unconsciously students and staff censored themselves – it was not necessary to call them back in line. In the days after presenting the petition, van Damme also pointed out the prevalent culture of silence when he stated that ‘some staff have not signed the petition for fear of negative repercussions’.4 Ultimately, the whole issue was pushed back and forth for months, to disappear, at least until now, altogether from the public sphere.
This national debate will be the first of its kind after the developments in Amsterdam. It will bring together most initiatives currently striving for an improvement of the Dutch Universities. I strongly encourage all of you to join us. Not only because of the importance of the subject matter at hand, but also as a symbolic gesture in order to appear as a unified front. This is especially important for the national cause due to a development that recently came to our attention. That is, the VSNU has written a report on the current status of Dutch universities and childishly is refusing to share it. Initially the parties invited for the 11th of June were supposed to receive this report prior to the debate; part of the debate was supposed to be about the findings of the report. And here comes the odd bit, the VSNU chairman, Karl Dittrich, now suddenly refuses to share this report prior to the debate with anybody but the Executive Board. Although the report will be handed over during the debate to a few guests – non of them being the guests mentioned before – its content will not be discussed. In a sense, this part of the debate is nothing more than a stage play. It doesn’t even come close to a platform suitable to address the issues raised by Eric van Damme.
Now, a few questions are in order. Why won’t the report be debated on the 11th? Why has the VSNU decided to make the report public in Tilburg – where everything seems to be just ‘fine’ – and not in Amsterdam? You can probably guess the answers. This report is important to all universities and we can’t allow it to be muffled away in some ceremonial charade. This event gives us the opportunity to propel the DNU and ReThink movements to the next level: a unified front of all the Dutch universities. Please share this article and join us in Tilburg on Thursday. The national assembly starts around 11:00 and will be held in room 202 in the Warande building. Around 12:30 the General Assembly will be held on the large square in front of the Warande building. The debate starts around 15:15 in room 1 in the Dante Building. Hope to see you then!
More information on the debate here: https://www.facebook.com/events/1395092900816501/
- Van Damme, E. (2014). Trying to make a difference, p.24. Accessed via:
- Multiple employees and students haven spoken to us on the subject matter on condition of anonymity.