Like all other public institutions, Dutch universities are under democratic control, at least in theory. The minister of education appoints a Raad van Toezicht (RvT), and this council subsequently appoints a College van Bestuur (CvB).

But with glorious predictability the members of these councils are drawn from an entrenched network of (ex-)politicians and businessmen that cosily transcends party lines. As an alert citizen and as an alert academic citizen in particular you ask yourself again and again whether it is possible to end this practice, and what might be the alternative. Thus, last year we began to rediscover democratic accountability. What does an institution look like that is no longer under the supervision – toezicht – of an administrative elite detached from the people working on the ground? What does it look like if accountability is assumed by those who are directly affected by academic politics?

A year ago Louise Gunning was politically sacrificed as Chair of the CvB to temper the conflict about the faults of the UvA-HvA management. By contrast, Atzo Nicolaï, Chair of the RvT, got away with surprising ease.

Lack of transparency

But one year later reality has caught up with him. He presided over a messy nomination procedure of new members of the UvA-HvA’s CvB – a procedure marred by leaks, the resignation of Hans Amman, and an opaqueness that stands for the lack of transparency and co-determination at the UvA.

This prompted an unprecedented reaction: in an urgent letter the deans and the official representative bodies of students and staff (COR and CSR) uniformly called for the separation of UvA and HvA. Mr. Nicolaï was a main advocate of these institutions’ merger, and the letter thus also amounted to a plea for his removal.

But what happened next? Minister JetBussemaker shamelessly reappointed Mr. Nicolaï without any consultation with the official representative bodies of UvA-HvA. This is a splendid example of what is called the arrogance of power: a disrespect of the academic community, an offence towards representative democracy, and a refusal to comply with one’s own rules.

This sorry state of affairs is not a specific problem of Amsterdam, nor unique to the UvA-HvA. It is one of the many infamous consequences of the erosion of democratic accountability, and of the pursuit of economic interests within the public sector. In the case at hand, the controversy over the merger between UvA and HvA also brings into sharp relief some problems of the current law.

We do have a Raad van Toezicht that actually consists of two Raden which mutually “advise” themselves – a covert way of getting around the law regarding conflicts of interest. Hence it is possible that there are members in the RvT who do have political roles (Marleen Barth is Chair of the parliamentary group of PvdA), or represent the shareholder interest of a building company (Rinse de Jong is member of the Managing Board of the Stichting Aandelenbeheer BAM group).


The interplay between Mr. Nicolaï (VVD) and Ms. Bussemaker (PvdA) again makes clear that the kind of politics whereby one hand washes the other is disastrous. Higher education is too important to leave to such games. It is all the more crucial that the academic community of the UvA does the right thing during the next months and accomplishes a real process of democratic reform. The Amsterdam spring has just begun.

Harriet Bergman, connected to Humanities Rally

Enzo Rossi and Josef Früchtl, connected to ReThink-UvA

(This article first was published in Dutch in Het Parool, 6 May 2016)