An ‘open university’ is a place of friendly tension

'Het brede publiek opzoeken' tijdens het #MeToo pop-up college in TivoliVredenburg. Foto Ivar Pel

Earlier this month, a group of engaged employees and students handed me a magazine that was dedicated to the question: “What should a university be?” A beautiful initiative! I, myself, am also in the magazine. They call me a representative of the academic establishment (true, of course), and an optimist (also true).

I’m optimistic about the context in which we operate as a university, but want to encourage the debate further. That’s why, in this blog, I’d like to make the case for engagement. What do we want to be and have to be? I think we should be a university that contributes to an open society.

The heart of an open society
Those who, in the past decade, were invited to explain in the Netherlands and abroad what the strategic research theme Institutions for Open Societies (IOS) stands for – and I’ve done so myself quite regularly – usually spent a significant amount of time explaining the concept of ‘institution’. Mark Bovens, professor of Public Management, recently noted during the annual ‘Toogdag’ (Research day) of everyone who works for that strategic theme, that it’s quite astonishing that the concept of ‘open society’ is barely met with any questions. As if the entire concept of ‘open society’ and its attainments are seen as something self-evident.

If the latter is true, then by now, it should be clear there’s not much left of that self-evidence. In a soon-to-be-published book about the Institutions of the Dutch nation, the question is posed whether the parliament still functions as an institutional shock absorber in times of national and international turbulence. With the rise of populist political parties, which are more interested in identity than in compromise, it becomes harder and harder to fulfil this task.

Populist parties station themselves as the only true representatives of ‘the people’ and disqualify those who have different opinions as enemies of the people. The solutions these populist parties offer, usually imply the exclusion of people and groups. With this, populism cuts through the heart of the open society and the democratic constitutional state, which after all is characterised by its room for differing opinions and the openness towards the future, in which minorities can become majorities, and in which a changing of the guard is a possibility.

Some populists state that universities are only there for the elite, and that they undermine society. The opposite is true. If anything, we undermine populism and the polarisation it’s based on. We do this by, among other things, by providing room for debates and synthesis. We support society, especially by keeping things open. But the question of how we can do this best is all the more important, aside from Bas van Bavel and other scientists’ research for IOS on the formal and informal rules of human interactions. I think we need to be an open institute ourselves, on all fronts. I’ll elaborate on this below in several areas.

How we’ll become an open institute
To start with, I think we need to look at our education, the ‘core business’ of the university. Are we letting the story of the Institutions for Open Societies theme seep through sufficiently in our education? I am certain we’re not. There’s a task there, a legal one even, for the university. See also article 1.3, point 5: “The institutions for higher education also pay attention to the personal development of their students and the encouragement of their sense of societal responsibility.” The meaning and elaboration of this task was explained strikingly by Wieger Bakker in his inaugural lecture Educating for Open Society. Encouraging one’s sense of societal responsibility as an educational task. In our education, we will have to focus more on the values of individual freedom, equality, tolerance, respect for minorities, etc.

Another task the university will have to take even more seriously than it does now, is in the very broad area of public engagement. Recently, I started a project with a small group of our prominent professors who also showcase their knowledge in the media, about how to act in that public domain. We want to help people start dialogues in an effective manner, find a wide audience and not just fellow professionals. This is partially about academics’ reluctance to feed the public and social debate with their expertise, but also about providing more clarity about the do’s and don’ts on guarding academic integrity in that debate. We see too many self-declared experts producing fake expertise, and as they’re doing so, undermining the value and appreciation of scientific knowledge.

As an institute, we also have to bring openness and engagement to strengthen the open society outside of our Dutch borders; to contribute to academic freedom at an international level, and support colleagues and students who work and live in tougher circumstances. Of course we’ll have to act carefully in these types of cases. Recently, with financial support from the EU, we started a European university network (known amongst some as Macron network) called Charm EU, together with the universities of Barcelona, Montpellier, Trinity College Dublin, and Eötvös Loránd University (E.L.T.E) in Hungary. With this network, we can encourage the mobility of students and staff in and for education in a new, attractive way. But there are important questions that have yet to be answered. Are we, for instance, going to establish research collaborations with Chinese colleagues, knowing the Chinese government has vastly different views on data protection, the protection of one’s personal living environment, and academic freedom in general? A tough question, in which we’ll have to act very carefully.

Radical freedom of opinion
One thing we will at least have to stand for in both the Netherlands and abroad, is academic freedom. Our engagement of contributing to an open society translates to openness and inclusivity, in what my esteemed colleague Carel Stolker enthusiastically calls ‘radical freedom of opinion’. The university is the place where you can study and teach everything an intelligent brain can come up with, and then question those things again. There is no censorship, and the few rules there are in place, are mostly in the area of criminal law. A real ‘open university’, then, is always going to be a place of tensions – friendly tensions, I immediately add. That, of course, stems from the fact that the search for The Truth, or the way we understand it at least, is a story without an end.

Tensions and contestations are an inherent part of academic freedom. Seen from that angle, the creation of so-called safe spaces on campuses in the US and UK is quite worrying. Of course, we don’t tolerate violence and harassment here either, but if it’s necessary to organise protection against other people’s opinions, meaning the addition of limitations on the freedom of opinion, we’re on a dangerous road, especially in an academic environment. In Great Britain, the national government has announced guidelines to urge universities to do more to protect academic freedom from so-called no-platforming. At the UU, of course, we have to prevent these practices.

For me, these are intriguing, but also crucial topics, because they prove the essence of the academy. We cannot let them remain undiscussed, both within and outside of our academic community, and I’ll be happy to receive your responses