Code red for Utrecht’s student associations

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The UU faced some heavy weather, both literally and figuratively. Aside from the storm raging across Utrecht, a Utrecht-based study association made the news. Rector Bert van der Zwaan addressed the criticism the university and its students faced: “Are all student associations hopelessly anachronistic? Definitely not. The more student associations, the better.”

Thankfully, it doesn’t happen often, but the past few weeks, Utrecht University found itself in the eye of the storm. In more ways than one: one the one hand, two real storms raged across the country and our university: climate change became truly noticeable, even for the last few doubters. Definitely code red. On the other hand, we had to deal with a couple of issues within the student associations that caused a small media storm.

Within the Executive Board, the rector is generally responsible for education and research, and, as is the case in Utrecht, student affairs. That means that whenever something happens like the RamBam affair, the papers are flying across my desk instantly, and my phone’s ringing off the hook. On the one hand, I had student associations clamoring to explain what did or did not go wrong, and on the other hand, outsiders who bombarded me with oftentimes heated opinions on what students should or should not do. Mostly, there was the media. At one point, I had my pick of ten different TV shows that wanted me to talk to them.

It might be difficult to understand for outsiders, but student associations are part of the core of the university. Here, people forge bonds that last a lifetime. Here, friendships are formed that make people’s student years memorable. The study associations especially are essential in the day-to-day business of faculties, and the cultural and sports associations for development and friendship. But the social student associations are at least as essential as the place where the combination of relaxation and – again – friendship can tint the study just the right way.

And then, suddenly, there are a few incidents that completely ruin this idyllic image. It’s not about the possible issues at UVSV to me, or about the songs the earth scientists sang. Right now, to me, it’s about the fierceness of the debate, the fact that everyone has an opinion even before we know all the facts. The tsunami of radio and TV shows and their destructive opinions. Questions being asked in parliament without any decent research being done. Social media judging without any nuances.

Let me be very clear in this yet again: any and all deviance from the code of conduct, any degradation of the safety and dignity of fellow students, needs to be fiercely condemned. I have also stated publicly that in such occurrences, we have a zero tolerance policy. Plus: cultural changes are definitely needed in some cases. And let me restate this clearly as well: as soon as we have reasonable suspicion that something went wrong, the association involved will be immediately suspended until it’s clear what exactly is going on. It’s the only way we can make clear that we truly want people to behave according to the code of conduct.

But does that make the social student associations’ culture wrong, as a national newspaper seemed to suggest? Does that make all student associations hopelessly anachronistic, as someone mentioned? Of course not! The more student associations, the better. What the RamBam affair really shows, is the enormous power of social media, in which any nuance will swiftly disappear. Let us remember to always take the time to truly establish where we are and what we want.

Code red was meant for the storm: everyone, stay inside! Code red, to me, can also be applied to the associations that cross the line: the university has had enough of that. But code red, in some cases, can also be applied to the storm of opinions that rages on (social) media.

(Translation: Indra Spronk)

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