Rector Magnificus Annelien Bredenoord, especially before Christmas, was dealing with the rising tension at the university over the conflict in Israel and Gaza on an almost daily basis. She gave interviews, held discussions with students and staff from all walks of life and hosted Minister of Education, Culture and Science Robbert Dijkgraaf in early December to discuss how educational institutions should handle this conflict.
Space for different perspectives
“For me, everything we do, especially around this conflict, is to ensure the sense of belonging, the inclusiveness of this university. That we are there for everyone, and that there is room for people with different perspectives. That the exciting thing about science is that this diversity of perspectives will rub shoulders with each other, that there will be room for doubt and thus for other views. I think that is really the strength of EUR – that diversity of the community and thus the diversity of perspectives”, says Bredenoord. She was keen to give this interview, because thinking about the university’s role is important to her.
“What happens in the world is not within our circle of influence, but we can of course try to make sure that we remain an inclusive university. And that’s simply a lot of hard work. Getting that right together and repeatedly looking for what John Rawls calls the overlapping consensus (how adherents with different views can still agree on certain principles of justice, ed.). I find that challenging, but also really satisfying.”
Teach-ins, discussions and protest
She is proud that EUR has managed to organise teach-ins and create space for discussion and protest about the Israel-Gaza conflict. Other universities did not allow this, resulting in unannounced protests. For example, a protest ensued in Leiden that had to be ended with much pushing and shoving.
“For us, it has been said that we offer room for discussion, as long as it is organised bottom-up from the EUR Community and people commit to very clear rules. There is no room for any kind of hate speech or any form of anti-Semitism or Islamophobia”, Bredenoord said. “Whether we have succeeded? I think different people will offer different answers to that question, but what matters to me is that we don’t cover things up. We don’t stifle them. Create that space. It acts as a kind of outlet to engage with each other about the intense nature of what is happening.”
You were a member of the Senate on behalf of D66 until last summer and thus has a clear political profile. Did that make it difficult for you not to speak out about the conflict?
“I have reflected a lot, at least the past few years, on the logic and rules of politics and of the university, and specifically for my role as an administrator. It always helps to keep me focused: what kind of organisation are we? The university is not a political party. We never will be, and it is not something we should wish for. We are here for education, research and engagement, to have an impact on society. So it is ultimately my job as an administrator to ensure that everyone can excel.
“I am basing this on the 1967 report of the Kalven committee of the University of Chicago. There, they struggled with requests to speak out about the Vietnam War. I re-read it this autumn, and it is still very much up to date – it’s really fantastic.
“I adhere to the line from this report: if I, as an administrator, want to ensure as much academic freedom as possible for the community, I should not make political statements, because this limits the space for other people in the university to believe something or to think differently.
“This is a long answer to your question: did I find it difficult not to let politics play a role? No, I didn’t find it difficult at all, because I just understand very well what my role in this is and that I have to be pure in that.”
Okay, the university does not interfere substantively in conflicts taking place in the world. But when Russia invaded Ukraine, the Ukrainian flag was raised and ties with Russian universities were cut. Would you do that differently now?
“Every situation – every context – is unique and different. When it came to the situation with Ukraine, the reaction was less polarised. It divided the community less, and the emotions were much more unified. Furthermore, there was a clear call from the Dutch government to start a boycott. It explicitly asked all Dutch universities to cut ties with Russia and Russian universities and to raise the Ukrainian flag in solidarity.
“I don’t know if we would have done the exact same thing with the wisdom of hindsight. Would you have raised the flag just as quickly again? I don’t know. I do think by now that we have a good sense of how we want to respond, but as I said, every context is different. It depends on the community’s response. Ultimately, the issue is that you don’t want the debate to become more polarised. You want everyone to feel at home and safe here. I always come back to that: how can we safeguard that sense of belonging?”
And when it comes to severing ties with universities in countries where there is conflict, or an undemocratic regime?
“We freeze ties with universities on the EU sanctions list. It is not up to us as individual universities to make political statements about the regimes. We maintain contact with universities all over the world, including a lot of universities in countries that are not democracies. Indeed, if we were to limit ourselves to cooperating with universities in democracies, meaning real working democracies – whatever that may mean – where is the line? Because that too can change, right? Science is international at heart. That is science’s strength.
“I said in my Dies speech that we do not want to be the university in that proverbial ivory tower. We want to have an impact on the real world and on the big social questions. So that means the world has to come to our campus. Perhaps 30 years ago, it was easier for universities to say that they had nothing to do with the outside world, but that is no longer possible, and we don’t want that either. This is a process, and we are always exploring where the boundary lies. That is why it is important to always go back to the question: what are we here for?”
And organising teach-ins, walk-ins and dialogue sessions is now part of that?
“Look, we want this international tension and the violence to stop; friend and foe alike will agree on that. But suppose there is a lasting solution, I have no illusions that the tension and emotion and trauma here at EUR will suddenly be gone. We really need to focus on making sure that people can study and work here safely in the long term. That they are able to come together here. So when you ask me what my goal is, that is my goal. I still circle back to that inclusive university.”