According to Scheltema, this role has gradually grown to encompass three distinct functions: education, research, and nowadays a strong emphasis on contributing to society. Still, there is very little consensus on which shape the latter should take: over the past few years, our universities’ societal role has been subject to more debate than ever. “Take the fairly successful protest movement WOinActie, for example, which also involved EUR students and staff members. And the fact that as recently as September 2018, students occupied one of the UvA buildings.”

With this in the back of her mind, Scheltema analysed EUR’s booklet ‘Working Together towards Strategy 2024’. In this document the university announces its mission and its plans to develop a new strategy for the years ahead. How this message is communicated provides insight into the changes the institution is currently going through. “The language used can tell us something about which unconscious assumptions we make when we try to convey a specific message. When we examine which shared social context is expressed through the brochure text, we can determine which values these assumptions are based on,” explains Scheltema.

In Strategy 2024, EUR explains which direction its policy will be taking over the next five years. The development of the new strategy was announced during the opening of the current academic year via the booklet ‘Working Together towards Strategy 2024’. The university administrators have formulated a mission as well as elaborated seven priorities through which this mission can be shaped further within the new strategy.

The development of the new strategy will actually be different to what we are used to. The previous strategic plan, which dates from 2014, was drawn up by the Executive Board and subsequently adopted by the University Council. In contrast, the plan to be developed in 2019 will be written in collaboration with students and staff in ‘strategy design labs’: groups that come together to discuss the practical elaboration of the seven priorities within EUR’s new mission.

What stood out when you analysed the booklet?

“To start, the strategy announcement was published in the form of a newspaper. This has all sorts of unconscious connotations for the reader: the announcement deals with important newsworthy events and is reasonably objective. Nevertheless, the booklet doesn’t look like de Volkskrant or NRC – in terms of appearance it’s closer to a British tabloid. This ‘frames’ the text in a certain way for the reader: while the subject is important, we should try to remain light-hearted about it. There needs to be room for experimentation – for ‘left-field’ ideas. This is also reflected in the drawings and the informal layout.

“A second example is the mission statement on the second page. In the corporate world, a statement like that is used to convey a certain culture and mobilise the reader to act in a similar spirit. In EUR’s mission statement, you can see an emphasis on societal impact. But the content itself is couched in rather vague and general phrases – as is often the case in this category. Remarkably enough, there’s no mention of who actually wrote this mission statement, or the booklet as a whole. Even though this is important to know.

“When you examine the language used throughout the booklet, you keep seeing this mix of the professional tone used in the mission statement and the kind of ‘breezy’, chatty tone of voice that was also suggested by the tabloid format. On the last page, for example, we find the following sentence: “We asked Kristel [Baele, President of the Executive Board, eds.] which questions came in most often.’ As if they’d bumped into her near the water cooler.”

What did you notice about the content of the strategy leaflet?

“In the text of the booklet, there were a lot of examples of what they call over-lexicalisation: the frequent use of quasi-synonymous phrases or concepts. One example is a recurring emphasis on the idea that the mission should be seen as a guideline in the strategy formulation process. On the first page alone, we are assured that the new mission’s role is ‘to take us … guide us … serve us … serve as our compass … inspire us.’ The same point is made in the layout. There’s an abundance of compasses and roadmaps – as if the mission has plotted a ‘route’ for us.

“But we can also see numerous examples of the exact opposite: certain key phrases keep getting trotted out without ever being explained. These are phrases that we all use and understand, but which we could never find a comprehensive definition for that we could all agree on. Some people call them buzzwords: phrases like ‘societal challenges’, ‘progress’, ‘impact’. Take ‘societal impact’, for example. It’s never explained what is meant by this term – even though it’s open to all sorts of interpretations. Are we talking about innovation, economic growth, the advancement of minorities? Another big one is that word ‘we’ that keeps popping up. On the first page alone, the text refers to ‘we’ or ‘our’ a total of 26 times. But never to ‘I’. It remains unclear which group the reader is associated with: the authors’ ‘we’ or the audience’s?”

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From Merel’s thesis: compass and roadmap icons on multiple pages of the strategy booklet

Which conclusions could you draw from your study?

“Based on this document, you can adopt two different perspectives on the entire strategy development process. The first is that the university’s management has understood that EUR’s relationship to society and the elaboration of its third function – contributing to society – are a cause of some discomfort. With this in mind, the administrators have decided to get everyone involved when it comes to fleshing out EUR’s new role. To shape this process they formulated a mission and priorities, which can serve as a framework for the related discussions.

“The other perspective is that this approach to strategy development is a means for management to ‘depoliticise’ the plotting of the university’s course. One could suspect that the Executive Board has long since determined the key points of EUR’s new strategy, but that they need to build support for it within the university organisation. Thanks to their control over the ‘democratic process’, they can position the results so that they align with their own, previously developed plans. Perhaps that’s why the booklet puts so much emphasis on compasses. Because how ‘democratic’ could you actually call a process where both the mission statement and the seven priorities have been established in advance – effectively fixing the framework for the discussion?

“It’s important to note in this context that the booklet doesn’t make clear who will actually be drawing up the strategy – in other words, we don’t know if he or she will actually be taking all the different opinions and interests that are shared in the discussions on board. At first glance, it seems like an open, relaxed and communal process, but the audience is effectively left in the dark. Which raises the question: to which end has this been organised?”

Are you implying that the Executive Board is trying to pull the wool over our eyes?

“No, the phrasing of this booklet doesn’t suggest an evil plan on the Board’s part to pull a fast one. But we do unconsciously pick up on all these cues. Highlighting them allows you to determine which values are emphasised by this strategy and which ambiguities are glossed over. Which purpose is actually served by the whole endeavour, in other words.”

Which perspective would you say is more likely?

“Actually, the only way to find out is by checking what has been said in the discussion groups and whether, and how, these points have ended up in the final version of the strategic plan. In general, we should actually take a closer look at the development process and which choices were made in this context. This process defines EUR’s role as a university within society, but it also says something about EUR’s internal politics. The strategy is important for all of us, and we need to demand transparency in this matter.

“Personally, I think that universities may well form the only institution within our society where it is truly possible, and indeed encouraged, to disagree with one another. We need to be able to enter into debate with everyone – regardless of their position. Yes, this includes someone like [right-wing politician] Baudet about climate change. And definitely a party like the Executive Board about the future of our university.”

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