As everybody has realized, the beginning of the academic year 2015/16 has also brought some new contributions to the ongoing debate about the protest at the Dutch universities. Striking are, above all, the interviews of minister Jet Bussemaker and CvB member Hans Amman. For the moment – and I still need to breath in – I would like to focus on just one of H.A.’s utterances:
“Ik denk dat de helft van die acht procent terug te voeren is op de reputatieschade die de UvA het afgelopen jaar heeft opgelopen.”
By “die acht procent” H.A. refers to the decline in student registrations for the academic year 2015/16.
As a philosopher I immediately stumbled over the apparently harmless expression “I think” (ik denk). This has been, after all, a fundamental expression of epistemology since Descartes. But it quickly became clear that the meaning of this expression as used by H.A. is quite the opposite of philosophical abstraction.
It first sounds like an empirical-scientific expression. There is a cause (the “reputatieschade”, in turn caused by the protest movement), and there is an effect (a decline of eight percent in student registrations). But H.A. in fact does not refer to empirical research. Obviously there was no poll among students asking them why they decided not to begin their studies at the UvA.
Therefore, secondly, the “I” that thinks in H.A.’s utterance could be the opposite of the scientific one. It could be the famous-infamous participant at a regulars’ table, someone spreading statements such as “I think that half the fugitives who want to enter our country right now are only welfare freeriders.”
But I do not want to think of H.A. as someone arguing on such a level. So I only see a third level remaining: that of political manipulation. As a public person you know that your statement is a performative act, which creates reality. And this works the better, the less empirical evidence there is. The George W. Bush Jr. administration provided us with instructive examples some years ago.
So we might think that this is it. As a political figure H.A. is playing a manipulative game. But in the end this does not work out either. For, looking at the UvA advertisement on the back page of Folia this week we see young happy people (four girls and a boy) under the heading “Intellectuele rebellen. We are UvA.” The UvA’s Bureau of Communication obviously believes that the “competente rebellen” of mevrouw Van den Boom, slightly changed, can serve as an asset that attracts students. Whereas the “I think” of H.A. recognizes a reputation damage caused by these rebels, the Bureau of Communication – and thus in the end the CvB itself – believes in the opposite, namely a reputational advantage.
May we conclude that there are internal contradictions within the headquarters of power? Or that the right hand simply does not know what the left hand is doing? Or that we are dealing with a pseudo-paradoxical super-strategy? Or is all of this simply half-baked stuff? I am afraid that we are very close to the mark by saying that the Brave New University is in need of a New Speak in which A means non-A, and non-A means A. What will probably remain unchanged is only the identity of H.A.