29 maart 2018

The VU is (also) The Verrekijker

By closing The Verrekijker, the Board gives a clear message that ideas of democratization, participation and critical spirit do not have a real place at the VU, claims Dimitiris Pavlopoulos.

[Nederlandse versie hier]

The discussion on the closure of the Verrekijker is dominated by arguments concerning compliance to regulations and official procedures. Despite the clear and opinionated arguments that were presented by the University press officer at the first moment after the ‘debated event’ with the Palestinian activist Rasmea Odeh, the University Board claims that the Verrekijker must disappear because it broke the agreements with the VU.

There is a lot of room for discussion here as these agreements do not exist in written, while the 2 parties (the University Board and the Verrekijker collective) present different views on the content of these agreements. Things could clearly not have taken this route even if one thinks the Verrekijker handled the issue inappropriately. The Verrekijker could have received a direct written warning or even be moved to another space (since there are complaints by neighbouring research facilities). What is more, the University Board could have launched a discussion on whether (and if yes in which framework) such a self-organized initiative of students has a place at the VU instead of threatening its own students with legal action and security guards.

Although the discussion on democratization has somehow faded, the issues that were raised are still pressing The issue can not be treated by removing the context. The Verrekijker did not emerge from nowhere. It rather emerged in a period where higher education in the Netherlands was shaken by the social movement that was sparked by the occupation of Maagdenhuis. At that time, the VU was feeling the disastrous consequences of the reorganization of the support services as well as the arrogant management culture that was established by the previous University Board. The democratization trend that was initiated by the Maagdenhuis occupation was also felt at the VU.

This is when the questioning of the output-based way that the university operates was put into broad discussion. It was when, at the initiative of VU-students and employees, public debates were organized on issues that were previously untouchable: the allocation model of the university (VUSAM), the governance of the university, the undervaluation of education.

This discussion led ultimately to the ‘public consultation’ (raadpleging) of the community in 2016. Although the discussion on democratization has somehow faded, the issues that were raised during this period are still pressing. The Verrekijker collective was present in all these activities and contributed the utmost to their success. If we want to offer criticism to the Verrekijker, this is for failing to pursue this line equally consistent till now.

Moreover, as a free space organized by students, the Verrekijker contributed to the identity of the Vrije Universiteit. At the VU, there are numerous student groups, associations and initiatives. However, and with full respect to students that do put a lot of effort in them, these are institutionalized. Debates, discussions and events are organized according to the dominant principles and the dominant culture. The Verrekijker is based on horizontal structure of organizing and also free of this dominant culture that imposes restrictions on the issues that we debate on and mostly on the way that we debate.

Apparently, avoiding disputes with the extreme right has become a VU priority There are some other important issues as well. The VU claims that it should remain neutral in such controversial international topics, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, in the course of time, the University Board has taken decisions that are everything but neutral. It’s not the first time that the Board disapproves or even bans an event on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than leans contextually to the Palestinian side, while it has allowed the opposite. Both times that such events were met with the opposition of the Board, the organized protests from the same organizations that are part of the Israeli lobby were presented as argument. Interestingly at both occasions and in defiance to historical facts, these protests were joined by extreme right circles. 

In this respect, the decision to shut down the Verrekijker will have serious consequences on the image and the identity of the VU. Probably at the advice of communication officers, the Board decided that the Verrekijker does not fit the marketing profile of the university that is designed by people and principles that reside far away from the lecture rooms and the VU-community. It is not the time of the Maagdenhuis occupation, but the time of the dominance of the extreme-right ideas of Thierry Baudet and Donald Trump in the public discourse in the Netherlands. Apparently, avoiding (additional) disputes with this part of the political spectrum has become a priority. This is not without consequences for the image of the VU and these consequences go far beyond the Verrekijker. By closing the Verrekijker, the Board gives a clear message that the ideas of democratization, participation and critical spirit do not have a real place at the VU.  This is actually the reason that the closure of the Verrekijker has found support among people that were opposed to democratization ideas from the very beginning.

The counter-argument to this would be that the university is open all together to these ideas. However, ideas on democratization and direct participation do not thrive in institutionalized environments with hierarchical structures of decision making, such as the VU as an official organization, but in dynamic environments where students and employees feel free to develop their own initiative.

Diversity is wanted at the VU as long as it is institutionalized A further consequence of all this is that the diversity policies of the VU end up being void. According to the practice that is dictated by the closure of the Verrekijker, diversity is wanted at the VU as long as it is institutionalized.  Thus, we want to attract students that are second generation immigrants as well as students from all over the world, from all cultures and races and make them feel at home, but at the same time we expect them to behave in a certain way and discuss controversial political (and not only) issues in a dry manner. Clearly, this does not distinguish the VU from any other university. The opponents of diversity policies should be having a sense of victory by the closure of the Verrekijker…

 The issue of the Verrekijker has a strong symbolic effect. The exceptional research achievements and the sincere efforts to provide high quality education to students that are both accomplishments of VU employees are not enough to create a truly distinct identity of the University. Giving students the opportunity to develop their own horizontal structures and let them offer the community their own panel of activities can have an effective complementary role to the institutionalized work of the University.

The Author is assistant professor of Sociology and Research Methods and member of the Works Council (Ondernemingsraad)

Dimitris Pavlopoulos


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