1) What does “variety and diversity in academia” mean to you and your work?
I’ll answer your questions point by point, although I’d like to turn this first one around and put it to you, because of the shocking lack of diversity on the three panels you have put together that do not reflect our society in any way, and the seemingly arbitrary selection principles that you used to do so. If I organise similar meetings at the university, I would not get away with that.
But I shall answer the first question: I believe that variety and diversity in science means firstly diversity in research, approach and methodology, subject, not something that is promoted by the institute even though it’s intellectually appealing.
Furthermore, I believe that is to be invariably confronted with other methodologies, with unknown discourses, with analyses that verify, reject, supplement and raise new questions. Variety and diversity always go against the grain; they can be disruptive, in research, in education: variety and diversity of opinions among teachers, between teachers and students and among students is crucial for academic training and knowledge valorisation.
2) How do you perceive the extent of variety and diversity in your work? How do you perceive your academic freedom?
Due to the context and social debate in the Netherlands, I suspect that this question s about the political variety and diversity of my work. This is abundantly clear at Leiden University, but as long as the academic research produced here is not affected, I am not actually concerned about it.
I would advise you to assume this same attitude: it is a merit and a condition of the democratic state that academic research is sovereign and independent. In the current social context, your questions imply political interference in academic research; that is a worrying development. You are in fact asking an academic a political question. My answer can only be academic, so here we go.
In my field, I am in an extremely comfortable position in terms of variety and diversity. Other academics studying certain regions must generally make do with one region; I have two: North and South Korea.
Indeed, there are few places with more diversity than North and South Korea: in the North, for the sake of national morality, a ban has been imposed on variety and diversity – in academia (where it was first imposed), but now it applies to everything. The humanities were the first of which it was decreed that they should serve only the nation, and as soon as they complied and yielded their critical stance, they were killed off. So, North Korea can now build amazing missiles and nuclear warheads, but there is no such thing as critical academic endeavour any more. There are those who still dress in the toga of the academic and use the appropriate idiom, but they only report matters that have been sanctioned by the nation – but that happens here too.
The South has fared better, and its academic community has raised its voice, often putting their own lives at risk. It has cost some of them dearly.
Nonetheless, in the past decade, the “pseudo-historians” as we in the field call political lobbyists/activists (who may or may not be former academics) have drastically corroded academic freedom by means of smear campaigns in the media, questions in parliament and even by serving as “useful idiots” in legal proceedings to spread political messages (both from the left and the right factions).
I would like to say one or two things about academic freedom myself. How do I perceive academic freedom? Right now, I am in the House of Representatives for a hearing on variety and diversity in academia. Well, that’s quite something. Or, at least, it should be. Because I am also aware that the university is under threat from external forces that want to slash its funding or censor it. Or both.
I am aware, too, that our system of funding does not induce good quality education or academic freedom. Structural flaws in the university’s funding and increasing political and social antagonism affect individual academics. I shall use myself as an example here, because it is the case I am most familiar with.
Generally, lip service is paid to academic freedom. For every firmly spoken statement on academic freedom, there is the reality of everyday academic endeavour. You see, nowadays, I must ask a law firm to look at my research on North Korea first (and just try budgeting for those expenses when applying for subsidy) due to the – not entirely unfounded – fear of being sued by the major companies mentioned in that research.
In addition, this morning, I had yet another discussion about my personal safety and that of my research data and results because the state of North Korea has accused me of three capital offences.
It should not be a matter of course that a professor of Korean Studies can be threatened by large multinationals – both domestic and foreign – and yet it happens. I’m getting used to it.
Or that I am stalked in my own country by angry ambassadors and diplomats demanding my dismissal because I, a scientist, must report my observations? It should not be happening, but it is.
Or that I was told that a foreign intelligence service has a file on me, on the grounds of which criminal proceedings are imminent? Kafkaesque perhaps, but true.
Or that I must repay the final year of research money because the authority that handed it out declared that my academic freedom is related to the receipt of funds from that authority, and now my name appears on a fund-raising black list? Likewise.
I have many more examples, but perhaps politicians aren’t quite as interested in them as I am; at least, that is what I’ve learnt from experience. And I have learnt from it: I speak out and keep a distance from any source of funding that could compromise me, despite pressure from the institute to keep on raising large sums from external parties.
3) What does “variety and diversity in science” mean to you and your work?
Academic freedom, certainly mine, is under threat and has been for some time. It is perhaps not an unusual situation, but our defencelessness against it is. I speak from personal experience, but I can easily put it into a larger, more structured context in which external pressure and attempts at censure are increasing.
Sometimes, academic research is coloured by politics but that is not usually due to the academics themselves but rather the influence of external circumstances. That is why I have changed, from being an introvert humanities scholar with chalky fingers to being a professor who does his best to do justice to Leiden’s reputation for speaking up.
Why? Do you see what I see? Instead of my concerns – which are well-documented, demonstrable, tangible and empirically verifiable – being taken seriously, I see politicians ignoring the real threats that constantly corrode academic freedom and scientific independence. I see meaningless motions on academic freedom and diversity.
You seem to be worried about my voting behaviour and that of my colleagues. Politics and society have been befuddled by hypes on Twitter and ignore the tough issues that make up the practice of academic endeavour: it is not as simple as left or right, progressive or conservative. You are confusing socially relevant criticism that goes against the grain with political stance.
You do not see the – often decisive – impact of the search for external funding: who will fund me if it is known, in advance, that I shall not allow any non-academic intervention in my academic endeavours? And again: my research should be socially relevant, according to our Minister (and I agree) so how do I proceed when my research is a sensitive matter?
Nonetheless, the opinion I read in the papers is the one-dimensional, reductionist and completely daft opinion that every academic is really a one-person research department for his/her political party of choice, working for his/her own political beliefs, and worse: I see it in the motions you have called for here, in the very heart of our democracy. I see an out-of-control obsession with appearance, but I can also see that you continually look away in the face of real problems.
Stepping back and viewing it from a slightly ironic distance, I see that this entire debate, this entire discussion, seems to be inspired by a complete ignorance of daily academic life.
I would rather you took a look at the real, measurable, empirically demonstrable factors that cripple that debate, research and sometimes education in academic research, corrode independence, obstruct variety and diversity and limit my academic freedom and that of my colleagues: other nations, multinationals – or anyone, for that matter – whose financial interests are at stake, the political interests of all sorts of bodies, including the government, the poorly devised system of funding and, last but not least, the anecdotes and seemingly opportunistic political attacks on academics, made in this room even.
I also wonder about the purpose of this meeting here in this form, what it stands for, and where it will lead to in the future.
Remco Breuker is Professor of Korean Studies at Leiden University. This is his contribution to the hearing “Variety and Diversity in Science”, which recently was held in the House of Representatives