Astonishment and optimism after fateful news UCU

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University College Utrecht employees responded with shock on Monday afternoon as it was announced that they will have to leave their campus within six to seven years. The most important question is whether all the typical characteristics of the college can be incorporated in a new setting, in other buildings.

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Disappointed, worried, and some a little emotional. That describes the sentiment of the fifty UCU employees who gathered in the Dining Hall of the international campus at the Prins Hendrikstraat on Monday afternoon. There, UU president Anton Pijpers announced that the executive board had decided to, in time, dispose of the old army terrain that has housed UCU since its inception. The UCU buildings are too old, too inflexible, and not sustainable enough, and the large, monumental outdoor space is too expensive.

Pijpers emphasised that in no way did this decision mean the university is cutting back on UCU itself: the issue is purely the housing of the college. The university is currently searching for an alternative location. The most obvious choice would be somewhere in the Utrecht Science Park, but other locations are not being ruled out yet.

Loss of reputation
Many of those present say the highly-praised sense of community at UCU, as well as its excellent quality of education, cannot be seen in isolation from its appealing location. They say the UCU campus offers students an academic environment in which they can freely develop themselves. That’s exactly what many international students look for in a European liberal arts programme. Selling the campus could lead to the loss of UCU’s ‘heart and soul’ and reputation, many fear.

Tutor Guido Terra-Bleeker: “When I ask new students why they wanted to study here, the first thing I hear is that they instantly felt at home when they first walked around campus. The campus has an amazing appeal. If we lose that, we run the risk of losing the competition with other liberal arts colleges as well.”

Anton Pijpers empathised with the sentiments, but claims it would definitely be possible to incorporate UCU’s unique aspects in a new location. The small scale, the sense of community, and the combination of living and learning aren’t bound by this current location, he says. “I have faith in that. If everything depended on the campus, then we’d have a problem.”

Many attendees responded with cynicism to the prospect of the construction of new buildings. They pointed out the colleges in The Hague and Amsterdam where beautiful new buildings were constructed, but where the typical college atmosphere of UCU is absent. Building a college takes a lot, they say: “Just building two towers won’t cut it.”

Unique selling point
Still, some were hopeful. Senior lecturer Gert Jan Vroege: “I wouldn’t want to be a pessimist about this. If we mobilise, if we’re clear about our demands, it’s possible to create something beautiful. It’s true our current campus doesn’t exactly have the most sustainable buildings. We could look at this as an opportunity. But we would need to know for sure whether investments are possible.” Vroege received support of a small number of other teachers. Sustainability and green could, they say, become the new ‘unique selling point’ of the college.

Others weren’t ready to think about future housing yet. They first want to view the data the university is basing its decision on. During the meeting, they were told the current housing costs amount to 4 to 5 million euros a year, while housing the college somewhere in De Uithof would cost approximately 1.5 million euros. “What if we can convince the university we could adapt this campus in a way that meets the financial criteria and the university’s other demands?”, one audience member asked.

Dean James Kennedy stated that he’d asked “all possible critical questions” himself in the past few months, but he promised to provide his employees with all desired information. Asked whether there was any way to overturn the decision, for instance by protesting, Kennedy said he doesn’t expect it would have much of a chance, because the closure of the campus is part of a broader UU strategy. “But if people wish to protest, I’ll leave it up to them.”

'Letting go of our campus would not have been my choice'

University College Utrecht Dean James Kennedy is disappointed with the university’s plans to close the international campus in five years’ time. The option of selling the campus had already been on the table for about a year. Shortly before the summer, Kennedy was told the decision had been made.

“I would’ve loved for things to have gone differently, and have advised the board to take a different course of action. UCU founder Hans Adriaansens was brilliant in choosing this location. It’s a gorgeous, outstanding location that offers the peace and quiet for our liberal arts model, as well as the space we need for students to be able to live close to their education.”

Kennedy acknowledges the campus has its downsides. The buildings cannot be made entirely sustainable, and one might wonder whether the international campus isn’t too big for the small UCU community. “Perhaps it’s not perfect in all aspects, but it’s very well-suited to what we’re doing here.”

The UCU Dean says he understands the executive board’s strategy, which is based on principles of reducing square footage, concentration of activities, and sustainable, efficient buildings. “But letting go of our campus would never have been my choice.”

Kennedy won’t say whether he feels the Utrecht Science Park could offer a suitable alternative location. It seems the executive board is pushing for a move to the USP, although other locations, such as the Jaarbeurs area or the Kanaleneiland neighbourhood were also mentioned. “Given the current strategy, De Uithof seems like a logical choice. But I really hope they’ll look for the best possible location for a new campus. It has to meet a number of conditions that are very important to us: the residential aspect, the integration of living and studying, and the sense of community.”
'There is a mourning type of atmosphere'
Student assessor Irene van de Hoef says UCU students were shocked to hear their campus will be disposed of by the UU. The students were informed of the decision on Monday afternoon; around eighty students were present at the meeting. “There’s a mourning type of atmosphere; some people are really crying.”

Van de Hoef says to many UCU students, the campus is more than just a place to study. “We live here 24 hours a day. The historical buildings, the outdoor space, the shape of the campus which means you constantly run into each other, it all means the campus has great sentimental value to students.”

The fact that most of the current students won’t be around by the time UCU has to move, doesn’t change anything about their feelings, Van de Hoef says. “Many students already feel a strong connection that won’t just go away when you graduate. Our alumni also love returning to campus.”

Van de Hoef says students are already talking about possible protests, although the students will have to meet to coordinate first. “The question remains whether protests would be useful at all. If they’re pointless, they’d need a damned good alternative. The current students will focus on that.”
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