In the run-up to the pro-Palestinian protest, slated to take place on campus on Thursday, 16 May, eight Council members, both students and staff, sent a letter to the Executive Board expressing their concerns about safety for other campus visitors during the protest, noting that the protests might disrupt the ongoing Council elections.

Although the letter was written in a personal capacity, one of the signatories, student councillor Linquendo van der Klooster of Liberi Erasmi, considered it the right thing to do to share the letter with Council chair Ivonne Cune-Noten for information.

The letter was not marked confidential, and Cune-Noten interpreted it as a document received for discussion. She submitted it to the Council’s presidium, which tasks include setting the Council’s agenda. The presidium is made up of four Council members: students Cagla Altin and Nawin Ramcharan and staff members Pedro van Gessel and Aleid Fokkema. The presidium (in Ramcharan’s absence) put the letter on the agenda for the next meeting. In doing so, it also published the letter, including the signatories, through the University Council documents system.

Confidentiality

When Van der Klooster discovered this, he contacted Cune-Noten to explain that the letter had been shared confidentially and not as a document submitted. Given that the presidium had already decided to put the letter on the agenda, Cune-Noten did not want to take the decision to remove it at her own initiative. She asked the presidium to vote again on whether the letter should be on the agenda, and the presidium resolved to leave the decision to the Council meeting of 21 May.

One of the members of the presidium, student Council member Cagla Altin of the Erasmus Alliance party, then decided to circulate the letter – already publicly available at that time – among various study chat groups and at least one group of pro-Palestinian activists.

‘Outrageous’

Altin’s actions upset the letter’s signatories considerably. Nawin Ramcharan (Liberi Erasmi) allegedly ‘threatened’ Altin the Friday before the meeting. According to her, he said in a digital presidium meeting: ‘You have a big problem the next time I meet you. It’s as simple as that.’ (‘Jij hebt een groot probleem als ik jou de volgende keer tegenkom, heel simpel.’) As Ramcharan recalls it, his words were somewhat different: ‘You have a big problem with me.’ (‘Jij hebt een groot probleem met mij.’) He says this was a reference to the motion of no confidence he intended to file against her.

At the Council meeting of 21 May, staff member Emese von Bóné, one of the signatories, erupted in anger. She called it ‘outrageous’ that the letter had been shared in an activist chat group and left the meeting prematurely. The chair then suspended the meeting for a few minutes.

Expletives

During the break, emotions escalated further, as several Council members raised their voices and some expletives were uttered. When the meeting was resumed, Ramcharan read out a motion of no confidence against Altin, accusing her of ‘deliberately distributing’ the letter among students and activists. He further accused Altin of having removed Council members from other parties from study chats ahead of the elections.

In the motion, he demanded an apology from her to the Council members involved and a tightening of the Council’s code of conduct, as well as requesting that the Council report the matter to the ombudsperson for further investigation. While the motion was read, Altin also left the room in protest. The motion was rejected by a narrow majority.

Collecting input

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Cagla Altin shared her view on the motion’s allegations with EM, first in writing and later in person. Altin says that earlier in the year she was the ‘target of unjustified framing, threats and insults by Council members’ when a draft letter by her party (on the university’s ties with Israel) was leaked. ‘I was then personally threatened from various quarters. This was a very stressful period that I went through together with the Department of Integral Security at Erasmus University.’ It has never become clear who leaked that letter.

As for the letter on the protest of 16 May, she writes that she distributed it in WhatsApp groups ‘in order to collect input’ for her work as a Council member. ‘As a Council member, I am tasked with collecting input from my constituents. This is something I do more often through dialogue with students.’ Moreover, at the time of sharing the letter, the Council had already made it public officially, so there is no question of her having leaked it, she argues.

On removing Council members from study chat groups, she writes: ‘I am not an eligible candidate, so administrating study chats is not part of any campaign strategy. I took that step not in my capacity as a Council member, but as an administrator of study chats.’ Altin argues that the groups are not meant to be spammed with campaign messages, but Council members did have an opportunity to request permission from group administrators to share campaign messages, and some members made such a request.

Far too political

Von Bóné says she did not sign the letter with the intention of taking a political stance, but ‘purely from a campus safety point of view’. ‘We had just watched riots break out in Amsterdam. If things were to go wrong over here, everyone would ask why the U Council stood by and did nothing.’ She calls Altin’s sharing of the letter in a WhatsApp group for protesters ‘a breach of the U Council’s code of conduct’. ‘You just don’t do something like that!’

The Erasmus School of Law staff member thinks the atmosphere in the Council has become ‘far too political’. Von Bóné: ‘We are discussing political conflicts that the International Criminal Court is also examining. We are in no position to solve such matters. We are a participation body, which means we have to deal with university matters. Think, for example, of the big cuts that are coming our way!’

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