To understand why some students refuse to participate in the kind of dialogues the Executive Board envisions, we can look back at the recent ‘sustainability dialogues’, organized as a reaction to the student occupations in 2022 and 2023. Leading up to these dialogues, many of our peers were reluctant to join, since they feared that the dialogues would be mainly symbolic and effect little change. Despite widespread pessimism and disinterest among students, some of us still joined. However, many of our suspicions were confirmed. Notwithstanding the official proclamation of the importance of student perspectives, we were confronted with the usual hierarchy of the university, which subordinates students to academic staff, staff to management, and mostly bypasses the existence of the rest of the university such as cleaning staff.

One of us, Tom, joined the first interfaculty dialogue. There, it quickly became clear that this was not about ‘dialogue’ or listening to students, but rather about upholding some empty idea of democracy within an undemocratic institution. And even at upholding that empty pretense, Tom felt they did an awful job; he heard more from a representative of the fossil fuel giant BP than from other students who were concerned with the climate crisis and EUR’s complicity in it.

At a different dialogue, the one of ESPhil, Nena was one of the only three students there. She found many of her contributions to be dismissed and ridiculed by senior staff members, and even by the moderator. She was interrupted, her points were misconstrued and not taken seriously. Nena walked out knowing that she would not participate in something like this again.

Such personal accounts illustrate the need to scrutinize the idealization of institutional dialogue. These dialogues are a good example of something that the philosopher Sara Ahmed calls non-performative: something that fulfills its purpose in not affecting that which it proclaims to do. To keep on discussing as a way to avoid any radical change and to pacify critique and protest. As Executive Board president Ed Brinksma admits: the aim is “taking the heat out of a debate.” Words are used as a way of not doing things.

Moreover, as long as the university is not seriously democratized, power, hierarchy and inequality will always preclude meaningful communication. Power becomes apparent in these ‘dialogues’, when it is the university administrators that get to set the terms and conditions, that get to decide what constitutes ‘respectful’ and thus legible and acceptable speech considered worthy of attention and recognition.

So, while some people are occupied with criticizing students for their refusal of ‘civil debate’, we are rather concerned with university management that can only speak through police repression and undemocratic dialogues. After all, it is not so strange that many students are interested not in participating in the university’s hierarchy of power, but rather in working toward its dissolution. Meanwhile, these students will keep setting up their own dialogues, in forms such as reading groups, gatherings, meetings, study breaks, dinners, teach-ins and protests.

Nena Ackerl has a BA in public administration and studies philosophy.

Pepijn Op de Beek studies history and philosophy.

Tom van Dijken is a Masters’ student at ESSB and a member of the University Council for the Progressive Student Party.

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