(orginally published in Dutch bij Folia)
Despite a welcome increase in transparency and openness at the UvA/HvA, its stonewalling Supervisory Board (RvT) remains both a symptom of old-school politics and a cause for unrest well beyond Amsterdam. The situation at our institution exemplifies a problem common throughout the Dutch public sector: top management operates unconstrained by any meaningful form of democratic accountability, as crucial decision-making power is held by inaccessible political appointees drawn from entrenched elite business circles.
Yes, the RvT has introduced an advice committee to deal with the nomination of candidates to the Executive Board (CvB), but the representation of students and staff has a minority vote in the procedure, and their input and validation of any final decision remains symbolic at best. Yes, the profiles for the vacancy of rector and chairperson were made public and an open call for candidates was published, but a high-power corporate headhunting agency is simultaneously sent out to identify ‘appropriate’ candidates in secrecy, potentially acting as a filter. And yes, there was a schedule for the selection process, but it has been repeatedly delayed, without advance notice nor a reasonable explanation to the elected representative bodies.
Anticipating some of this, ReThink UvA extended an invitation to the mystery candidates to come and meet the academic community in a public event at the Maagdenhuis. But the RvT’s poor communication with the community about the procedure’s schedule undermined even that. Returning trust and peace into our system requires a new, stable timeline, total transparency about the next steps, and scheduling this urgent event.
The RvT cannot keep stonewalling the urge for more reform, now voiced by the action groups and the Medezeggenschap alike — it is time to change.
We have raised our growing concerns about the nomination procedure of the two new CvB members time and time again. If ReThink had not intervened in an earlier stage, this procedure would have unfolded exactly as it has in recent years: in secret and without the community’s real input. The same holds true at the faculty level, as the concluded procedure at FMG and the ongoing process at FGw demonstrate. Complacence on the part of staff will result in the triumph of existing structures, which have proven disastrous for democracy and diversity and inconducive for accountability.
By remaining distant and inaccessible the RvT is ignoring those directly affected — both students and staff — and is positively dodging accountability. Above all, the attitude inherent to the process perpetuates a form of one-sided, upward-facing accountability which is, as we have seen, gravely consequential. Recall: Louise Gunning, the UvA/HvA president, had to resign her post after failing to deal with a crisis of leadership at this institution, a failure that in large part owes to an inability to listen, communicate, and act upon her administration’s opacity when it came to major decision making, from finances to real estate to teaching and research policies. Gunning faced problems that were structural and cultural in nature.
The UvA/HvA board has grown to see itself as primarily answerable to their nominators, that is the RvT, and not the people they are actually responsible for: students and staff. Similarly, the RvT sees itself as answerable to the Minister of Education, not the organisation whose board they are supposed to supervise and aid. This heightened form of centralisation, and elitist group-think, left those responsible for higher education mostly deaf to the wishes and concerns of the academic community: students, teachers, and staff. And the same situation prevails in most if not all Dutch universities, and indeed all public institutions.
Why are these concerns so crucial? The concrete working conditions across the Netherlands have, in many instances, become unbearable and many management decisions – themselves never evaluated by those they affect the most – result in a waste of money and time. The top-down introduction of bureaucratic measures, of cumbersome regulations, of artificial competition and of standardized models of research and teaching may have been meant to improve institutions of higher education. But it has only increased the workload and alienated staff and students from their work environment.
A new UvA/HvA CvB will not immediately change those dynamics, some of which stem from national and international processes. Indeed, democratization and decentralization have to go far beyond the question of how two positions in one institution are filled, how hierarchies are enacted, and how accountability can be made more symmetrical. But our endeavor to change the board members’ nomination procedure is part of a much broader struggle: A university’s primary tasks, teaching and research, must be entrusted to students and staff. Democratic accountability has to also flow towards those most directly affected by an institution’s decision-making structures–in this case, the academic community, not just the RvT or the Ministry. A more transparent and accountable management is one major step in that endeavour.