The UvA Committee on Democratization and Decentralization has presented their report and their plans for a referendum in November.
I would like to invite you all to stop for a short moment and breath in, and out.
And then, I would like you to realize what this news means.
Right here and right now we are presented with a unique chance. After more than 20 years of a politics that has forced a distorted business model of management on universities, after 20 years of an ever sharpening top-down management, after many years of growing frustration about its effects, we, students, staff and academics of the University of Amsterdam get to decide about how we want our university to be organized and administered.
This is a major event, and it has the potential of becoming a historic moment.
Imagine, we would all stop, breathe and understand this right now. Imagine we put on our new clothes hanging right in front of us: the clothes of sovereign academic citizens deciding about the future of the very institution where we work and study, deciding about how we want decisions to be made in this future university.
Imagine we simply start talking about this wherever our paths cross, at the copy machine, before and after meetings, before and after seminars, during some of the meetings, during some seminars. Imagine we start enjoying it. Imagine we even take pleasure in our different opinions on the details, because we realize that an overwhelming majority of us are united in achieving the same goal. Which is to seize this chance to take back our university.
Imagine we do this and it will clear the way for our – and other universities – to thrive. Imagine it will help academia to reach its full potential as a welcoming, cooperative and demanding place of learning and insight, of critique and discovery, of respectful and challenging debates inside and across disciplines and faculties. A university holding space in this way for so many different approaches that it actually has a chance to also produce the kind of insights that will turn out to help our societies in twenty, fifty or even a hundred and more years.
Maybe some of you might think: This sounds a bit too lofty for me.
I can only answer: If we don’t start to dream now and get excited about our own dreams, we might never again get such a big chance to make a difference.
But those of you who are sceptic are also right. Dreams can only become powerful if they engage with reality. The reality here and now is also that no structural step towards democratizing the university will in itself solve all our problems and do away with all the barriers for such a dream to come true. In some ways it might even create some new problems. So, why am I so passionate about this?
All the experiences I have assembled during these last years at our university, including a year in the works council, have created one very strong conviction:
Without a substantial change to the current top-down decision making structure there will be no long-lasting change for the better. Without such a structural change the estrangement between higher management and so many of the people who do the academic work will not substantially diminish but very likely continue to exacerbate and drain the energy and trust of way too many people.
I actually do think that the overwhelming majority of the people in charge wants to do a good job and would also like to help the university to thrive. And I do think that the protests have caused some, albeit minor and largely cosmetic, improvements in the current management culture. A top-down structure, however, has the capacity to derail even the best intentions in a way that is, I believe, often as frustrating for those who are in charge as for those who are on the receiving end of decisions. What I realized during my year in the works council of the faculty of humanities is, that there is an equally natural and sad logic to the ongoing alienation. If those above you, say the CvB, and not those below you, have the power to define when you did a good job as a faculty manager, where would you put your main attention if you were that manager? If only those above can actually interfere with your work and prevent you from doing certain things or even force you to do other things, where would you focus your time on? Why should a faculty administration, for instance, make it a priority that the works council has all the information it needs in time for a well-informed opinion, if the council itself has no power and might only make the management’s main job – satisfying the expectations from above – more complicated?
This top-down system creates a perverse logic, one that will never incite managers to “organize their own disagreement” (“eigen tegenspraak organiseren”), a wise expression from the spring of 2015. This leaves us all too often with a situation in which people do not get a chance, or do not dare, to express their differing ideas and convictions on important matters. It also leaves us with a situation in which any successful effort to influence decisions from below comes at the cost of a ridiculous and, quite frankly, unsustainable amount of time and energy. If this is still the case now, imagine what will happen when the memories of the Maagdenhuis occupation start to fade…
Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar Animation Studios, writes that when employees stop articulating their opinions, this will “ultimately lead to dysfunctional environments.” He also defines his own task as constantly, and above all else, organizing his own disagreement, so that the people are enabled to do their best work without being silenced by fear.
I stubbornly believe it is possible to achieve something similar for universities.
But in order to do that, we need a new academic democracy.
Let’s go and get it!