The response to the OccupyEUR protest and an invitation to a survey on the university as a ‘brand’ are provocations, writes professor of Social Theory; Willem Schinkel. They flatten what a university actually is.
Two recent events afford a clear view of what the administrative leadership of Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR) thinks a university really is. More precisely, these were two provocations. They made me think of Edwin Abbott’s novella Flatland. A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884), that tells the story of A. Square, who lives in Flatland, a world in 2D in which he can only experience a 3D-shape like a sphere as circle. Analogously, at this university the capacity to see in more dimensions seems missing, and everything that does not fit in the ‘strategy’ of administrators and their bureaucratic squares is rendered flat.
First provocation: protest versus ‘academic community’
First there was the response of the university board to the occupation of the space in front of the university’s auditorium by students of OccupyEUR on February 7 and 8. They demanded an end to the university’s ties with the fossil fuel industry, to precarious labour, to student debt, and to the lack of campus accessibility. During a previous occupation in November 2022 the board immediately called the police. This time they did so after one day. This response testifies to an utter incomprehension of campus protest, and to a kind of housekeeping reflex, a neurosis of security and hygiene. When students were unwilling to, on day one, dilute their protest to a ‘dialogue’ on the administrators’ terms, the administrators’ response was, entirely in keeping with the corporate identity of the university: get the fuck out of hEUR with your attempts to make of this place something more than a factory for credentialization and a lobby lounge for suits and ties intent on doing what their daddies did before them: cashing on the planetary plunder called capitalism.
This response testifies to an utter incomprehension of campus protest, and to a kind of housekeeping reflex, a neurosis of security and hygiene
Whoever seeks to return to normal this quickly, rests on shaky foundations. In a decretal dripping with childish frustration, the occupation was dubbed ‘illegal’, and not a protest. What is more, it was declared not befitting an ‘academic community’, which, after all, cannot be disturbed ‘just because a small group has a certain opinion’. As the board said: “In no way have you shown an openness to dialogue. This attitude does not suit an academic community and Erasmian values, nor does it contribute to real solutions.” What a spoiled habituation to being found important. And what a pathetic impatience when, for once, you don’t immediately get your way. Apparently, administrators fail to recognize protest unless it is flattened to ‘having a certain opinion’ and expressing it in a format they determine (a ‘dialogue’). And with a historical and political-theoretical amateurism that is almost touching, they believe a protest is something that doesn’t disturb anything. Finally, and this is an important yield, it turns out they cannot conceive of the climate catastrophe in anything but technocratic terms, as if it were a ‘problem’ requiring a ‘solution’. Of course, that solution could never be anything that changes existing relations of power. Anything else would be ‘a certain opinion’. ‘Leadership’ is a generous concept if all roads automatically lead to the same order-hugging technocracy.
Second provocation: the university as ‘brand’
And then came the question, by email, to partake in a ‘reputation survey’. That went as follows:
Give your opinion on Erasmus University Rotterdam
What is already going well? What could be better? We are curious about your vision. This will help us further develop our brand and better meet the wishes and needs of future and current students and staff.”
Right. So this is the kind of opinion about the university we are encouraged to express: what do we think of the university as ‘brand’? There’s a flattening going on here as well. As a brand the university is reduced to an image of the university, a marketing image, flat like a 2D-picture. Despite the anti-intellectual stink such invitations give off, here too there is a housekeeping neurosis at work. In replacing the university by a branding image, the university in all its complexity, multiplicity and beautiful messiness is ironed out, whitewashed like so often. And nobody seems to have figured out that such a message – the university as brand – is a provocation and an insult to anyone with some inkling of the history of universities.
These two provocations – the reduction to ‘opinion’ and to ‘brand’ – deserve an answer. Actually, they really don’t, but there is a certain need to answer them for whoever advocates another idea of the university. Or rather for whoever has an idea of the university at all. How to understand the buzz about ‘Erasmian values’ and ‘positive societal impact’ in light of these two provocations? If administrators feel free to unload their anti-intellectual bullshit on students and staff, then it is time to face the flatness of their favorite kind of newspeak.
‘Erasmian values’ and the academic community
Let’s first note that the history of academic communities is not written by vice-deans coordinating a new procedure for exam evaluation with program directors and exam administration. That history is written by precisely the thing administrators think is incompatible with it: protest. Feel free to mail me if you want reading tips (but not for a ‘dialogue’!).
The history of academic communities is written by precisely the thing administrators think is incompatible with it: protest.
The values a university has are better uncovered by looking at its actions than at what it decides to print in glossy magazines and flyers. And it would seem that Erasmus University’s actions bespeak the following ‘Erasmian value’: whatever isn’t recognized as ‘academic community’ in the anti-intellectual and ahistorical narrow-mindedness of the administrative frames is repressed by police violence.
In terms of its intellectual contribution to the history of campus protest and the conceptual development of the concept of ‘academic community’, this administrative Flatland reflex has the quality of a fart. The scattered whining that the students did something illegal because university buildings are ‘private property’ is part of one and the same genre of anti-intellectual ghastliness. But that is saying too little. For this anti-intellectualism has a reason, and it produces something. In We Demand. The University and Student Protests (2017), the American scholar Roderick Ferguson illustrates that universities have been a crucial site for social struggle and change throughout the 20th century, and that university administrators have simultaneously worked hard to trivialize and securitize student protests, and to surround them with suspicion rather than to see them as chances for change. As he says:
“(…) anti-intellectualism, not an accident but the intention of certain social projects, is the mature and defensive expression of dominant institutions, one that retaliates against past and present political and intellectual uprisings.” (p. 87)
Historian Howard Zinn already spoke of the ‘danger’ of students for university administrators: students disturb things and make connections that cannot be registered as valuable in bureaucratic academic accounting logics. This, in the case of Erasmus University, despite the Erasmian value ‘connecting’ (marketing icon in the Strategy 2024 document: four puzzle pieces).
What happens in Rotterdam is thus not at all unique, and its predictability makes it exhausting, but also makes it possible to differentiate between person and position, between the administrator and the academic that can be more than administrative executive of a script elaborately recorded in research on campus protest.
Meanwhile, there appear to be suggestions of making it mandatory to announce campus protest, and to then allocate a designated room for it, rendering it part of the logistics of the academic business corporation rather than a disruption and an actual protest. Protest then becomes flattened to every other lecture on ‘fiscal economics’, ‘law and finance’ or ‘art and market’. I suggest the Erasmian value of ‘no protest’ here (icon: muzzle).
Erasmian values appear to be the latest form of flattening the university. Last year I and many others were asked to participate in the process of drafting a new ‘educational strategy’. The idea was that the previous one was not yet informed by ‘Erasmian values’, as it was five years old and the world has changed, according to Creating the Education vision 2023. Working together on world-class education. Makes sense to then takes one’s cue from the ‘values’ of someone who lived five hundred years ago. By the way, in what relevant respects had the world changed in the last five years? Well, the document makes clear that that change mainly lies in the normalization of ‘online education’ (posh name for bullshit on a screen that is conveniently cheap, flexible and – not unimportant – hygienic). Teaching on a screen, nicely flat. Let’s no longer talk about ‘online’ and ‘on campus’ education, but about 2D and 3D. To miss an entire dimension and call it teaching; you don’t survive in the university without a heavy dose of resistance to the absurd.
Talk of ‘values’ is, in fact, always a poor substitute for something substantial, at most it’s the pinning of marketing labels after the fact. The real question is what happens in the case of value conflict. Erasmian value ‘engaged with society’ (icon: three people with their heads in the clouds) doesn’t necessarily go well with ‘entrepreneurial’ (icon: light bulb). Read: OccupyEUR doesn’t go together with Shell. And that was precisely the point. And don’t be fooled by the board’s claim that its ideas aren’t that far apart from those of OccupyEUR. The strategy documents for the ‘convergence’ with the Technical University Delft mention as first future corporate connection (icon: four puzzle pieces): Shell.
Thankfully, the values of the antisemite Desiderius Erasmus were never the reason this university got ‘Erasmus’ as semiofficial name. How that did go about is recounted in the book Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam 1973-1993 [Erasmus University Rotterdam 1973-1993] (1993) by the historians Davids and van Herwaarden. If you open it, you will see in the colophon on page IV a brand logo at least as strong as that of the university, namely a shell, with the caption: “This publication is made possible in part by the financial support of Shell Netherlands Ltd.” Two years later financial support by Shell helped make the hanging of the Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa possible. He led the nonviolent ‘Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People’ (MOSOP), but his protest disrupted the Erasmian value ‘entrepreneurial’ (icon: light bulb).
‘Positive societal impact’
It is clear that university administrators want the university to be an integral part of the contemporary order, the order of the planetary plunder euphemistically called ‘climate change’ – indeed, that euphemism, which comes out of the climate skeptical lobby, issues from the infrastructure of that plunder. ‘Positive societal impact’ is a name for the compulsive desire to do whatever the established order expects and deems proper. The yardstick for ‘positive’ lies with that order. The possibility that this established order itself – including the university – is a case of catastrophic impact cannot be registered in the repertoire of ‘positive societal impact’. But whoever sends the police to students connecting their engagement with the earth with their bodies, makes clear that ‘positive societal impact’ is an all-too fluffy name for nihilism.
The possibility that the established order itself – including the university – is a case of catastrophic impact cannot be registered in the repertoire of ‘positive societal impact’.
Strategies such as Creating Positive Societal Impact: The Erasmian Way assume consensus about the state of the world – there are ‘complex challenges’ – but they forego the fact that ideally, as Julia Schleck writes in Dirty Knowledge. Academic Freedom in the Age of Neoliberalism (2022), universities themselves are arenas of struggle. Struggle over what the world looks like, and struggle about change and about the language we use to position ourselves. That struggle is hygienically removed in flattened notions of ‘positive societal impact, the Erasmian way’. The fancy flyer of that strategy can sell this with a picture of – oh, the irony – a climate protest, but the entire thing is an exercise in anti-intellectualism exemplary for the structure of complicity that the university is for its administrators.
Someone taking a critical look at EUR might just surmise that it is an institution in which young people are mostly taught to manage, pathologize, and exploit other people. A production machine with minds as raw material, graduates as semi-finished products and as end product their participation in a thanatological order. Thank god for activist students falsifying such a horrendous image of the university!
The hollow phrase ‘impact’ appears by now to have replaced the tautologous ‘excellence’. Last year an invitation came to take part in ‘A dialogue on a vision of impact learning’. Another dialogue. This time, significantly, at the Erasmus Centre for Entrepreneurship (icon: light bulb). Those who wanted to go there from campus could take the ‘Impact Tour Bus’. You would have to go to the ‘Student Wellbeing Tent’ to assemble under the banner ‘World Class Education’. I heard afterwards that you could have speed date conversations with an ‘impact coach’ on board the bus (they wore vests saying so). But if it looks like satire, sounds like satire, and behaves like satire, it’s got to be satire, right? Yet as the Strategy 2024 document mentions: “Dialogue at all levels will be a vital part of measuring our success.” Vertical measurement dialogues is one I’m throwing in for free for the consideration of the strategic strategy strategists.
In at least one respect the university cannot be reproached for its flatness: it is indeed a vertically oriented organization. An extremely hierarchical bureaucracy, based largely on autocratic government, delegated or not, in which self-government by students and staff is a joke no one finds funny. The Dutch university is archaically hierarchical, were it not for the fact that the differentiation in assistant professors, associate professors and professors in the Netherlands dates back to the early 1960s. What was then a temporary measure to deal with rising student numbers became permanent, and is taken seriously down to the most ridiculous details by means of what is fittingly called ‘UFO profiles’: detailed descriptions (in fact mostly lists) of what professors can do more than assistant and associate professors. Of course it is clear to anyone that’s been in a room with a professor for more than a few minutes that this is a fiction (UFO’s: these professors fly so high it cannot be identified what makes them so brilliant). This was the reason for a recent plea to abolish this hierarchy by the dean of law in Maastricht.
Once more, rising student numbers have been the reason for creating a new category of laborer at the bottom of the hierarchy: tutors and other flexible staff in precarious positions
But what happened in the sixties is being repeated. Once more, rising student numbers have been the reason for creating a new category of laborer at the bottom of the hierarchy: tutors and other flexible staff in precarious positions. A reserve army of academic laborers has been created to lower the production costs of teaching even further by way of exploitation and an even more uneven distribution of protections and privileges. As serious scholars in the field of academic freedom show (mail for references, not for dialogue), this Uberfication of teaching is the greatest threat to academic freedom.
Guess who are the only ones in this university, apart from tutors themselves, to have recently spoken up for this cause? The activists of OccupyEUR, who demanded abolishment of precarious positions. The fact that their protest was thus also a fundamental defense of academic freedom is entirely lost on the bureaucratic squares who believe the university is first and foremost a ‘brand’. Yet that protest can be of peripheral interest to no one who thinks academic freedom matters. Next time, look up from your tenth paper this year, walk out on your meeting.
On the second day of the occupation by OccupyEUR I read an article by Nobel prize winner Annie Ernaux in Le Monde diplomatique, titled ‘Walking tall again’. She describes how the French 1995 strikes and protests against neoliberalization ignited her enthusiasm and made her proud, despite her working-class background, to walk tall again. I envisage the administrators of Erasmus University Rotterdam writing her a letter to teach her that such protest is illegal because it disrupts things, and that she’d be better off engaging in a ‘dialogue’. Walking tall? Flatten it down, madame Ernaux!
Thankfully the university still provides space for much more than the square suits and ties on its boards would have us believe. Space for activist students, for instance, despite everything. If you weren’t there: you should have seen the books they brought with them. Inspiration is what you get from students that refuse to waste time in chatter sessions with university power a brand. I am thankful to these students for the reminder that the knowledge we produce and the relations we engage in are inseparable from the struggle for our lives. They may be, in the words of the university board, ‘a small group’, but they are walking tall. And they lead the way in the experimentation with what an ‘academic community’ can be beyond the brand of an anti-intellectual impact rental shack.
This article was first published in Erasmus Magazine.
Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.
About the author:
Willem Schinkel is Professor of Social Theory at Erasmus University Rotterdam and a member of the Young Academy of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW).
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