Why is the debate at the university ruled by fear?
The current state of the university as bastion of silence is untenable, argue Max Adams and Ebrar Kaya. That is why their student parties are combining forces.
Guest writer
Thursday 28 March 2024
Beeld Silas

It's no secret that these are tumultuous times for the university. With the world collectively facing a climate crisis, the war in Ukraine and Gaza, legalised discrimination, increasing populism, and the pressure on academic freedom, the university has been confronted by that age-old question: What role does the university play in society?

It's a debate that many staff members and students at the institution have encouraged reflection on for quite some time. Nevertheless, they have been constantly disappointed by apolitical stances, while the “neutral” voice takes priority in the conversations about conservation, development, and progress. What the university fails to recognise is that we never had the luxury of pretending that the university is free from socio-political engagement. Simply choosing not to get involved has never been the “neutral position”. In these times, universities can no longer isolate themselves from society or its problems. Silence is acceptance. 

Humanity and compassion should not have to be demanded. Especially from an institution that prides itself on being a beacon of knowledge and freedom. A centuries-old institution whose core curriculum includes teaching students to think critically, evaluate their sources, do empirical evidence-based research, and constantly confront their own biases and values. Every student at our university is told: “Your generation is the future.” We are being readied to be the critical and outspoken leaders of tomorrow. Prospective students are told to come to our university to discover and understand the world, learn how to recognise and debate flawed arguments, and do better.

Deep down we agree with each other: the state of the university as it is today, is unsustainable

At a university, you learn to be critical of existing knowledge and look at the history books, because “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But once students arrive, they find themselves in an institution where the status quo is upheld and critical voices are sidelined (or even removed by the police). We forget the lessons of those who came before us and cross our fingers that what we're living through now won't become the mandatory course material in 10 years. 2000 words with references: where did we go wrong in 2024? Why did we cast aside the warnings that told us we were heading in the wrong direction? Why did we hold on to the idea of being able to separate our academic community from society at large?

Deeply divided

As we take stock of the voices of protest at the campuses in the Hague and Leiden that continue to grow in spite of this culture of silence, we are confronted with difficult questions. Is this our bastion of freedom? What happened to taking a stand in the face of adversity? Why does the conversation have to be ruled by fear and reluctance? While we applaud the impressive resilience of some groups to make their voices heard, they should not have to be so resilient.

Our community is deeply divided, while deep down we agree with each other: the state of the university as it is today, is unsustainable. Together we can advocate for a university as an essential part of society. A university where education and research go hand in hand in fighting structural inequalities. From racism and xenophobia to ableism and climate justice. Fighting for climate justice and against racism, xenophobia, and ableism, together we can create a university where every member of our community has equal opportunities. It’s a drop in the bucket, but we can start in the various democratically elected councils that represent students and staff at Leiden University. This is why the student party DSP-The Hague and the Students’ Collective have decided to join forces to work on this together and head into the upcoming university elections with joint lists. 

Practice what you teach

Why now? Because the path we are on now is unsustainable. When a government or society threatens the pursuit of scientific education and research, we must take a stand. When the knowledge of our communities and scientific researchers is suppressed because it doesn’t fit into the political preferences of governments, we must take action. Shutting ourselves, as a university, out of these conversations because of a delusion of neutrality deprives us of all possibility of societal impact.

 Fear of questions from parliament, media coverage, and difficult conversations have ruled our university for too long. Meanwhile, students are told: be curious and brave and forward-thinking, but also: do not question the status quo. It's our place to be the garden, not the gardener you say, but it’s our garden that feeds society. It is not a privilege, but a duty to responsibly cultivate the knowledge that we share with the world. Just as this shared knowledge has an impact, our silence speaks volumes. Responsible education and research means acknowledging that it's impossible to be neutral or objective. It means acknowledging that we're operating in an environment that is inherently political and that we need to be aware of the influence our choices have. Pretending otherwise serves neither science nor society. We’re taught history in our lectures, don’t wait to act until we become that history ourselves. So, we say: “Practice what you teach.”

 We cannot be ahead of the times if we’re always playing catch-up. Now is the time for action. This is why we’re calling on all students and staff to join us in reclaiming our voices, our university, and our place in society.

 Max Adams (DSP-The Hague) & Ebrar Kaya (Students’ Collective)