The fact that there is something rotten emerges clearly from an opinion piece by Ana Uribe Sandoval dated 24 September 2019, the first in a polemic concerning the future of the ESHCC and ESPhil, my faculty. Uribe, chair of the Faculty Council at Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication (ESHCC), describes a bureaucratic organisation in which constructive dialogue seems to have been sacrificed on the altar of dysfunction. Her story is really troubling. She paints a sad picture of an administrative situation created by imposed deans (mark the plural) and a culture of anxiety and fear. At the same time, she suggests that the positive developments at ESHCC fail to receive the recognition they deserve.
That relationships are deeply troubled is confirmed by the appointment of an external forensic bureau to sleuth their way through people’s mailboxes undercover. The Executive Board tasked this bureau with finding a whistle-blower who could no longer recognise himself in the Executive Board’s actions following a complaint about scientific integrity. I would always hope that such an action would never be necessary, but it should always be an option in an open organisation. However, it does not suit a complacent, self-absorbed bureaucracy. In such a culture, you may expect sharp derision as a reward. Uribe: “It is highly problematic when any employer creates an environment where it is known that complaining about the wrong-doings of higher-ranking employees will be persecuted.”
The previous interim dean of Erasmus School of Philosophy, Frank van der Duijn Schouten, weighs in on the discussion and is not afraid to place himself in a vulnerable position. From his side run as interim dean of ESHCC (alongside his interim appointment at the Erasmus School of Economics), he declares that he wants to defend the Humanities: “If necessary against the scientists themselves”. Not really an invitation to an open dialogue; on the contrary.
After that sideswipe, he also disqualifies the leadership capacities within ESHCC and chooses that to be the causal agent for him to suggest a merger with ESPhil. I find it very surprising that a merger, a complex process whose success depends on the quality of said leadership, could solve a leadership crisis.
“This substantial reinforcement of the Humanities and Social Sciences at EUR could come about by allying ESHCC’s various departments with Erasmus School of Philosophy or ESSB,” Van der Duijn writes, hereby suggesting that Hub Zwart, dean of ESPhil, does have the required leadership qualities. Zwart assumed his position a year ago and may have distinguished himself in ways that are beyond my field of vision.
Subsequently I was slightly surprised by the rather explicit reaction of philosopher F.A. Muller to Van der Duijn’s plans. Muller wrote his piece as a response to an emergency consultation on 7 October 2019. I cannot begin to understand that an emergency-style meeting could ever fit a painstaking search into the possibilities of a merger. Surprising plans, emergency meetings and explicit responses are a perfect recipe for even greater chaos than the one that Van der Duijn is trying to solve at ESHCC. Muller is obviously dissatisfied with the lack of dialogue and writes about it in committed style. He mentions that in the emergency meeting, attended by staff members, researchers, office personnel and students, everyone was unanimously opposed to a merger. The consensus is described as maximal. I am unaware whether said emergency meeting was attended by Zwart (not an interim dean, but a real one with responsibility for the future) and whether he was therefore included in the consensus and what he learned from this meeting.
Van der Duijn reacts to Muller’s views in a way that befits the tone of Muller’s story. Van der Duijn basically blames Muller for not knowing what he is talking about. He states that Muller’s thinking is guided by obsessive ideas about the need for an independent philosophy. I think that Muller actually puts forward some valid thoughts; I cannot detect any undue obsessiveness. It also seems to be a fact according to Van der Duijn that there is a need for an extra effort within the ESHCC; this is in accordance with Muller’s views.
Willem Schinkel also makes a contribution. He rightly criticises the use of the disproportionate instrument of power that is a forensic search. The danger of such tactics setting a precedent warrants all attention. However, Schinkel also made a remark that made me nervous. He states: “Achieving real change is only possible from a position of power.” I would like to oppose that with my personal conviction that true change is only possible if there is enough of a foundation from within an organisation. From such support, you can generate a great deal of strength and that is much more powerful than a hierarchical display of force. Schinkel’s suggestion that you would need legal measures to rule out conservatism is a socialist bureaucratic measure that will be anathema to the creation of a solid foundation within an organisation.
Ultimately, Hub Zwart, the dean of ESPhil, decides to become involved with the polemic. Zwart claims: “It seems useful to put into words the perspective of ESPhil on these developments.” Is that a perspective from the viewpoint of Hub Zwart, from the co-workers in the faculty or from the students? As leader of the ESPhil faculty, Zwart is the node in the network that connects the various stakeholders, the Executive Board, the people employed by the faculty and the students. Only when taken into account from an egalitarian perspective, and only when justice is done to the interests of all three groups, is it possible to be a good faculty.
ESPhil has gone through turbulent times and is finding its feet under the guidance of Zwart. I hope that all stakeholders were involved in bringing about Zwart’s ultimate vision and that they all support it. ESPhil still has a long way to go to become a stable force in the philosophical world. Hopefully, now that Zwart has been with us for a year, we will shortly learn about and get to discuss his vision for how he intends to shape my faculty. Like Van der Duijn states in his reaction to Muller, Zwart also sees that this thought exercise is needed for ESPhil.
A defensive merger at this point in time would delay every opportunity of improvement, as it will shift the focus of many people to different things. Experts from Rotterdam School of Management will undoubtedly be able to confirm that many mergers fail. An organisation that is in development and an organisation with leadership issues are not ideal candidates for a merger. This will lead to even greater problems than the ones facing both organisations today and will necessitate another call on more interim people to solve them, because their own staff will once again be found to be too close to the everyday reality. Another intervention from above will be mandated and contribute to another already volatile situation. And so it continues.
More so perhaps than other faculties, a School of Philosophy is a collection of very sharp debaters. Eloquent, but also caught in their own thoughts and opinions. That diversity is perfect for a School of Philosophy, but should never get in the way of the organisation of that School as the home for that variety of thought.
The challenge for the School is to make us as students familiar with many diverse thoughts and visions and to think about them. That is interesting for the teaching staff, good for the reputation of EUR and is what makes happy students.
Such a School can become excellent if equivalent thought is given to all stakeholders.
The articles written by the scribes above are about each other. There is no starting point for any constructive dialogue and it degenerates into a search for being right, rather than being the best solution. However, being right does not automatically mean that the other person is wrong. The perspectives of students, staff or the Executive Board will always differ and thus lead to different ideas about what is best. As soon as the interests of one of these groups are overlooked, you will find yourself in a Kafkaesque bureaucracy where the positions that people fill become more important than the work they do, more important than those people themselves. Whilst organisations are being forced to go through such a treadmill, there is a material risk that the education of the students suffers. An unpleasant situation for the student and no positive publicity for the institute.