Tag Archives academe

Celebrating a year of blissful blogging: ISS Blog Bliss turns 1!

Celebrating a year of blissful blogging: ISS Blog Bliss turns 1!

Bliss, the blog of the ISS on global development and social justice, turns one this week. Although the blog is still in its infancy, it is already showing great promise. ...

Exploring masculinities: being a man in the #MeToo era by ISS Counselling Team members

Exploring masculinities: being a man in the #MeToo era by ISS Counselling Team members

A recent workshop on masculinities hosted by the ISS Counselling Team focused on ‘being a man in the #MeToo era’, drawing participants from the ISS and beyond. The workshop provided ...

The university of paleness by Willem Schinkel

In a recent attempt to address the underrepresentation of female professors in the Netherlands, the Dutch government made extra funds available to universities to appoint women. To the dismay of many people at Erasmus University, the university refused to fill over half of the available positions and sent the money back. This triggered Willem Schinkel’s personal essay in which he explains how he feels alienated from a university whose masculine dominance is closely tied to its corporate character.


If an alien from an exoplanet came to Erasmus University, or to any other university in the Netherlands, and if that alien considered the composition of the university in terms of gender and race, it would most likely draw one of two conclusions. One, this space has been invaded by white men. Two, the model that best describes the spread of white men through institutions of higher learning is that of some kind of plague or epidemic. Of course us earthlings would be quick to explain to our alien friend that the unequal distribution of men and women, of white people and people of color, is normal – even though it is not a normal distribution in the statistical sense! You see, we would tell this alien, the principle that governs our distribution over institutions of knowledge and power, is what we call quality. To which the alien might rightfully respond: ‘I see. And what is the principle that governs the distribution of your quality?’

At this point in time, I don’t think administrators at Erasmus University have a good answer to this question. Recently, our university refused government money for the appointment of so-called Westerdijk chairs for female professors. The dean of the Rotterdam School of Management, Steef van de Velde, made a classic patriarchal move and wasn’t shy about it: in an interview with Erasmus Magazine he said he hadn’t appointed any women because he wanted to “protect” them. After all, an appointment on a Westerdijk chair would be perceived as “stigmatising”, since people would think ‘that they needed this type of appointment because they could not get an appointment on their own merits.’ Moreover, he said, this was not at all a question of money – the RSM has plenty and doesn’t need such money to appoint women. To top it, he said there were plenty of upcoming women in tenure tracks – and why give some women some money (in Dutch, he spoke of a “sweetener”, or douceurtje) and others not?

This kind of reasoning and rhetoric is an affront on so many levels, including the level of intellectual discussion befitting a university. I have no intention to counter it with all the good reasons for the appointment of women. I don’t think it’s my place in particular to make that case, and I also think that the case has been made over and over again. We know all the arguments – that is, if we choose to pay due attention to the scientific study of “diversity” – but they run aground in the morass of the white male dean-dominated powerhouses that university faculties are in this country and elsewhere in the world. So this essay is not a case for diversity. If anything, it’s a case for a university that may be gone, and that more likely may have never existed.

The alien in my hypothetical example might assume that an invasion had occurred. And in a way, of course, the invasion has always already taken place. We are in a state of occupation. Getting serious about undoing it is what is called “decolonising the university”. Here’s another way to think about what it means that our appointments are so one-sided. If I often feel alienated from the university  it has something to do with the model of living together we embody.

The university, like any other setting, is always also one answer to the question how to live together, how to be social, how to practice sociality as being in the world together. And I guess it just keeps on being disappointing that this – the current composition of the university – is the modality of sociality that keeps on being reproduced. Ours is a conditioned stupidity. It is conditioned by an imagination limited to market-based modes of finding value in life. But being so conditioned is not a condition; it is a constraint that is enforced, but over which we might have control.

So whatever happens, let it be obvious that our “diversity”, that is, the composition of our togetherness, is a choice. And the university as it is produces what might be best called a form of paleness. By this I mean a uniformity and homogeneity, a desire for and expression of an order of looking and working alike, an order of whiteness and masculinity, in which “I don’t recognize this picture of the university” even counts as an argument. This paleness is of course a form of whiteness. But the paleness I’m alluding to is also an intellectual desolation or drabness, an achromatics of thinking. And it is a submission to neoliberal procedural routines in the ways we work, as well as a general appreciation of mediocrity sold as “excellence” – remember that, after appointing men on half the positions available, we’re tapping into the lower tiers of intellect and creativity if we continue to appoint men.

And what a bleak picture it is to see those with a ticket to inclusion! What has happened when students (they are not to blame for this!) don’t even think to criticise the curriculum set by the order of pale sameness? What has happened when technocratic markers of achievement that are “evidence based” take precedence when in fact most have no clue what a genuine spirit of inquiry would be, what intelligence might be as a mode of sociality beyond individuated IQ indicators, or how study might be a shared venture to recompose the world in ways that subvert the pale order of sameness to which we currently sacrifice ourselves, but mostly others, for the noble cause of producing “knowledge”?

If anything is clear, it’s that the university is invested in state and corporate power, including criminal fossil fuel companies, and divested in diversity. And when we keep on seeing how diversity basically functions as what Sarah Ahmed calls a “non-performative”[1] – something designed not to produce its stated goals – the only way to move forward is to step up our critical reflection on, and our subversion of, the university at large. The point is thus not to consider the university as basically fine as it is, and to just grant access to it to a greater number of people, or by people of a variety of gender and “race”. It’s not about letting others get a piece of the pie, of sharing in the otherwise unchanged corporate paleness that marks the university today. Much more fundamentally, it is a matter of living as such, of living together. After all, this is what we do on campus: during the day, ours is a specific modality of being together, a selective, tilted, and pale form of intimacy. So the question who gets to be there is pertinent, and concerns us all.

[1] See: Ahmed, S. 2012. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, Durham: Duke University Press.

An earlier and longer version of this piece was published in Erasmus Magazine: https://www.erasmusmagazine.nl/en/2018/05/19/opinion-the-university-of-paleness/?noredirect=en_US

willemschinkeloverracismecensuurenpolitiekecorrect-0-0-820-540About 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).



Trump’s ‘doublespeak’—why academics should speak out by Jeff Handmaker

Trump’s ‘doublespeak’—why academics should speak out by Jeff Handmaker

U.S. President Donald Trump in January 2018 delivered his first State of the Union Address (SOTU). At first glance, he sounded more presidential than ever following his tumultuous first year ...

How to make sure that research has a durable impact? Examples from DRC by Dorothea Hilhorst and Adriaan Ferf

How to make sure that research has a durable impact? Examples from DRC by Dorothea Hilhorst and Adriaan Ferf

About the authors: Adriaan Ferf coordinated the DRC programme of the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium. He has over 40 years of experience with policy studies and evaluations of development and humanitarian ...

Scholars at Risk: precarity in the Academe and Possible Solutions by Rod Mena and Kees Biekart

About the authors:


Rodrigo (Rod) Mena is a socio-environmental AiO-PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University Rotterdam. His current research project focuses on disaster response and humanitarian aid in complex and high-intensity conflict-affected scenarios.

kees-biekart_Kees Biekart is Associate Professor in Political Sociology at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. His area of expertise is in NGOs, social movements, civil society, and foreign aid, in particular in relation to Latin America.

The environment in which scholars are expected to produce societally relevant knowledge seems to become increasingly insecure. An estimated six hundred cases reported over the past two years of academics being subjected to arrests, threats, physical or verbal abuse, violent assault, prosecution or job losses have led us to raise the question: How safe is the academic milieu for scholars? This article, based on the Scholars at Risk seminar organised by the ISS in September 2017, discusses the precarious situation of academics and presents alternatives to current risky environments, particularly strategies both at the individual and institutional level for protecting scholars at risk.

Can the academic environment really be typified as a safe and secure space for scholars? While in some contexts academics may work freely and without fear, worldwide the reality can be quite different. Statistics show that academics are increasingly facing uncertain and insecure conditions, with almost six hundred cases reported over the last two years of negative actions taken against academics, including arrests, threats, physical or verbal abuse, violent assault, and prosecution. Such actions result primarily from negative perceptions of the research topics and ideas that scholars teach and research, the position that academics hold in society, the locations in which they conduct research, and their interactions with other members of society. The Academic Freedom Monitor has verified that in recent years, more than 800 attacks on staff and students in higher education have taken place globally; this number does not include cases remaining unreported primarily due to fear or the embarrassment associated with stigmatisation.

Scholars at Risk

In order to better understand the risky conditions scholars increasingly face, in September 2017 the ISS and the UAF co-organised a seminar titled ‘Scholars at Risk’, named after a project of the Foundation for Refugee Students UAF and the Scholars at Risk network (SAR). During the seminar the programme coordinator of the Scholars at Risk project and an academic who in her professional capacity had faced threats engaged in a discussion of their experiences and possible solutions to this problem facing the academe. Three topics discussed during the seminar are of particular interest:

First, the discussion emphasised that the phenomenon of risky academic environments does not just affect developing countries or institutions, but occurs globally. Northern scholars are also subject to pressures, threats and limitations on freedom of expression in their research and corresponding publications. When transgressing certain societal boundaries, restrictions and sanctions ensue. For example, in Eastern Europe and in Russia, cases of the imprisonment and prosecution of scholars can be cited; however, in the rest of Europe academics most commonly face the threat of job loss. However, in many northern countries justice systems generally operate more effectively, allowing scholars to denounce threats or seek support in threatening situations.

Second, scholars in diverse fields are affected. Precarious environments do not only affect social scientists and scholars in the humanities – mathematicians, biologists, doctors, and engineers are also constantly targeted. Last year, a NASA physicist conducting research at the University of Houston was detained in Turkey and accused of being a spy for the United States government and a member of the Turkish Gülen movement. This academic is still detained and awaiting a possible prison sentence of up to 15 years [1].

Third, the effects of risky academic environments stretch beyond the confines of the academic space, threatening familial security, forcing scholars and their families to seek refuge, and obstructing scientific advances and knowledge generation. Freedom of expression is also limited, as public discussions and discourses, social reflection, and freedom of thought are reduced, impeding efforts to strengthen democracy. It is hence evident that it is a serious and potentially dangerous phenomenon affecting society-at-large and the foundations whereupon societies are built – science, technology, and critical and reflective thought.

Source: Getty Images via Times Free Press

Moreover, persecution is not only restricted to scholars, but also affects physical spaces in which they work. Universities, laboratories or observation centres are also attacked, destroyed, or limited in their operations. The non-academic staff working in these spaces, including translators, facilitators and administrative staff (and their relatives) are increasingly confronted with violent situations or are threatened due to their work. The problem hence can be said to directly affect the entire higher education community.

When confronted with this reality many scholars face, many people may ask whether the academic space, then, is shrinking, especially when viewed alongside the other harsh realities of the modern academic world, including the pressure to publish in high-impact journals and the dictation of research topics by research grants. While we do not know whether the academic space is actually shrinking, we do know that it is rapidly transforming. Academics are confronted not only with the risks mentioned above – their freedom of access to information is also under fire. Conducting research in countries suffering from violent conflicts often implies physical risks for academics, alongside the possible destruction of historical information or reduced capacity to produce new knowledge.


A Possible Way Out

After sketching this scenario, the obvious question that arises is how this situation can be addressed. Certainly, no easy solutions can be presented, but a number of steps can be taken in an attempt to create a safer working environment for scholars. The 2017 Free to Think report of Scholars at Risk states that scholars first have to cast a spotlight on the situation, advocating for change and urging states, civil society and leaders to ‘recognize publicly the problem of attacks on higher education, their negative consequences, and the responsibility of states to protect higher education communities within their territories against such attacks’ (Scholars at Risk 2017).

Within our academic communities, safe spaces will have to be created where affected people can publicly and freely discuss their situations. Moreover, we need to engage and urge our academic institutions to become part of organisations and networks protecting and assisting scholars at risk. After all, should it be so difficult to host scholars who seek protection? The academic community is responsible for providing protection to scholars and will have to create mechanisms to support affected people and their families. While ethics committees of research institutions focus on the safety of research subjects, the safety of researchers still does not enjoy sufficient attention.

Scholars also must reflect on the impact of their activities on others. While the full responsibility must not be placed on academics, we, as scholars, can also be proactive by taking measures such as avoiding hazardous situations, protecting our data, engaging with our informants, and by improving our interaction by means of the internet (through emails, web-based research and the use of cloud storage). The abovementioned are only some of several measures that we can take to actively protect ourselves from those people and situations putting us at risk. Especially scholars working or residing in repressive settings known for putting scholars at risk should know which options are available to them to avoid persecution. The global community will concurrently have to advocate for change. Manuals such as the ‘Security guidelines for field research in complex, remote and hazardous places’, although focusing primarily on one component of academic research, can provide valuable information on how to prevent and reduce risks scholars can face.

In conclusion, we as scholars need to engage in an on-going discussion on how to become more aware of scholars at risk and of the actions we can take to help our colleagues. Very likely, much more can be done to protect and support fellow scholars who cannot or are hesitant to speak out, or who have gone into hiding. A safe academic environment moves beyond support for affected scholars, since we all benefit from the academic freedom our predecessors have fought for. After all, how can we cherish academic freedom if some of us are unable to speak out freely?

[1] http://monitoring.academicfreedom.info/reports/2016-08-05-nasa-university-houston