The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge


This essay is based on a lecture that I held in the context of a series called Think! Humanities. Perspectives for an endangered species. It was set up at the University of Amsterdam in January 2015 to provide a discussion platform to exchange views on what course the humanities could take in the context of the, then starting, protests against the neoliberal university agenda.

When I announced the title of that lecture, The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge in January 2015, I could not know yet that I would present it two months later in March not at the originally planned venue, but in the Maagdenhuis. When the lecture series had been brought into being it was still the time before the occupations, first of the Bungehuis, and then the Maagdenhuis, quite at the beginning of the activities of Humanities Rally. Nobody then foresaw the eruption that has rededicated the function of this building within such a narrow time-frame. But in spite of the unprecedented events that happened – and brought staff and students towards a different actuality compared with that in January of the same year – the original intention of my lecture had not lost its urgency, notwithstanding the fact that the motivation for the lecture was to give a programmatic and historical account. It is caused by the title of that lecture. As actual as it might sound in times of rethinking the university it is already nearly eighty years old. I borrowed it from an article that was published and written in 1939 in the United States shortly after the beginning of World War II, by Abraham Flexner.

In the following I will swing open a triptych of three historical positions that at the end I will bundle up to propose some possible further steps for the New University. Next to the position of Abraham Flexner, the second one belongs to Simon Critchley. It was formulated in 2010 in his article called ‘What Is the Institutional Form for Thinking?’ Simon is attacking here the ‘disaster’ of the bureaucratization of English universities since Margaret Thatcher that caused a growing culture of depression ‘turning English academia into an increasingly uniform and pleasureless machine, a kind of knowledge factory at the service of the abstractions of the state and capital’ (2010: 20). His argument is of special importance, not only for exemplifying the consequences of the European university politics that were first implemented in England, but also because the UvA praises again and again the English model for defending the current steps already taken to restructure the Humanities. The third position finally is the speech Jacque Derrida gave in 1998 in the cause of the Presidential Lecture Series at the University of Stanford California: ‘The future of the profession or the university without condition (thanks to the “Humanities,” what could take place tomorrow)’. It is a fierce defense of the autonomy of the Humanities, the university and profession of the scholar, presenting various future scenarios in the mode of as if, thus in a performative way. These future scenarios about what could take place tomorrow, spoken out in 1998, will eventually have taken place in the University we foresee here and now. And exactly this overlap in different time-zones stresses the urgency of the topic. Derrida prophetically ended his speech with the phrase: ‘Take your time but be quick about it, because you don’t know what awaits you’ (2002: 237). Now we know, the French Humanities scholars Barbara Cassin and Philippe Büttgen (2010) tell us: The French law supposed recently to institute the ‘autonomy’ of universities, grasped in the ethics of performance. But this supposition is not more than a cynical perversion of Derrida’s words – meaning exclusively the culture of results. That what counts for politics is evaluation and ranking of universities by the impact factor.[1]

These three positions – Flexner’s  in 1939 US, Derrida’s in 1998 France and Critchley`s in 2010 UK – will be laid out in the following to discuss the matter of knowledge provided in universities in our times.

The value of knowledge

To bring up anew the topic of the use of knowledge by questioning the usefulness of useless knowledge in these times is due to the necessity to bethink the value of knowledge, especially in the Humanities. Similar to the above-mentioned inversion and perversion of the Derridarian concept of the autonomy of the university by French politics, we can observe a slinking transvaluation of the value of knowledge in universities. Exemplarily, I refer to a text of Arne Brentjes, the financial manager of the College van Bestuur of the UvA. It was published in 2014 in the journal Thema Hoger Onderwijs. In the English translation, the title runs ‘Tranquility without Stagnation. How the UvA finances its educational program.’ In this text Brentjes explains what he calls the Big Bang of the financial operation model the UvA implemented in 2006. With this model full economic costing was introduced by resting its calculations upon the so-called end product and its profitability (the rendement – performance). It means a shared service model for professional and efficiently standardized customer service. This model, inclusive of the calculation base for the rendement and the allocatiemodel (the calculation factors 1, 1, 3 and 1,5 to distribute the state money to the different faculties), was taken over from the UK, because The Netherlands did not have any indicative statistic material for a stringent model of their own. Therefore the significant factor for distribution are respectively 12, 15, or 20 contact hours per week per student, which have only recently, two years ago, been introduced in the Faculty of Humanities at the UvA. Other measurements to calculate the profitability of an educational program are ECTS points and their accumulation in diplomas in a limited time of study. This means that the quality of a higher educational program and the knowledge that is provided is defined by efficiency and profitability (Shore 2008: 281). Dutch historian Chris Lorenz points to the problem of the inadequacy of this kind of calculation of the value of knowledge: ‘In contrast with the normal economy, in the education economy it is not possible to identify buyer’s preferences so that the educational products can be designed to meet them and against which their quality can be measured. The same applies for the efficiency of the production process’ (2012: 621). This practice of economization is drastically undermining the culturally defined value of academic knowledge that traditionally orients itself towards the extent and depth to which the gained knowledge is a result of many years’ process of sophistication. It is that value that goes along with the signification of the Latin term educare, meaning the formation of human beings, leading them out into something new, helping to discover one’s unforeseen potential. This kind of knowledge resists any measurement by calculation. But it is currently increasingly preyed upon by the economic value of knowledge that is defined by its market use. This goes along with that perversion of terminologies that I mentioned earlier. Quality turns into quantity and is translated again into quality by the language of New Public Management. The text of Arne Brentjes is a striking example. The set of values he is employing to define the value of academic knowledge is exclusively determined by its economic use, without taking into consideration any other quality, least of all the humanistic quality of knowledge. I quote the closing passage of his text: ‘The UvA regards her people as her real capital. And capital may not stand still. To gain a pay-back value [om te renderen]it has to serve the basic requirements: the results of teaching and research [where ‘results’ means money; K.R:]. Using the disciplinary effect of money the UvA has focused during the last years on research and teaching and has linked the question of budget strictly to the question of teaching […]. This causes movement, inclusively the corresponding intern harassment, worry and anxiety. But on an administrative level it just causes much tranquility and predictability to be able to keep this institution on track with as minimal costs as possible’ (2014: 59).

Consequently teachers and researchers find themselves ‘reworked as producers/ providers’ (Ball 2003: 218) and are routinely judged not only on their academic credentials and skills but also on their customer-service skills and ability to satisfy the student consumer (Waring 2013: 2). In this way, it is not only the workload and pressure on individual performance that is growing disproportionally; beyond that academic knowledge becomes an externalized and de-socialized commodity, neglecting academic freedom that serves to make value-decisions based on science (R.N. Proctor 1991: 175). In other words, arguing with Foucault, the problem we are confronted with on a large, not only academic, scale is a dramatic epistemological shift of our understanding of knowledge. I will quote extensively from Foucault’s definition of episteme in The Order of Things to highlight the drama that is going on. Episteme, he elucidates here, is equal to ‘[t]he fundamental codes of a culture – those governing its language, its schemas of perception, its exchanges, its techniques, its values, the hierarchy of its practices. [They] establish for every man, from the very first, the empirical orders with which he will be dealing and within which he will be at home. At the other extremity of thought, there are the scientific theories or the philosophical interpretations which explain why order exists in general, what universal law it obeys, what principle can account for it, and why this particular order has been established and not some other. But between these two regions [the empirical order and the scientific theories K.R.], so distant from one another, lies a domain which, even though its role is mainly an intermediary one, is nonetheless fundamental: it is more confused, more obscure, and probably less easy to analyze. It is here that a culture [… can] discover that these orders are perhaps not the only possible ones or the best ones’ (1994: XIX). 

I have quoted this passage in length because I think it is high time to similarly ask whether the ruling orders that can be discovered in the present cultural domain are in fact the best ones. A huge problem is raised if the episteme that is equal to the fundamental codes of a culture, inclusive of its values, does not differ any more from any other extremity of thought – which are the scientific theories or the philosophical interpretations – because the overall episteme for both the empirical order and the scientific theories is capitalization.[2] In that case the domain where ‘a culture [… can] discover that these orders are perhaps not the only possible ones or the best ones’, in other words, the domain of critique, will delve into the ‘new spirit of capitalism’ (Boltanski and Chiapello 2005) that is totalizing all forms of life.

The value of the useless

Against this scenario, it is worthwhile to examine the obverse of use:  the useless. Those confusing and obscuring intermediary domains of useless knowledge may help to provide a different order of knowledge. Let’s start with the man who coined the phrase ‘usefulness of useless knowledge’. Alexander Flexner is best known for his role in the twentieth-century reform of higher education in the US and as founder of the very first Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton, where he was director between 1930 and 1939. There are strong connections between this Institute and the Netherlands. Since 2012 Dutch professor Robbert Dijkgraaf has been director of that same institute. Much earlier, the Princeton Institute served Prof. Eugenius Marius Uhlenbeck as a model for the founding of The Netherlands Institute of Advances Studies (NIAS) in 1971. Already in 1964, Uhlenbeck offered to the Dutch Ministry a substantial report that contained the advice ‘to establish a Dutch institute comparable to the American institutes of Princeton and Stanford’ (Uhlenbeck 1994:18). It took some time and a lot of struggle to realize it, but in the meantime, since 1964, Uhlenbeck became a member of the newly-formed Discussion Group Future University (Gespreksgroep Toekomst Universiteit), a committee established in Leiden that was highly influenced by the ideas on higher education that Flexner had formulated in his article.

His argument for the usefulness of useless knowledge was as simple as it was strong: ‘Institutions of learning should be dedicated to the cultivation of curiosity. (…) (t)hroughout the whole history of science most of the really great discoveries which had ultimately proved to be beneficial to mankind had been made by men and women who were driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity’ (545). He proves this argument with numerous examples beginning at the Helmholtz laboratory, where Heinrich Hertz and Clerk Maxwell developed their theoretical work that brought forth the radio. But ‘(n)either Maxwell nor Hertz had any concern about the utility of their work; no such thought ever entered their minds. They had no practical objective. The inventor of the practical tool, the radio, in the legal sense was Guglielmo Marconi. (…) Hertz and Maxwell could invent nothing, but it was their useless theoretical work which was seized upon by a clever technician’ (545). Out of this conviction he argues for a free university where ‘learning as such is cultivated’ (551), which includes the Humanities. His argument extends to the point at which it negates economic reason.  Out of the apparently useless activity of teaching and researching, he argues, discoveries will be made that may well prove of infinitely more importance to the human mind and spirit than the mere achievement of the useful economic ends that the schools demanded. ‘The overwhelming importance of spiritual and intellectual freedom’ needs to be protected, because ‘(a)n institution which sets free successive generations of human souls is amply justified whether or not this graduate or that makes a so-called useful contribution to human knowledge. A poem, a symphony, a painting, a theatre performance, a mathematical truth, a new scientific fact, all bear in themselves all the justification that universities, colleges, and institutes of research need or require’ (160). 

Flexner linked the freedom of knowledge closely to the freedom of democracy. It is particularly worthwhile to note here that Flexner explicitly wrote his text not only at the end of the Great (financial and economic) Depression in the United States but also at the time of fascist totalitarianism in Germany and Italy.[3] I certainly do not want to go so far as to talk about a renaissance of this kind of totalitarianism in our times, but the worrisome totalizing character of the episteme of capitalization should not be forgotten here.

This is also the argument of Simon Critchley, who covers the second position in the triptych I am unfolding here. Seventy years after Flexner he is pleading for ‘a nonknowledge’ (26) to regain what Humanities can offer, namely an experience of teaching that is concerned with ‘thinking as creatively, clearly, and rigorously as possible’ (20). Where Flexner was defending curiosity as the engine of knowledge, Critchley is, in a rather shameful way, reclaiming the notion of truth to make possible the necessity of ‘something new, something unpredictable and surprising, something with a relation to enjoyment, something that perhaps even idles in the relentless activity of knowledge and capital accumulation’(27). Analyzing and criticizing the culture of depression that has taken over English Universities since Thatcher, he argues fiercely against the knowledge factories universities have turned into. Neither is education in accordance with any calculative thinking, he argues, nor is quality ‘something that can (…) be measured like coffee beans: it is very difficult to define, like an ethos’ (22). If Universities have lost their autonomy, how can teachers under these conditions themselves encourage autonomy in their students? It is time to think about new institutional forms of thinking, he concludes, forms that enable what humanities have to do: teaching. Forms that enable us to ‘cultivate the conditions’ to encounter the experience of truth, forms that are ‘amenable to thinking, to collaborative thinking’ (27). Critchley consequently sketches seven models for other ways of thinking about institutions, proposing to remember anarchist traditions, American private liberal arts colleges, as well as Catholic Universities. But none of them is rigorous and creative enough to convince an all-consuming market-apparatus.

Thirdly, let’s look at Derrida’s proposals for the future of the university. In his speech for New Humanities he contextualizes the pressure on teaching and research within a broader scope, calling up the end of work[4]  as the biggest-ever tragedy capitalism has created. What does that mean for the university? In Derridarian terms it means knowledge production under conditions of capitalization that may not be separated from the worldwide cyber revolution, hence: ‘This new technical “stage” of virtualization (computerization, digitalization, virtually immediate worldwide-ization of readability, tele-work, and so forth) destabilizes, as we well know, the university habitat’ (2002: 31). Consequently, a new ‘Kampfplatz’ and its theoretical battlefield is arising, that forces us to ask where in the cyberspace the communitarian place of the campus will take place, inclusive of the exercise of democracy. Against this background Derrida claims to ‘rethink the concepts of the possible and the impossible’ (31). He explicitly presents his talk as a declarative engagement, an appeal to faith in the university, and, within the university, faith in the humanities of tomorrow. Faith in a democratic university that claims and ought to be granted in principle, besides what is called academic freedom, an unconditional freedom to question and to assert ‘the right to say publicly all that is required by research, knowledge and thought, concerning the truth’ (40). Interestingly enough, similar to Critchley, Derrida claims the commitment to truth as the profession of the new university. But he does not mean declarations of truth. Truth is something that has to be discussed, especially in the Humanities departments. For the horizon of truth, Derrida says, is closely linked to the concept of man: ‘The question of man, of what is proper to man, of human rights, of crimes against humanity (and what does the end of labor mean to man), all this must find in principle its space of discussion without condition and without presupposition, its legitimate space of research and re-elaboration in the University, and, within the University, above all in the Humanities’ (29). In spite of all of us knowing that the university without condition does not in fact exist, Derrida insists in doing it performatively, creating events, events of thinking, performative discourses that create the event they speak of, events that follow the principle of resistance.  This resistance is a force for keeping this space open, the space of the university without conditions. The Humanities, Derrida says, are the privileged space for its presentation, of manifestation, of safe keeping of the Humanities. Only by this, by the work of performativity, are we able to confront the current task of enlarging and re-elaborating the concept of Humanities relevant to our times. This is certainly ‘useless’. But thinking about and within the usefulness of the useless in terms of knowledge is probably the only way to resist the biggest-ever tragedy capitalism has created: the end of work (and the Universities).


Towards a Post-Neoliberal University


It is probably fair to say that the recent protests at the University of Amsterdam, and the many other protests that are taking place at universities worldwide, are best interpreted as a revolt against the creeping neoliberalization of academia. The call of students and faculty for a New University should consequently be read as a very brave attempt to labor for a genuinely post-neoliberal university. This paper seeks to offer a brief reflection on some of the difficulties and (im)possibilities one encounters when struggling for a post-neoliberal university. No one knows exactly in advance what the post-neoliberal university should look like. To preface the prospects of a post-neoliberal university, it is therefore useful to analyze once more what university neoliberalism has in fact wrought. I will point out that even though the current protests highlight a number of global features of the neoliberalization of the university, one should also acknowledge its distinctively Dutch characteristics. Some of the questions at play in the current protests only make sense when considering the Dutch context and its local variety of neoliberalism. It is also against this background that one can begin to consider the question of the post-neoliberal university. I will offer some arguments as to why the post-neoliberal university is so hard to conceive and I will conclude by offering what I think is a necessary strategic supplement to the current protests. Now that the physical occupation of the university buildings has ended, we should become complicit in building the new, post-neoliberal university to come.

I must begin however with a confession. When the first protests erupted at the University of Amsterdam, I felt ambivalent. It was my impression that the complaints about rendementsdenken, the blanket opposition to budget cuts in the Faculty of Humanities, and the demands for democratization were somewhat misguided. Part of my discomfort however was prompted by my own position in this. As an academic I study and teach the history and theory of neoliberalism. I am however also a director of a Bachelor’s program in the embattled College of Humanities. With the protests erupting, I suddenly found myself at both sides of an emerging divide between ‘Us’ and ‘Them.’ I was part of ‘Us’ because I identify with the opposition to the neoliberalization of the university, but I was also part of ‘Them’ as I had even been involved in the design of the wretched Profile 2016 of the Faculty of Humanities. I had been complicit and was caught red-handed. I leave it to the reader to judge me for it, but I think that my complicity is far from unique and might in fact provide a key for advancing the cause of a new university.

Resisting the Neoliberal University…

My diagnosis is that the calls for a new university are prompted by a general discontent with the current neoliberalized state of academia. Why focus on neoliberalism? The reason is not to reduce the poor state of current academia to a simplistic reading in terms of a retreat of the state and a takeover by market forces. In many respects that is not what is going on. Calling the university neoliberal is meant to shift the focus to the various neoliberal practices, technologies, and rationalities that increasingly govern today’s university. At home and abroad, universities for a variety of reasons have been reimagined in market terms and become suffused with market rationalities. Having displaced a broadly Humboldtian rationality that centered on academic Bildung through freedom and democracy, today’s neoliberal university is increasingly legitimized and governed in market-like terms. It is this insidious neoliberalization of the university that has been sparking the protests, and that the new university means to replace. It is a neoliberalization moreover, that has taken all shapes and sizes around the world (neoliberalism at Harvard is not the same as neoliberalism in Amsterdam) and led to a host of different excesses.

Given that the neoliberalization of the university takes so many shapes, it is useful to draw up a provisional, non-exhaustive list of some of its known symptoms. They are all distinct manifestations of the marketization of different aspects of the university through the application of markets and especially market-like practices, technologies and rationalities. Neoliberalism differs greatly between national contexts, between state and private institutions, or between research and teaching-oriented institutions for instance. It is therefore more appropriate to speak of the neoliberalization of the university (and I use the term neoliberal as a shorthand of neoliberalized), to emphasize the dynamic nature of the process, but also as a reminder that the process of neoliberalization is not complete and that there are still many places and contexts in the university that have not been affected. To a large extent, classrooms and seminar rooms for example remain to be governed by Humboldtian norms. The neoliberal university syndrome can be characterized by the following symptoms:

  1. Marketization of the meaning of the university: The most fundamental symptom of the neoliberalized university is that it is increasingly understood in market terms. Rather than viewing the university as a community of scholars and students in the pursuit of value-free knowledge, it understands the university as marketplaces of ideas, where scholars and students, produce, exchange and consume valorized knowledge. Universities are no longer a public or common good, but to answer Collini’s question, universities are good for the market.
  2. Privatization as de-publicization of the university: The marketization of the university’s meaning leads to a privatization of its values, funding and governance. Funding and governance need not actually be privatized. Even though the funding and governance of Dutch universities is still overwhelmingly public, they are increasingly governed as if they were private to the extent that private rather than public interests govern their actions.
  3. De-democratization of university governance and accountability: Marketization of the university has subverted the understanding of who should be governing the university and to whom it is accountable. It has displaced democratic ideals of a university governed by and for the academic community or society at large. Absorbing the image of the market as a self-regulating, spontaneous order, democratic ideals of governance and accountability are being subverted, leaving it utterly underdetermined as to who has a final say and to whom one is answerable.
  4. Entrepreneurialization of the academic ethos: Viewing universities as marketplaces of ideas, summons the ethos of the entrepreneur. It views universities, its departments, research institutes, researchers, professors, and students as entrepreneurs of their own success. It stimulates a range of performance indicators, incentive schemes that call on the various actors to take initiative and excel. Departments, teaching programs and researchers are encouraged to take risks and need to permanently compete for funding and recognition. Evaluation of research and teaching is largely based on output and thoroughly externalized while leading to continuous cycles of booms and busts between departments and programs.
  5. Precariazation of academic work: The marketization of the university has also led to a different material organization of intellectual labor. Where the university used to consist of a community of tenured members whose academic freedom was protected, the entrepreneurial university with its booms and busts due to competitive research and teaching finance increasingly requires a highly mobile intellectual labor force. As a consequence the university’s commitment to academic labor has plummeted, giving way to a growing army of precarious intellectuals.
  6. In-equalization of the academic community: Market logic values and promotes inequality rather than equality. A neoliberal academic community is therefore more likely to reinforce existing gender, ethnic and socio-economic disparities among its faculty and students, rather than redress these issues and reduce inequality. The ubiquitous diversity policies of many universities hardly operate as binding principles for creating an inclusive community of research and education, but instead function as marketing slogans for attracting international elites.
  7. Financialization of university funding: With the market rationality prescribing that the various units of the university are considered valuable assets, university funding is increasingly subject to financialization in being based on borrowed money. In the US, private universities have traditionally depended for their operation on their endowments, which often operate as gigantic private equity funds. Having become aware of the value of their assets in real estate for instance, universities elsewhere have used that as leverage for engaging in risky capital projects without proper democratic control. Students too, urged to view their education as a valuable investment in their human capital, are more and more becoming indebted, increasing the financialization of the university system even further.
  8. Commodification of research and teaching: In the marketized university, research and teaching tend to be cast as goods that are produced and consumed. Research is parceled out in projects with specified inputs and deliverables. In research assessment, output and valorization are gaining in importance. Attention shifts to research that can be marketized through patents or through commissioned research and development. Teaching programs are marketized to students and considerable resources are spent on attracting students at home and from abroad. The marketization of the university also calls on students to view their education as an investment product and universities as a service provider.
  9. Divisioning of labor between research, teaching and management: With research and teaching viewed as commodities and the rise of an entrepreneurial ethos, there easily emerges a division of labor between the three roles of the academic. Functionalist market logic has disintegrated the academic into the component parts of research, teaching and governing the university. It has lead to a new, hybrid hierarchy between these three functions, pitting academics versus administrators, and research against teaching. Administrators appear to be determining research and teaching, while academics tend to favor research over teaching and despise departmental service.
  10. Corporatization of university research, teaching and governance: Having submitted to a market rationality, neoliberal academia is more easily prey to usurpation by corporate interests and other external economic forces. In some fields, universities have become an integral part of medical, technological, military and industrial complexes, while in others they have closely aligned themselves with powerful economic and political interests. Thus the university is experiencing more difficulties maintaining its independence.

As this list testifies, the university has turned into a hybrid and complex neoliberal entity. Focusing on the various neoliberal technologies that are at work in today’s universities one notices that the university has not unequivocally been relegated to the market, nor has the state retreated. Rather, neoliberal academia has been pervaded with market-like technologies and market rationalities. These market technologies and rationalities however have thoroughly deconstructed the Humboldtian ideal of the university and produced a neoliberal monster, that is half public, half private, that is hardly democratic, and in which teaching and research lost a large part of their original meanings. Neoliberal market-talk and technologies have altered and undermined academia beyond recognition, to an extent that there is no straightforward way back. 

…with typical Dutch features

While many of these global features appear in various degrees at universities worldwide, the exact shape of the neoliberalization of academia tends to be determined by local conditions. Although similar neoliberal technologies are at stake, neoliberalization at private Ivy League or state universities in the US with their different scales of corporate and charitable funding and saturating student loan markets, or the neoliberalization of universities in the UK through the Research Assessment for instance, are highly dissimilar. No doubt, neoliberalization means altogether different things at universities in Europe, Latin America, China, South Africa, or Israel because of differing political, economic, and social conditions.

The protests in Amsterdam should therefore also be read as resisting a specifically Dutch articulation of these global technologies. This specific context moreover, should be taken into account when considering the prospects for a post-neoliberal university in the Netherlands. The specificity of Dutch context is perhaps best explained by referring to the centrality in the protests of the untranslatable term of rendementsdenken (literally: efficiency or profit thinking). Why did rendementsdenken become such an important rallying cry? For one it is a confirmation that neoliberalism is not in the first place about directly relegating universities to the marketplace, but that it is about remaking the university in market terms using market-like technologies or rationalities. There is however, I think, a second reason why this term became important, which follows from a specifically Dutch variety of neoliberalism. What is prompting the market rationality in Dutch universities? Who is forcing universities into rendementsdenken? Notwithstanding important ideological trends or significant economic factors impinging on the universities, the main impetus has unmistakably been the state.

Unlike for instance the US, where neoliberalism has largely been an anti-statist project, the Netherlands has been characterized by a state-led version of neoliberalism. The call for more markets and increased ‘marktwerking’ (another Dutch neoliberal neologism) has in the Netherlands been led and propagated by the state. It should not be overlooked that Dutch universities are by and large public entities, whose actions are governed by public law and that are funded by the state. Decisions to redirect funding from universities to funding bodies such as the Dutch Science Foundation (NWO) and the setting of research priorities in the so-called Top Sector Policy have been propelled by the state. Especially the performance requirements (‘rendementseisen’) for degree diplomas that universities have to reach in order not to receive a reduction in funding, have been imposed by the state. Up to a large extent, it is the Dutch state that has been neoliberalizing the universities. This is not to say that Dutch universities from top to bottom have not willfully been incorporating this market rationality, nonetheless the structural condition remains that of a state-led neoliberalization. Anyone considering the prospects of a post-neoliberal university in the Netherlands will have to take these structural conditions into account, either by addressing them on a state-level or by challenging them in local practices.

The Challenge of a Post-Neoliberal University

The financial and economic crisis that has swept the world since 2007 was expected to inaugurate the end of neoliberalism and the beginning of a post-neoliberal era. These hopes have however not materialized, and inquiring why it faltered may offer relevant insights into the prospects for a new, post-neoliberal university. What are the difficulties with moving beyond neoliberalism? The geographers Jamie Peck, Nik Theodore, and Neil Brenner (2010) offer three reasons why the financial and economic crisis did not present a ‘Berlin Wall moment’ for neoliberalism. The first has to do with the nature of neoliberalism itself. The notion of a crisis, they argue, presupposes some sort of ‘monolithic’ structure that can be struck down or repudiated. If we look at neoliberalism however, and the way it has manifested itself within the university, it becomes clear that it in fact amounts to a highly mobile set of market technologies and rationalities that are not removed in one fell swoop. The image of the market has been used in myriad ways inspiring just as many novel meanings and ways of governing the university. These various technologies and rationalities cannot be removed overnight with the establishing of a New University or a moratorium on market thinking. It will have to go by destabilizing current market thought and a continuous rethinking of the university, a process that has only just begun.

A second reason for why the current crisis cannot immediately bring about a post-neoliberal university relates to the hybrid character of neoliberalism already observed above. Besides lacking an easily identifiable center, its technologies and rationalities also appear to be parasitical on other social formations. Because neoliberalism has commingled with existing institutions such as the state or the university, it is also harder to disentangle it from the latter. Neoliberalism has not replaced the state and the university, but has deconstructed their meaning and modes of operation. These neoliberal deconstructions are not undone with one big-bang operation, but require further deconstruction. To give an example, the competitive market logic that has accompanied the current modus of grant applications through NWO or ERC for instance is not easily disentangled from contemporary academic life. These grant processes have changed the way we think about research and what good research is. There are powerful arguments (as well as interests) that will not make it easy to address even its smallest perversions. A similar argument applies for instance to how we think of teaching programs and how to fund or appraise them. Neoliberalism deconstructed the old university and the major challenge faced by the new university is how to deconstruct its deconstructions.

This relates to a third argument of Peck et al. As opposed to the analogy with the Berlin Wall, where western-style capitalism was to replace socialism, in the case of the neoliberal university there is no ready alternative. This in part explains why the protests were sometimes met with skepticism. While the protestors pointed at problems, they were accused of not offering readymade, ‘concrete solutions’ (the latter being a prerequisite in Dutch politics). Having deconstructed the university, post-neoliberal answers however are not lying waiting in the wings. The political theorist Wendy Brown (2003) has warned in this context against a form of pre-neoliberal nostalgia. She notes that in trying to formulate an answer to neoliberalism one is easily forced into a state of nostalgia, literally a longing back for an ideal situation that never was, by starting to defend a less than ideal past. In the current debate we see that the neoliberal university is countered by defending Humboldtian or democratic pasts without regard for their discontents. It has led Peck et al. to conclude that the crisis will not and cannot immediately inaugurate a post-neoliberal world, but that it will for the time being stay with us as a zombie neoliberalism that roams around in a dead body. The protests may have begun slaying the neoliberal university, but its dead practices and rationalities continue to live with us for a little longer. The current challenge for the post-neoliberal university is that it desperately needs new imaginaries, in part inspired by older ones, and in part by deconstructing its current zombie shape.

The Post-neoliberal University to Come: Protest and Complicity

What then are the prospects for a post-neoliberal university? The protests in Amsterdam led to major achievements. Above all, it forced the University of Amsterdam to begin reconsidering many of its neoliberal practices. And it galvanized large parts of the academic community to begin discussing and rethinking the practices in their own departments, even if they did not necessarily agree with the points made by the movement. As such, the protests have left practically nobody within the academic community unaffected. Did it bring about the post-neoliberal university? The argument of this paper is that protest alone can hardly be expected to do that. The protests were very important for undermining and delegitimizing existing neoliberal rationalities, but more is needed to rework them into truly post-neoliberal practices. The protestors can however claim their first victory as they have set in motion one of the first large-scale post-neoliberal experiments within academia.

This paper argues that the post-neoliberal experiments can only be successful when they manage to deconstruct current neoliberal practices and rationalities. The reason to be wary of calls for democracy and the invoking of Humboldtian principles is that these suggest that a – potentially nostalgic – return to previous ideals could simply replace the currently dominant neoliberal norms. If one however underestimates the ways in which neoliberal reason has infiltrated and subverted university practices, calls for democratization and the reinstatement of lost academic values alone will, I am afraid, fail to achieve lasting practical effects. My alternative is therefore to advocate a position somewhat loosely inspired by the various ‘new materialisms’ popular today, which is to acknowledge that neoliberal reason has become an entrenched part of academic practices and if anywhere, needs to be addressed exactly when and where it is active. As a means towards rooting out and changing neoliberal practice then, the theme of complicity re-enters.

At the beginning of this paper, I owned up to my complicity in the neoliberal practices of the university because I think I am hardly unique. Every academic, either as researcher or lecturer is highly complicit in neoliberal academia, whether by applying for competitive grants, begging for research time and less teaching or securing prestigious publications, and by attracting students to your program with attractive courses or giving an engaging talk during an open day. No matter what we tell ourselves, the disinterested non-neoliberalized academic is eventually a romantic fiction, as we all buy into the neoliberal system one way or another. With neoliberal practices so thoroughly entrenched, the most direct way to alter them is by engaging them in our everyday work. Besides struggling for university-wide reform, the post-neoliberal university especially needs to be made in our classrooms, grant proposals, referee reports, academic associations, and our research, as well as in departmental meetings, in hiring committees, the board of studies or examinations board, and in our degree programs. It is only through these practices that the reimagining of the post-neoliberal university can really start to take shape. In absence of preordained new imaginaries, the post-neoliberal university has to be reinvented on the spot and from the ground up. Only by thus reworking our complicity in the neoliberal university, can we build the post-neoliberal university to come.

An important complicating factor is that the widespread introduction of neoliberal technologies in the university has in many ways been a double-edged sword. While many neoliberal practices did thoroughly corrupt the soul of the university, some did in fact help partly recover it. One illustration is the sizeable rise of research funding through external bodies, such as NWO or ERC. This no doubt introduced a one-dimensional, competitive and extrinsic reward system and is undermining the unity between research and teaching. It however also created considerable opportunities for creative research, or under-represented groups for instance, to bypass existing hierarchies. Neoliberal funding technologies have undermined some university values, but liberated others. Another striking example is the advance of liberal arts colleges in the Netherlands. While these are in many ways the epitome of the exploitative character of neoliberal reason within the university, they have managed however to recover some of the values of liberal education, and a renewed devotion to teaching for instance, that was no longer available in the Dutch higher education system. The university colleges perhaps did it so well that we are all too ready to make ourselves complicit in its neoliberal structures by either taking up teaching or sending our children there to study. One of the challenges is therefore not only to abolish neoliberal technologies and its excesses, but also to incorporate some of its attainments. This asks for a reform strategy that does not plainly repudiate neoliberal reason but seeks to rework it by supplementing it with new principles and practices. Its double-edged nature explains why the neoliberal technologies are even more entrenched because they are valued for their promise of a positive contribution to academia. This then presents an additional argument that our complicity is required to change neoliberal practice from the inside out.

With neoliberal reason deeply entrenched, it requires courage but also the assuming of responsibility to get our hands dirty in order to change our universities. It means taking responsibility for our teaching programs and the way we go about doing research, but also for the government of the institution itself. If the university is too precious to be left to managers, then we will have to assume that responsibility and reinvent it along the way. That requires going beyond nostalgia for a democratic and Humboldtian university that perhaps never was. But above all, it requires engaging the neoliberal zombies in our midst. This work can only be done by making ourselves complicit in the post-neoliberal university to come. My hope is that this way, the small-p post-neoliberal experiments at the University of Amsterdam and elsewhere, will inspire similar small-p experiments in other sectors, that may ultimately help bring down neoliberalism for good.


The Triple Democratic Deficit in University Governance

The recent student and staff protests in Amsterdam and at other Dutch universities have brought to light fundamental disagreements about the future of the Dutch university. Many students and staff members of Dutch universities have argued that the level of democratic decision-making about central policy issues in universities should be increased. But what can democracy mean in the context of the contemporary university system? In this contribution we will first briefly sketch the public role of the university. Then we will put forward our main claim, that the Dutch university currently suffers from a triple democratic deficit: in the relation between society and the university, in the relation between university administration and the academic community, and in the relation between the academic community and society. We can only make progress by considering these three problems of democratic legitimation in their mutual relations.

The role of the university in the public realm

The role of the university, and its public financing through the state, is often legitimized by pointing at the enormously important results of science and technology. The development of the modern economy and its technological basis would have been inconceivable without science. The social and economic pay-offs are impressive on all counts. However, these science-induced developments have also brought new challenges, dark sides and risks. Climate change and other environmental risks are only one prominent example.

Hence, given that these scientific achievements are not unequivocally beneficial for society, we propose to take one step back and conceive of the legitimation of the university in a more fundamental way. The university is both important in generating new knowledge and in understanding the darker sides of having such new knowledge and techniques. It is important for its role in driving economic and technological changes, but also for understanding ourselves in this changed world. It is important for its contributions to citizens living together reflexively. A democratic society is a society which enables its citizens to live a free life and contribute to processes of social decision-making. In this way, a democratic society encourages, even requires, a citizenry that actively reflects upon the course of social developments. Such a society needs a university.

First, a democratic system presupposes for its functioning a high level of accessible information for the population to be able to participate in political decision-making. The university, by studying political, social, ecological, medical, historical and other aspects of development, is indispensable – next to other institutions such as a well-functioning media – in furnishing this information.

Second, democracy is only a meaningful political mechanism when citizens have developed convictions of their own, i.e. a reflexive understanding of their own and other people’s interests. If citizens would not be able to develop political convictions, it would not make much sense to have elections in which these convictions are articulated in the formation of a parliament that is legitimizing political power. Here the university comes in as well. For forming well-founded political convictions under the conditions of modern life presupposes a high level of education.

Third, besides these democracy-related considerations, we would hold that it is important for people to be able to understand themselves and to be able to reflect on all aspects of their life – it is a central element of the conditio humana. Universities are important not only in solving the most urgent challenges of our life and enabling us to function in a democratic political system. They can also help us to understand who we are in all its facets: e.g. why we react as we do, where our species came from and where we may travel in the distant future, what the moral condition of our existence is, but also to understand the nature of the world we live in etc.

Thus, there is a need for universities arising from these three comprehensive functions. All of these are functions, however, with a public character. The academic system is meant to provide important public benefits. Universities can only fulfill these functions if they can follow the internal logic of research and education. Research outcomes often cannot be predicted, and new questions arise from the research process itself that are often inconceivable to outsiders. Education is an experience in which students and teachers need to have flexibility to mutually adjust to the learning process. Acknowledging this internal dynamic does not mean that we should understand the university as an ivory tower. For academia is responding to developments in nature, society, culture and politics. But in order to fulfill their public mission academic institutions need room to reflect on these external developments with their own academic instruments, formulate research questions against the background of their own theories in order to produce insights and analyses. Only when universities have such a free space of reflection, can they offer something relevant to society. Such a freedom and critical distance towards society is not only important for research but for teaching as well, where students are educated to become professionals and citizens capable of critical and self-critical reflection.

If this is the role of universities, then what can democracy under these conditions mean? Our diagnosis is that there is a triple democratic deficit that forms the central problem of the current university system. Neither the political community nor the academic community has sufficient influence on the research processes. This makes current governance processes insufficiently effective to meet the targets of the university.



The academic needs of a democratic society

There is a continuous external dimension to university life. The extent to which universities can fulfill their public functions depend on the forms of communication between academia and societal and political players that are available to them. This communication is necessary so that universities can pick up questions and problems of modern life and so that the results of research find their way back to society.

To make these links between academic research and education and society fruitful, a variety of conditions needs to be in place. For example, the time horizon of research is very different from the time horizon of political decision-making. These differences need to be respected and mediated through effective communication channels. Similarly, academic research is characterized by a high level of disciplinary specialization in the development of knowledge. Sophisticated theories and specialized terminology are part of the modern knowledge system. Research is characterized by methodologically controlled procedures etc. If these conditions are not respected, academic institutions cannot fulfill their tasks. These necessary presuppositions for effective research are at the same time obstacles for an effective communication with politics and societal players. This therefore requires specific mechanisms that support a fruitful communication.

At this moment these mechanisms mainly depend on contingent, incidental contacts between different actors in policy, industry or culture with researchers in the university. We mention only one example. Research is increasingly oriented towards the perspective of industry, either by direct funding from industry, by co-financing (e.g. the NWO program on Responsible Innovation) or by ensuring that a high percentage of NWO- and EU-funded research is related to the needs of industry. However, through these channels universities can only have research funding that is related to the relatively short-time goals of specific societal players. Within these models research activities need to be directly related to relatively concrete interests of societal partners. This supports research that helps to develop specific technologies, helps to apply them or addresses questions such as whether the introduction of specific technologies is accompanied by specific risks and moral challenges. Societal partners have a relatively strong influence on the kind of research that is done.

The deficit of these forms of research finance is that the whole format facilitates only specific kinds of collaboration between researchers and societal actors. Only concrete innovations can be central, and not more fundamental but uncertain research questions. Only short-term questions can be raised, to the detriment of long-term perspectives. Fundamental problems that contemporary societies are facing can hardly be addressed in those formats. Because of these developments, democratic society as a whole is increasingly not getting what it asked for. One need only consider that society is not a homogeneous group. There are different groups, who would benefit from different emphases in the research agenda. Where more commercially viable and politically powerful interests dominate the research agenda, to what extent can we speak of a university serving the democratic process as a whole? That would require universities serving marginalized interests as much as currently well-organized ones, for these interests deserve as much research efforts as any other ones.

It would therefore be much more fruitful to institutionalize discourses between a broad range of societal players, politics and researchers that help to identify bigger problems of the future, e.g. in the form of the big societal challenges (as it is called in the European jargon). These would have to leave room for academia to translate these challenges in research activities, relate them to more fundamental academic debates, build up the necessary interdisciplinary cooperation and to develop mechanisms as to how this research can be translated back into societal debates. The translation of societal problems into research requires a process whereby different disciplines can elaborate research questions in such a way that they can lead to research projects that are both socially relevant and academically interesting. That presupposes free space for the development of research questions in this process. This space requires time and it requires a relative freedom from direct intervention of societal partners. And it requires that some counter-mechanisms are established to minimize the domination of this process by societal partners with money. But the most important requirement is of course that public expectations about societally relevant research leave room for the traditional debates in the disciplines. Interdisciplinary and societally relevant research is only possible against the horizon of more fundamental disciplinary research. 

The need for new forms of communication between society and university is also a challenge to democracy. Of course one could argue that the current arrangements are also democratically validated (in the end, through elections). However, we presuppose a more substantive view of democracy. In such a view, the representation of all stakeholders in scientific research needs to obey certain minimum standards. When this is not the case, where certain social groups are able to exert a much stronger pressure on research than others, one cannot say that the outcome is democratically legitimate simply because a parliamentary majority has approved of it. Democracy is not just about high-level laws. At a lower level in the daily life of funding-allocation decisions, a more balanced process needs to be organized in which all social stakeholders can interact with scientists. But this interaction requires new types of channels. We don’t think that incidental forms of ‘knowledge-valorization’ will fulfill this task or that it is helpful if NWO expects those measures from individual researchers. It is much more important to think about think-tanks and other settings that systematically analyze what kinds of possibilities exist to facilitate a better interaction between societal problems and research activities. But this interaction will only be fruitful if we take into account those requirements that are relevant for a fruitful dialogue between stakeholders and academia.

Although we cannot work this out here, we think a similar external democratic deficit is at stake in education policy. Here too important societal needs (such as those for an army of well-trained French and German-speaking academics) are not addressed by the university. For both education and research, then, a more active role of politics is actually necessary to solve this external democratic deficit. It needs to facilitate the space in which the communication between politics, society and academia is organized, to protect academic freedom in this process, and to ensure that mechanisms are established that make it possible for universities to fulfill their public role.


The academic community and its management

The second democratic deficit relates to the internal democracy of the university. It is not self-evident why democratic forms should be needed at the workplace, and in which sense there is something analogous to a demos. It is obvious that democracy at the university cannot be understood in the same way as the one by which we legitimize the democratic rights of citizens to decide the way they are governed. If we plea for a form of self-governance of the university, this has to follow from the kind of institution a university is and not directly from the democratic rights of the actors involved in this institution. The university is a public institution like the police, the military or garbage collection. Why would it need to be governed democratically, in contrast to some of these other institutions?

The internal policy structure of any public institution should reflect the institutional goals. The military needs a hierarchical chain of command because of its internal goal: disciplined action in situations of great stress, where there is no time to deliberate about the right strategy. In contrast, the tasks of the university necessarily require that its different activities are exercised in a space of relative independence. Researchers need to have the space to perform their research in such a way that the internal logic of research can fruitfully be exercised. For teaching it is necessary that there is a space in which students can develop their skills and knowledge in such a way that they are enabled to develop as professionals and citizens, who have highly developed capacities to think and act critically and independently. 

For an institution with these goals academic staff – and to some extent students as well – need to be able to play a central role in governing the university. An institution which is geared towards autonomous thinking needs to mirror these capacities for self-governance in its internal structure. This is all the more pressing since the modern complex university is characterized by a high level of coordination in research and teaching. The classical idea of ‘academic freedom’ of researchers and teachers was developed in a time in which, say, a professor in the humanities or law only needed not to be disturbed and censured in his research activities in order to have effective academic freedom. Even in these disciplines (and to a greater extent in the natural sciences), however, the independence and autonomy that is required for research can nowadays only be protected via university policies where the researchers themselves are exercising a collective form of decision-making about central aspects of university policy. The factually inescapable need for coordinated policies in the modern university tends to limit the individual academic freedom that is required to exercise self-governance. The only way to regain this freedom is at a more collective level. The more academic work transforms into a collaborated and coordinated activity the greater the need for effective influence of researchers and students on the conditions under which research and teaching are performed.

There is a link here with the first democratic deficit discussed above. Universities have changed rapidly over the last decades and are trying to be more responsive to questions from society. But this process is now mainly directed by the management of the university. The professors who are involved in this management (rectors, deans, heads of department etc.) try to ensure some influence of the academic community on those processes but they are in a position of having to exercise their duties in the context of policy strategies that are developed on a higher level (e.g. governments with their science agendas, boards of the university with their 5-year plans, etc.).  Staff and students have a say in this process only to a limited degree.

One part of the problem is the formation of common opinions within the university. This is partly the fault of the academic community itself, which too often has accepted that others make decisions about their work, instead of articulating their concerns themselves more often and in a more organized way. In order to have an effective form of impact we need to create spaces in which the academic community can form opinions and comments on policy questions. There should be a process of deliberation within the university by regular meetings, publications in the university journal etc. so that policy issues can be discussed in such a way that controversies, arguments for and against different views are elaborated and publicly exchanged. The tasks of the faculty and university councils would then be to ensure that those positions and arguments are transmitted to the places of formal decision-making of faculty and university. To be clear: that this process of deliberation is currently largely absent is not the fault of the members of these councils but is a result of a specifically inert culture.

This culture is, however, also partly the result of a policy structure that seems to be guided by a lack of trust in the capacities of staff and students for self-governance. It is surprising that the most important decisions about the highest positions of the university (College van Bestuur) are not taken by the academic community but by a supervisory board (Raad van Toezicht) that is installed by the minister. The academic community has only a minimal influence on the composition of the CvB, and the RvT consist of people that are by definition from outside the academic community. To be clear: it is a valuable thing that the university has a board of experienced outsiders that are regularly giving advice. But the decisions about the composition of the executive board should come from the academic community itself.

Some are concerned about a more extensive form of democratic decision-making within the university. They are afraid the model of the ‘elected rector’ is in a problematic tension with university traditions. If the rector has to run for office, organize a campaign within the university, make promises to different parties, etc., it seems unlikely that some of the most talented professors would be willing to be a candidate. Only those who like to go to receptions, shake hands and do all the activities that a politician has to perform would be potential candidates. It is unlikely that this would encourage the best professors to declare their candidacy. But in other countries we see a variety of organizational options for electing the board: via all members of the academic community, via the university council, on the basis of a committee that is installed by the university council, etc. Candidates can declare their candidacy themselves or there can be nominations by specific groups within the academic community etc.

Thus, there are various possibilities to meet these concerns, but what all of these models would have in common is that the election of the executive board of the university would be legitimized by the academic community itself and would be an expression of trust in the capacity of the university to govern itself. If even the arguably most hierarchical institution in the world (the Roman Catholic Church) is able to elect its new leader in an orderly fashion from among its own ranks, there is no reason to distrust universities to do the same. Such a trust is necessary for the development of a culture of a university in which an open discussion about central topics of university policy is possible.


The political representation of the academic community

We will be much briefer here. The current student and staff protests have shown, we think, that whatever one thinks about the specific complaints that are being made, these complaints have been insufficiently echoed over the last decades by the formal channels that represent the academic community in social and political forums (such as the CvB’s, the VSNU, the KNAW, etc.).  Remedying the previous, internal deficit would alleviate this problem to some extent. If the universities function more democratically internally, we can expect CvB’s to be more representative of the opinions of staff and students.

However, we also see in health care, education and many other public sectors that many on “the shop-floor” feel insufficiently represented by official management channels. Therefore, it is necessary that organizations such as De Nieuwe Universiteit (students) and Rethink (staff) fulfill an independent function in communicating their views to Parliament, Minister and society at large. Having such a separate channel of communication and representation should not be seen as a motion of distrust in university management. Rather, these organizations could serve as a place where the academic community itself creates and debates long-term views about the future of the university, its research and education policies etc. These can then serve as an input in more formal channels of decision-making both within the university and in “The Hague”. They would provide a valuable ‘input from below’ from which university managers could profit in fulfilling their own responsibilities,

Solving this third democratic deficit, however, does require that these new organizations actually do represent the entire workplace. Otherwise, political and social actors will not listen to them but put them aside as small groups of radicals. This means that academic staff and students have to be willing to support and staff these organizations. In the end, then, having more democracy requires a more active academic community itself.


The way forward

This article has addressed some central problems of democratic decision-making, representation and accountability within and towards universities. Discussion today tends to narrow to debates about ‘the elected rector yes or no’. We have aimed to sketch a more comprehensive picture of the university and its relations to the outside world, and we have highlighted a triple democratic deficit in these relations. A new balance needs to be established in the relations between political actors and society at large, the academic community of staff and students, and all those in university management. In all those relations more accountability and representation is necessary. Only then can we fruitfully address serious problems of research and education policy.

Emotional Democracy in Practice

Annoyance. – Usually it starts with annoyance, certainly when it is about politics. A feeling of anger that comes up because someone or something (in everyday life it may be the famous ‘perversity of the thing’) is bothering you. It comes along with the experience that something or someone is impairing you (in English you also can say in a more emotional way: ‘affecting’ you). There is an obstacle to the actions you are used to doing, and you are used to them because they express what you stand for. Annoyance (or hassle, or trouble) per se does not form a real problem, one that must be solved immediately or with a great deal of effort. It is like a fly buzzing around your head, crawling upon your skin, tickling your nose. You try to chase it off, once, twice, several times. And finally you either give up because you are too busy with other things, too tired, or absolutely serene (in the German sense of ‘gelassen’ that leaves everything the way it is). Or you get angry, really angry, and you try to catch that ‘damned dirty bastard’, to strike it dead, or even to shoot it. (A famous example for a funny way in between is offered by the opening sequence of Once Upon a Time in the West when one of the gunmen – performed by Jack Elam in his best ever unshaven and crumpled face – catches a fly in the barrel of his pistol, and then listens tenderly to its desperate buzzing.) Annoyance at that moment has transformed into anger. The slight feeling of anger has increased and has become real anger. Repetition has intensified a feeble emotion and has turned it into one that demands action. Anger cannot sit still. It has to start acting against the source of anger. If it doesn’t, if people go on stomaching the anger, they transform a psychological into a physical fact and sooner or later get sick.

Education policy. – In education policy things started that way in the middle of the 1990s. At that time so-called neoliberalism – an economical theory elaborated at the University of Chicago in the 1960s – had already established itself successfully on the political level. What had begun under the regime of General Pinochet in Chile and his ‘Chicago Boys’ in the 1970s, was taken over by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the standard-bearer of conservatism in the 1980s, and they finally passed on the ideological banner in the 1990s to ambitious social-democrats like Tony Blair and a German chancellor called Gerhard Schröder (‘der Genosse der Bosse’, the comrade of the bosses). At that time neoliberalism – meanwhile a polemical term – started its attack on the universities in Europe. In 1999 the European Secretaries of Education signed the so-called Bologna Declaration that was intended to set up a unified European space of higher education. Essential, and meanwhile well-known elements, are two-stage degrees (BA and MA), the ECTS (European Credit Transfer System), and studies oriented towards employability.

The University of Amsterdam. – Already some years earlier, in 1995, the Dutch Government decided to transfer the ownership of and responsibility for public real estate to universities (and schools, hospitals and other public organizations). That decision had huge consequences. When the Universiteit van Amsterdam (UvA), in 1998, came up with the ambitious plan to reorganize the university along four ‘centres’ or campuses, a first main step into a slowly increasing disaster was taken. Summing it up in a few numbers: In 2008 – the year of the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers – the UvA took out its first bullet loan of 55 million euros. For the first time in its history – established in 1632 during the famous Golden Age – this university became a net debtor. In 2011, total outstanding debt already had increased to 136 million euros, and it is expected to reach 400 million euros in 2018 (Engelen, etc. 2014: 1083).This caused a power shift in the management structures which becomes obvious by looking at the employees at the central administration building, the Maagdenhuis (House of Virgins, called that way because it once was an orphanage for catholic girls). There are 21 employees in the matter of Real Estate Management, 13 in the matter of Finance & Control, 8 in the matter of Strategy & Information, and finally 7 in the matter of Academic Affairs, which means teaching and research, thus the matter which was originally the core business of a university (when it did not yet think of itself in business terms).

This economic development brought about a drastic change of everyday work at the university. A change, however, that came in small steps which were difficult to immediately identify as pieces of a larger scheme: the redefinition and reshaping of academic life in terms of quantifiable economic efficiency, profitability and transparency. In the course of the protest movement the thinking pattern behind this change has received a new Dutch name: ‘rendementsdenken’ (rendement = return on investment). The process started out with baby steps, which were just annoying but – one by one – did not seem that dangerous. Yet the sum of those baby steps eventually led to a moral shock (Jasper 2011: 285-304). A huge number of students and teachers came to realize that the new management of the university had transformed academic life in such a way that it contradicts the core values which should guide academia.

Some examples. Teachers’ two main tasks – research and teaching – have been put under enormous pressure. As less research money is given directly to universities, academics have to spend an increasing amount of time – at the moment between 20 and 30 percent of their working hours – on writing research proposals submitted to research organizations. The time that remains for actual research and writing consequently decreases. But since the quality of research is measured increasingly by the quantity of publications, academics try to publish more while having less time to read the growing number of publications in their field of expertise. The distribution of research money on the basis of such a competitive system also produces the Matthew effect: those who have been successful once in receiving external research money, have increased chances to be successful a second and a third time. Those who have not been successful, have decreasing chances of ever being successful. As a consequence, the academic staff becomes more and more split into two groups: those who buy their way out for doing research and are highly valued by the management because of their work’s economic profitability, and those who do mostly teaching, many of them on precarious non-permanent contracts that enable the management to pursue a hire-and-fire policy depending on rising and falling student numbers.

As for teaching, the emphasis by both the Dutch education policy and the university management on ‘output numbers’ and ‘performance benchmarks’ has installed a system of quantification, control and bureaucratic transparency which makes it more and more difficult for teachers to put their energy into the highly creative, exciting, and inherently uncontrollable process of academic learning. The organization of teaching in the departments becomes dominated by the criterion of profitability: as many students as possible should get as many number of credit points as possible in order to receive a degree in as short a time as possible. These are the criteria that determine how much money faculties and departments receive from the Executive Board. Teachers and students are haunted by more and more tests according to more and more criteria (toetselementen). There are course manuals and examination files, feedback forms, standardization of working hours, ever more meetings to discuss these measures and ever more excel sheets to be filled in. The time that remains for preparing a seminar and talking to students diminishes and the thing that informs good teaching more than anything else – one’s own intellectual work – must be shifted to the evenings and weekends. A German colleague once mentioned that he feels like a jackass increasingly loaded by teaching, administration, committee, and fundraising tasks, and then sent into a race against the thoroughbred horses of elitist and often private universities like Harvard, Stanford, Oxford and Cambridge.

All these performance benchmarks (prestatieafspraken) and achievement provisions (studiesuccesmaatregelen) end up in streamlining the purpose of teaching; it gets more and more reduced to fact-checking. And since all these benchmarks and provisions are always imperfect and can be better, there is a correction and reform year after year. At the University of Amsterdam the collective limit of acceptance was exceeded for the first time when the Executive Board decided to go for a teaching system called 8-8-4. Within a semester-term a course had to be given in 8 weeks, followed by another one of the same length, and finally by a course of 4 weeks. Such a restructuring – established mainly for the reason that the UvA wanted to merge with the VU, the Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam, where this teaching system was already established, a fusion which in the end failed – necessitates a huge amount of work and respective energy, above all if the people who have to do it are convinced that the whole operation is counterproductive. What can you teach to students of the Humanities in a course of 8, let alone 4 weeks? Forget close reading, the detailed analysis of arguments, and reflections on the premises of a text. Fact-feeding is the purpose of such a teaching system.

Rebellion. – The limit of acceptance was definitely exceeded when only two years after the 8-8-4 system was introduced, a plan for a new restructuring came up at the Faculty of Humanities. This time the reason was not a planned merger but a financial problem. Through some Friday afternoon emails sent by the Dean – emails, which sweetened our weekends in a cynical way – staff members were told that there is a shortage in the faculty budget. First, the administration gave us the number of some hundred thousand euros, but quickly it increased to 3 million, then 8 million, and finally 12 million euros. Nobody could tell exactly, and nobody could give convincing reasons for these shortages. The communication turned out to be disastrous.

The administration repeated that the Faculty of Humanities has to deal with a decrease in student numbers and thus with a decrease in available money, forcing the administration to lay off 100 teachers. After the protest had already spread, the central administration admitted that the costs for the ambitious real-estate plans of four campuses forces every faculty to deal – some more, some less – with drastic financial cuts, especially the Faculty of Humanities and the Faculty of Law. At the Humanities the administration started the process of ‘restructuring’ by a so-called ‘Profile 2016’, a ‘vision’ (it’s always very dangerous when admins talk of visions) to make the faculty enduring (duurzaam) and viable (levensvatbaar) by the means of an efficiency-battle (efficiencyslag).

This was the moment when the political emotions exploded. A process of continued top-down politics compressing the freedom of action of teachers and students, and executed with incompetence, both in planning as in communication, had finally reached its limit. And it was the language of emotions that put the matter in a nutshell. Suddenly a letter written by a professor addressed to the Dean and the Heads of the Departments was circulating among the members of the whole faculty. Explicitly it expressed a ‘shock’, and obviously it was a shock many people of the faculty shared. Active students appeared on stage under the name ‘Humanities Rally’, and when they organized a ‘Night of Protest’ everybody – including the Dean and a member of the Executive Board – could experience how all that frustration and anger which had been held back for a long time now broke loose. The well-established game of civilized retention did not work any longer. And, at least for a large group of people, the pervasive fear of speaking up was trumped by the moral outrage. This first moment of anger and rebellion later on culminated in the occupation of the Bungehuis, the administration building of the Faculty of Humanities, and – after it was evicted – the occupation of the Maagdenhuis, the administration building of the university.

Anger. – Anger is a respected emotion in the Western canon. It starts already with the first documented Western poetry and one of the most famous heroes of our culture. ‘Sing the anger of Achilles’, so are the first lines of Homer’s Iliad, thus honouring ‘anger’ or ‘rancour’ (the old Greek word is ménis) with being at the very onset of our culture. In philosophy, as well, anger is an acknowledged subject because in contrast to other aggressive affects – affects that foster activity or violence – like hatred, envy, or jealousy, it expresses itself in the language of morality. Anger is seen as an affect reacting to injustice. Thus there is ‘rightful’ and even ‘holy anger’. In contrast to hatred, anger knows a proportion, it isn’t excessive, and it doesn’t imply hostility. It usually comes up when you are convinced that someone offends against a norm that is very important to you. It is not clear whether such an emotion – like the non-aggressive emotion of shame – is constitutive for morality, but it clearly works as an indicator. The fact that a certain moral norm is important for a subject arises with the respective emotions: no emotions, no importance. But although a certain moral norm may not be important for a subject, it nevertheless may be seen as justified. Reading in the newspaper that someone has robbed a bank may not cause any emotion inside my chest, nevertheless I agree that the moral norm ‘Thou shalt not steal!’ in principle is right. Philosophically seen, we have to deal with the well-known difference between theoretical and practical validity. If someone doesn’t react to a violation – by himself or others – of moral norms by showing anger and indignation, or shame, we are allowed to assume that the respective norm doesn’t have validity in a practical sense for that person (Demmerling and Landwehr 2007: 287, 302; Lorde 1981: 7; Hessel 2010; Bromell 2013: 285-311).

Compensation and balance. – Anger and indignation, however, do not determine the process of protest. They stand for an emotion ‘that gets you in’; they do have a mobilizing power, and often are ‘at the core’ of the emotional and political dynamics of protest movements (Jasper 2014: 208-213). But at some point they need to be balanced and compensated by other emotions and moral values or even principles. If this works out well, the mechanism of compensation, or better, the art of balancing, in fact takes place. Since this balancing is a rule that can be learned only in practice, there is no meta-rule that could control its application. Immanuel Kant in that context speaks about ‘judgement’ (Urteilskraft), and Ludwig Wittgenstein also thought about this problem in an insisting way. Practical knowledge is habitualized knowledge, knowledge that has become a set habit; it is knowing how instead of knowing that. Watching, then, how often so-called negative emotions, like anger and shame, turn into positive ones, like joy, self-respect, and solidarity, is one of the really wonderful moments in a protest movement. You can watch it when people raise their voice for the first time as they take a stand; when a student speaks up and formulates her point perspectively; when the face of a colleague lights up and changes from frustration to enthusiasm after he has joined the protest.

Fear. – The power of these positive emotions – positive for the individual and the collective – is so strong exactly because the countervailing powers, of course (because an emotion, like fear, doesn’t vanish once and for all), remain present. One of them, maybe the strongest one, is fear. The protest at the University of Amsterdam was going on already for some months. Nevertheless the buzzword ‘culture of fear’ hung hard-bitten over all assemblies. It was obvious that many colleagues did not dare to speak their mind as they were afraid of losing their job. The ‘silent majority’ in such a case is in fact a ‘silenced majority’.

Shame. – Another emotional countervailing power is shame. The British writer Marina Warner has put into words how the current university management of the UK – similar to, and even worse than the one in the Netherlands – works with that emotion. The managers count on shame – in others, of course, not in themselves (Warner 2015). Shame means the excruciating fear of being worthless because one does not fulfil a (moral or social) norm. It most commonly appears in the form of an inner voice which has two messages and smoothly switches back from one to the other. Either it says: ‘You are not good enough!’, or it says: ‘Who do you think you are?’ When people struggle to keep up with the output expectations in everything they do, they are quickly paralyzed by the thought: ‘You are not good enough!’ If they try to break out of it, stick true to what they passionately believe in, the ‘Who do you think you are?’ message will immediately step in to make them feel miserable and apathetic again.[i]

Respect. – Among the emotions and values that compensate and balance anger, fear, and shame, respect turns out to be a very important one. In philosophy it is, once again, controversial whether respect is an emotion at all. As an acute feeling respect has to be something that befalls us, and thus something that cannot be controlled by our will and moral intention. As an habitualized attitude, on the contrary, it is deeply moral but detached from emotion. Kant’s respect of human beings as purpose in themselves delivers the best example for this. There is a third possibility in between, and this is respect as an emotional disposition because one can have the disposition towards respect for somebody without having the respective emotion at every encounter, and without aiming respect in the Kantian sense at everybody. And, finally, there is another possibility called ‘civility’. It is within this context that Kant’s conception of respect as ‘intelligible’, as a feeling brought about by reason, gets some visual evidence.

Respect, civility, and self-care. – During the many days (and nights) of protest around the Maagdenhuis the students have demonstrated what being respectful of others means. The task of chairing debates, spontaneous meetings, and General Assemblies bringing together teachers and students was always delegated to a student. Although there were so many different people, i.e. incorporated experiences, present in the room, and although there was no guarantee at all that there would be an agreement in the end (though urgently needed), the crowd managed every time. When it is about the advantages of democracy, John Dewey talks about ‘pooled intelligence’ (1937: 457-67)[ii]. Here, at the Maagdenhuis, one could see it at work. The amazing result of consensus was not only brought about by people who are bound together by a shared political aim, and therefore have an instrumental reason for finding consensus. It was also the result of people who honour the emotional challenge such a situation means for everyone involved. It simply was touching to see students regularly taking the responsibility of reminding everyone in a soft voice that they should stick to the rules of discussion. They knew how quickly a debate can derail because human passions are running amok instead of being channelled into a productive form. They understood that we have to protect ourselves by carefully fostering our civility. They understood that people have to enact what they are striving for in order to achieve it: starting any discussion and any action with a genuine respect for everyone involved, including for ourselves. Thus there is also a kind of self-respect at stake here, a kind which is intermingled with self-care.

The elements of moral respect, civility, and self-care form a constellation that allows to zoom in on Kant’s very specific concept of respect as an intelligible feeling. In Kant such a feeling is effected by ‘pure’ (moral) reason, and therefore it implies that it is universal; directed towards everyone. A weaker reformulation in the sense of civility does not imply that such an intelligible feeling is effected purely by moral reason but that it is tied up with reason. Such a reformulation accepts our conditio humana, the fact that we make mistakes, but at the same time remains aware of something which is bigger than us; which is in a certain sense sublime. (And that is the reason why Kant connects respect very closely with the sublime). Civility is an habitualized attitude of respect which is neither restricted to single persons and acute feelings, nor extended to all persons in a universal and de-emotionalized way.[iii]

In the end respect as an acute feeling comes up, as well. Watching a situation when diverse emotions are channelled in a productive way by a diverse crowd; that is to say, when emotions are balanced and compensated by other emotions and moral values, cannot but lead to a feeling of respect for everyone involved, respect now in the French sense of ‘Chapeau!’ or in the German sense of ‘Alle Achtung!’ Respect here is directed towards an achievement which is not necessarily a moral one. The achievement is: handling a collective situation with moral respect and sensitivity, i.e. with civility. If, on top of that, wit and humour are added, the thing is not only impressive but positively enchanting. As a teacher you may ask yourself what you could teach these students anyway. Some expertise, certainly. But they do have already the skill for one of the most important things in life.

Theoretical backing. – If we want to have a theoretical backing for those observations, we can easily refer to Martha Nussbaum’s recent work. She has published widely on the role of emotions in moral philosophy. In her voluminous book Political Emotions. Why Love Matters for Justice she offers a broad discussion about the connection between politics and emotions, especially between politics and love. Somewhat too airily Nussbaum likes to make clear and oppositional distinctions between so-to-speak good and bad emotions. Thus she calls emotions like fear, envy, and shame ‘compassion’s enemies’, and she defines compassion as ‘a painful emotion directed at the serious suffering of another creature’, thus as an emotion that links us to others, be it humans or animals (Nussbaum 2013: 142, 314).[iv] In the case of fear this means that such a ‘narrowing emotion’ – an emotion ‘with a very narrow frame, initially at least: one’s own body, and perhaps by extension, one’s life’ – needs to be combined with ‘general concern’ or, in the language of the 18th century, with ‘sympathy’. Such a combination then leads to a ‘tempering’ of fear. One of the examples Nussbaum refers to is Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address from 1933, thus a political speech, with the most famous line: ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts …’ (Nussbaum 2013: 320, 326). In the case of envy, similarly, as an ‘antidote’ we need ‘a sense of a common fate, and a friendship that draws the advantaged and less advantaged into a single group, with a common task before it.’ Examples are delivered again by a Roosevelt speech, by Gandhi’s strategy to convince elites to adopt a simple lifestyle, and by building New York’s Central Park as a ‘People’s Park’. But in the case of envy it is evident as well that ‘much will have to be done by laws and institutions that make basic entitlements secure for all, and by educational and economic systems that make people feel they have constructive alternatives’ (Nussbaum 2013: 344, 345). Thus the political role and the public cultivation of emotions – essentially articulated by artists and poets as well – has to be supported by political, economic, social, and cultural institutions. And besides this it also has to be limited by the normative goals of a liberal society, among them the very well known goals of equal respect for persons and a commitment to equal liberties of speech, association, and conscience. The framework of liberalism remains sound in Nussbaum. The ‘challenge’ her new book takes up is to offer more than liberalism – the liberalism of Locke, Kant, and Rawls, not so much the version presented by Mill – without becoming illiberal and even dictatorial in the manner, for example, of Rousseau (Nussbaum 2013: 5).[v] It is that challenge, not the suggested solution, that makes Nussbaum’s book important.

Aesthetic transformation. – If we ask ourselves on a general theoretical level how to deal with emotions in politics, that is in the public arena of ethical conflicts, that is in an arena where conflicts about how one should live are discussed, negotiated, and – sometimes violently – solved, there are at least two answers. We were talking already about the first one under the heading ‘compensation’ and ‘balance’. The second answer popped up when we were talking about ‘the art’ of balancing and the ‘sublime’ aspect of respect. Whereas the first way of dealing with emotions in politics aims at a practical system of compensation and balance (it is a practical one because in the end you have to learn it by doing it), the second way aims at a transformation of emotions. And art, or in a broader sense, aesthetic experience, is an ideal means for this.

Like every protest movement, the protest around the Maagdenhuis made use of aesthetic forms of expression. Most prominently, of course, there is the use of language known from its Greek beginnings as rhetoric, in addition there is the use of images, and finally of body performance. When the ‘Night of Protest’, the first public event, took place at the Humanities, and one of the young active students gave a short speech finishing with: ‘I am Julia. I am human. I am Humanities’, the protest had found its first slogan. Posters quickly followed, each of them playing with the slogan. On one of them Van Gogh is looking at us in a famous self-portrait and gives us the message: ‘I am human. THINK. Humanities Amsterdam’. People changed the logo of the University of Amsterdam. The three St. Andrew’s crosses – the one in the middle enclosed by a ‘u’ for ‘university’ – in a vertical line were put in a horizontal line, thus symbolizing the anti-hierarchical, democratic, and – last but not least – emotional constitution of the new university (alluding to the three xxx symbolizing hugs at the end of a mail). With historical pathos and irony a protesting staff member offered grand comparisons on twitter between the events in Amsterdam in 2015 and in Paris in 1789: ‘We will stay here until we have a new Constitution’ was the famous oath at the Jeu de Paume, and it became an expression of the will to stay of the occupiers and their supporters in the Maagdenhuis combining a photograph of the General Assembly on the night of the occupation with a copy of the famous drawing by Jacques-Louis David.

Twitter is generally an important technical medium in that context. Tweets have to be short, and mostly they are meant to spread news, sometimes gossip, and to comment on current events, sometimes in hate-speech. (In general we should not deny that next to the regulars’ table and the stand in a football stadium, twitter is a legitimate form of unfiltered expression of opinion in a modern society.) But some of the tweets are formulated very finely, that is to say that they comment and insinuate with the means of rhetoric. But also classical posters can do the trick. After the Executive Board (College van Bestuur, CvB) had finally formulated a letter including ten points for further, and now constructive discussion, somebody hung a poster in the Maagdenhuis that was also tweeted. It showed a drawing of an astronaut with newspaper articles about the University of Amsterdam in the background. It stated ‘The #CvB proposal seems like a huge step for them, but it’s a small step for humanity #houstonwestillhaveaproblem’ alluding to the famous quotation of the first man on the moon in 1969. (‘That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.’) And since many people within the protest movement were still very sceptic about the real or good intentions of the CvB, they (intended to) remind them of this scepticism by referring to a song by Sting that itself plays with a slogan of the surveillance society (‘Big Brother is watching you!’) integrating it into a love song that sounds gentle but is sinister: ‘#CvB Every word you say, every game you play, we’ll be watching you.’ Of course, a classical rally makes equal use of aesthetic elements, from slogans for the crowd and banners via music – indispensible for many years: drums – and noise – indispensible for many years as well: whistles – to costumes. The rally that took place after the Maagdenhuis was evicted had an ironic aesthetic touch by the mere fact that many people – both staff members and students – decided to dress up nicely and even respectably by wearing a fashionable robe, a suit with tie (or a tie without a suit), or a toga (if they were professors). As always when students who usually do not look like bank employees do things that do not seem decent – like occupying a building –, a part of the published public opinion let their resentments run wild and bad-mouthed the students as long-haired, dirty, left-wing, lazy-bones. Since public opinion is massively influenced by images as well, the students and the larger protest movement simply can prove such resentment wrong by making it look silly. (Maybe this is the only realistic way to disprove a resentment.) So they dress up and deliver nice pictures to tv stations and the press.

Aesthetics helps us to take bad things seriously and not seriously at the same time.[vi] It can do so – but this is a thesis that needs to be defended in more detail – because it has a transformative power. The structural reason for this seems to be its status in between well-established oppositional relationships like those of reason (the realm of argumentation) and emotions, or the universal and the particular, or the abstract and the concrete. In his Critique of Judgment Kant has specified this status in a positive way by ascribing to aesthetics the capacity of exemplary presentation. A work of art, or a corresponding aesthetic experience, does not present itself as an abstract theory with a universal validity claim. But it is not a mere singular object or experience either. Instead it presents something in an exemplary manner. It is able to intensify the experience of a situation by concentrating it in a particular constellation of (visual, verbal, and auditive) signs. Thus, if we want to know what anger ‘is’, that is what this emotion actually means, including its unfolding nuances, we have to read Homer’s description of Achilles, or the Old Testament, or Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas. If we want to know what hatred is and love, envy and practical solidarity, we have to read novels, poems, listen to operas, and watch movies. Works of art baptise our emotions. Of course, we can look up a definition of anger, hatred, love, or solidarity in a dictionary, but this only provides us with a description that remains detached from our own experiences. A novel, a play, an opera, a movie does not provide us with a definition, but the way it presents a story lends that story a validity that goes beyond the particular case. This is also the reason why aesthetic ways of expression can elevate the emotions that are part of it above a mere private sphere. It is an individual who speaks up for something in public. But if she does it – aesthetically – right, she expresses a public opinion.

The power of exemplification, finally, is also the reason why aesthetic ways of expression can be very helpful in building up positive motivations during a political struggle. Once the members of a protest movement – in general a small one – think of themselves as fighting the whole world, in philosophical terms fighting society as a negative totality, because (almost) nobody is able to understand them, it needs a lot of humour, calmness, or intellectual narcissism not to get frustrated. In that context political action either opts for violence, or takes a back seat by sending a message in a bottle. Theodor W. Adorno wanted to send such a message. But his colleague Hanns Eisler rightly remarked that he already knew how the message would read, namely ‘I feel so lousy.’[vii] Adorno thought of art as being such a message. But the actions around the Maagdenhuis in Amsterdam – once again – tell another story, one that is closer to another companion of Adorno, namely Herbert Marcuse. It is essentially by aesthetic experiences that – listening to the Rolling Stones – the ‘poor boys’ and girls and queer beings who are ‘fighting in the street’ keep on rollin’.


Fighting Fog – The Case of Creeping Neoliberalism and Weakening University Democracy in Norway

The ‘New University’ protests in Amsterdam, with similar initiatives in the UK and Canada, have awakened students and scholars to the increasingly neoliberal management of academic institutions. This has also been the case at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, where employees have been mobilizing to challenge a top-down process of institutional and departmental mergers. Concrete processes, such as mergers, selling-off of university property, or major changes to fundamental policy, present opportunities to focus resistance and mobilization. Much more challenging in the Norwegian context are the periods in between, where changes are small and neoliberal processes are concealed in a fog of vague ‘common sense’ narratives of seemingly harmless improvements to administrative effectiveness. We therefore ask: how can we mobilize against small and gradual changes that when aggregated nevertheless add up to significant centralization, bureaucratization, and financialization of our universities? 

In discussing ways to ‘fight fog’ we take inspiration from Marcuse’s call to ‘Expose, Propose, and Politicize’ (Marcuse 2009). We start by presenting a brief account of how governance and participation structures at Norwegian universities have developed from the early 1990s. The overview shows how gradual changes have centralized decision-making, increased bureaucratic professionalization, and financialized the measurement of ‘quality’ in teaching and research. Most of these changes have been implemented largely unopposed by university employees and students. We discuss two major reasons for this passivity: first, the difficulty of identifying the political and ideological content within foggy processes presented as technical changes to improve public management; and second, the feeling of powerlessness in the face of changes that are presented as inevitable, replacing potential resistance with strategic positioning in relation to these processes. We illustrate these points by elaborating on a current process of mergers at both institution and department levels at our university, before ending the essay with a discussion of the potential for using momenta from concrete processes to keep alive a critical discussion during periods where there are no tangible measures to oppose.

Lifting the fog: a brief history of governance and participation structures for Norwegian universities

Norwegian universities have since the 1970s employed a form of representative democracy extending down to the departmental level, where employees and students elect university, faculty, and department heads and board members. However, the systems of governance and participation have, since the early 1990s, undergone stepwise changes towards more top-down governance with increasingly cosmetic processes of employee participation. The first set of changes was implemented in 1995 through a law that made way for an appointed administrative director who was given responsibility for day-to-day management of administrative and economic matters. These measures distinguished formally between the board, chaired by an elected rector, and the daily management of the university. Influence from students and employees continued to be ensured as they held the majority of the seats on the university board still chaired by an elected rector. The most significant change proposed by the committee, however, was the appointment of external representatives to the boards at all organizational levels. This was based on the argument that these appointments would ensure that universities received sufficient input from external actors such as the business community, labour organizations, and civil society (NOU 1993).

In 2000, a new government-initiated committee proposed that the university board should be composed of a majority of external representatives to ensure that the board had sufficient experience and expertise (NOU 2000). The reasoning for including external board members thus changed from focusing on the role of the university in relation to the wider society to it becoming a matter of professionalization and management expertise. It was also argued that the system of electing rectors should be abandoned in favour of direct appointments by the board from a list of applicants. These recommendations were by and large introduced through legal reform, which still allowed for elected rectors, but left this to the discretion of university boards (Lovdata 2005). The University of Oslo and University of Bergen have maintained the practice of electing their rectors, while NTNU decided to appoint rectors. Under the new model the role of the rector changed from chairing the board to being the board secretary. The rector also took over the daily management responsibilities that were previously held by the administrative director. An external representative, appointed by the Ministry of Education, was installed as board chair. Similarly the seven faculty deans were now appointed by the NTNU board. Department and faculty boards were also replaced by advisory bodies, thus losing their decision-making power (Hope et al. 2008:7). The latest move to centralize governance structures took place in 2013 with the decision to abandon elected departmental heads in favour of appointments made by the faculty. 

To sum up, the governance discourse in the Norwegian higher education sector since the 1990s has slowly shifted from emphasizing societal priorities and participatory governance towards notions of professionalization and the benefits of centralized top-down management structures. Strategic discussions, formal decision-making, and economic and administrative control now lie in the hands of a centralized management and decisions are made through top-down processes, leaving employees and students with little formal power to influence decisions, or set agendas. We argue that these incremental, but in sum significant, changes facilitate the increasing bureaucratization of university life and pave the way for the financialization of teaching and research experienced today.

The higher education sector in Norway is still predominantly funded and run by the state with free education for all students, reflecting the prevalent social democratic ethos in Norwegian society. Despite an underlying neoliberal reform agenda, consecutive governments have therefore tuned their political rhetoric to this context and proposals for gradual change have been based on more subtle reform narratives. However, the current government, which came to power in October 2013, has initiated a series of large public sector restructuring processes, which have targeted amongst others the higher education sector. The centrally-initiated reforms are legitimized by vague government narratives related to ‘robustness’ and financial competitiveness, where quality is seen to correspond with size and agglomeration of resources. Responding to this policy, NTNU very recently decided to merge with three university colleges from different parts of Norway, a move that will make NTNU the largest. university in the country.

Part of the university sector restructuring is an increased emphasis on quantitative measures for quality in education and research. Standards in research, for instance, are assessed by counting ‘publication points’ and by the amount of external research funding – particularly from the European Union – that departments and individuals are able to secure. For teaching, credits obtained by students and the number of completed PhD theses have become the key measurements of performance, representing a step towards the commodification of knowledge. Together with the increased centralization of decision-making, this is a worrying development, as it severely disables the capacity for independent critical teaching and research.

Cosmetic participation and manufacturing consent

While this brief historical overview of governance and participation structures for the Norwegian universities illustrates how significant changes are taking place incrementally, it is also relevant to discuss this from the vantage point of students and employees, who have remained relatively silent in these processes.

We highlight three factors we believe are of relevance and illustrate them through the case of a recently initiated department merger at our faculty. The first is the difficulty of identifying political and ideological content in what is presented by the management as technical adjustments to improve performance. The second relates to how management makes use of employee and student participation as a tool to legitimize decisions that have already been made. The third point concerns the increasing depoliticization of student and employee representative bodies and the growing disconnection of their members from those they are supposed to represent. The combined result has been that many people feel disempowered and are increasingly reluctant to participate actively in processes and discussions influencing the direction of the university.[i]

In December 2013, the Faculty of Social Sciences and Technology Management, to which our Department belongs, initiated a process with the aim to merge several discipline-based departments into one large department of social sciences. It was argued that with increased size the department would become more ‘robust’ and be better able to contribute towards the university and government goals for higher education in Norway. The proposal was not based on any analysis or evaluation of the current situation. Instead, the problematic government narratives around ‘robustness’, meaning increased size and adherence to artificially-created financial constraints, was simply presented as ‘common sense’. When the faculty management finally invited employees to participate in the process, the focus had already shifted to how a merger should be carried out. Whether such changes would be beneficial, as well as discussions of alternative organizational approaches, were kept off the agenda (Jones 2015).

After an initial orientation meeting led by the faculty, a round of ‘consultations’ was carried out at the departmental level. The consultations were set to take place within a very short time frame, which served to limit the scope of the discussions. At the same time, carrying out individual consultations in each department served to isolate employees from discussions being carried out at other departments. Informally, employees were also led to believe that the proposed changes were inevitable and that opposition to the planned restructuring would likely result in their department’s marginalization from the process, thus reducing their ability to shape the future of the faculty. These factors effectively limited debate and discussion on the fundamental basis and arguments for restructuring and led to a defeatist attitude amongst many employees. The problematic nature of the process came to a head some months later when the dean submitted the final proposal, which paid no attention to the views and input given by the employees during the consultations. 

Expose to propose: making visible the elephant in the room

Our mobilization against the proposed merger of departments started as an email exchange between the authors of this paper, where we expressed our concerns and frustration with the process both at the institution and department level. From there we moved to formulate a response to the faculty leadership, aiming to concretize some of the problems as we saw them. The response was mainly oriented around two issues. One was the lack of any convincing justification for the proposed changes, and the other was the inadequate scope of the consultations, where employees were asked to comment narrowly on a process of restructuring that had already been set in motion. In addition, the response was the first document made available on the merger in English, which allowed the significant portion of students and employees, who did not have sufficient command of Norwegian, to engage in the process.[ii] Our contribution sparked discussion at our department leading to calls for the process to be frozen. We further expressed our worry that a merging of three departments into one general department of social sciences would weaken the individual social science disciplines at a university that has historically, and increasingly, prioritized technical sciences at the cost of the humanities and social sciences. We summarized some of these points in a Letter to the Editor of the university newspaper (Jakobsen et al. 2015). In a second letter, we wrote:

“The proposed restructuring is indicative of a politics that seeks to limit the role of universities in society to the channeling of human capital investments into the economy, where “robustness” has come to mean size and commodification of knowledge, and where social sciences are considered unproductive, and out of place in a technical university” (Marsland et al. 2015).

Our response to the faculty leadership became the basis for a petition, which was passed to other departments at NTNU where employees had engaged in similar discussions. We also worked to mobilize representatives and discuss concrete responses in preparation for the upcoming meetings of the Department and Faculty Boards. After a response from the Dean (which confirmed the top-down governance structure of NTNU), we were informed that the process of merging had been put on hold (Reitan 2015). However, it was made clear that the discussion would be taken up again when the new faculty structure resulting from the fusion of our university with three university colleges was clarified.

The role of student representatives

Although a degree of political awareness amongst employees has been awoken, we have seen in the history of university democracy in Norway that this can easily evaporate. Further, while protests in Amsterdam were initiated and led by students, Norwegian students have engaged little in discussions about the role and future of the universities. In fact, student representatives have to a large extent voted with management in the NTNU board, most recently against the votes of the employee representatives over the fusing of NTNU and the three university colleges. While the student representatives later admitted that the process had been chaotic and pushed through on a tight timeline, they stood together with the university management in arguing that the decision had now been taken and that people should use their energies towards making sure that the merger was implemented in a satisfactory way (Hereide 2015). Very little discussion emerged regarding issues of the legitimacy of the student representatives, who were elected by a minute fraction of students, or how the representatives ignored the majority view expressed by students in their own round of consultations. In January 2015, for example, the student representatives in the NTNU board held an open meeting for the students, where they had a vote on the various alternatives. Of the sixty who turned up, only four voted for the large fusion (Esshali 2015). 

After the decision to fuse was made, the student representatives on the NTNU board were accused of being ‘ladder climbers’ sucking up to the leadership (Tjora 2015). The response from the student representatives was that “We are admittedly elected by the students, but it is not a direct democracy and every board member must take the decisions he or she thinks is right.” Further, that “as board representatives we should vote for what’s best for NTNU, not only the students” (Bakken 2015, own translation). Although honest, this emphasizes the need to question what being a representative actually entails and the legitimacy of elections where students vote for the student representatives on the NTNU board. As written by another student: “Politics become personal when two chosen candidates are more concerned with representing themselves and their own opinions – rather than representing the remaining students and providing support for the employees’ plea that professionalism rather than marketization should be the compass for the future NTNU” (Djupedal 2015, own translation)”. Through the debate that followed it became clear that the students have been struggling with many of the same challenges as university employees in responding to what is happening.

Imagining the ‘New University’

Concretizing some of our worries concerning the process helped if not to lift, then at least to shine some light into the fog. We received positive feedback from a number of employees both at our own and other departments and faculties, and critical pieces have been written in the newspapers by a variety of authors. Making visible how our process of departmental mergers formed part of a wider creeping neoliberalism supported our protest against what we saw as an unjustified and undemocratic process. More importantly, this momentum showed the potential development of a platform on which broader discussions could be fostered on how increasing centralization, bureaucratization, and commodification of knowledge are threatening the critical role of our universities in society.

We therefore propose that an important step towards politicizing the idea of a New University Norway is to create platforms where people are invited to reimagine the university, reflect upon its mandate and role in society, and engage in discussions on new governance structures. We need to move towards creating concrete alternatives based on ideological and normative ideals. Despite contextual differences, we can in this process learn from the experiences of the protests in Amsterdam and other places, both in terms of engaging students, organizing protests, and in building a critical knowledge base.

Expose to politicize: a way forward in the Norwegian context

The challenge in the Norwegian context is to know how and when to mobilize, since agendas are subtle and the commodification of knowledge, education and research is very gradual. However, the current government’s more belligerent approach of pushing multiple changes within a limited time-frame has made it easier to expose what has, in reality, been an ongoing process since the 1990s.

So how can we become more involved in setting agendas rather than simply being invited to respond to decisions? Students and employees in Amsterdam can be seen to have successfully mobilized on account of critical thinking.  While this is inspiring, it is difficult to imagine the level of protest we have seen in Amsterdam happening in the Norwegian context, as the changes in Norway are gradual and cloaked in ´common sense´ narratives. In addition, the disconnection between decision-makers and employees and students is not so dramatic as to make it glaringly apparent. While the university management at NTNU can be accused of being out of touch with its employees, we do not have university boards made up by the type of social elite described in the Dutch context, where differences in class and economic status are more pronounced. Furthermore, the student grassroots have not yet engaged fully with debates around commodification of knowledge. Therefore, to deconstruct narratives and expose the political content in incremental changes continues to be a crucial element of any mobilizing strategy. This is something we can use our abilities as researchers and critical academics to contribute towards. 

Hence we have set up a forum for debate on the webpage Here we invite students, employees, politicians, practitioners, and others to discuss critically and imagine what a university should and could be about. This initiative seeks to expand the frame of discussions away from the narrow discourse of New Public Management towards more normative and ideological debates about the role and future of universities in society. Our aim is for such debates to contribute towards building a more long-term critical awareness, which can help us to expose consistently how seemingly technical adjustments are in fact ideological clouds that change the role, values, and life of Norwegian universities. However, a remaining question is how to move from exposure to instigating direct transformative actions.  

Toward Genuine Democratization of the University

This special issue of Krisis deals with the future of the university and academic life more broadly. Is a new uni-versity possible and if so, what should it look like and how do we work towards it?

The idea and, in fact, the desire for a special issue on this topic was provoked by an event that was at the same time sudden, surprising, wildly effective, deeply af-fective, long-awaited, strangely evolving, quickly impro-vised, hopeful, frustrating, maddening, dangerous, vio-lent, multi-sited, unpredictable yet all-too-familiar – an event that, as it took place, quickly became associated with its most prominent locale, the Maagdenhuis in Amsterdam. This building, housing the executive board and central administration of the University of Amster-dam in the centre of the capital city, was where a galva-nising protest of students and faculty became most eminently visible in the early spring of 2015. After a string of occupations of university buildings throughout the city, most notably the Bungehuis, it was the eventual claiming of the Maagdenhuis that not only sky-rocketed the protests into the light of national media platforms but also entailed a direct, material confronta-tion with a centre of academic power. Being the site of well-known and at times nostalgically memorialised pro-tests of what is now referred to as the ‘sixties genera-tion’, the appropriation of this building by students and the paternalist response by the executive board of the university, covered live on TV and twitter, turned a long-standing and escalating confrontation between students and faculty on the one hand, concerned about the man-agerial containment of academic life, and administrators on the other, who claimed to be motivated by ensuring competiveness and excellence, into a full-fledged insur-gency able to garner expanding support among national and international audiences. The protest quickly suc-ceeded in clearing from the table plans for top-down re-form and forced the administrators to attend to the pro-tests instead of carrying on business as usual. Moreover, the Maagdenhuis protest was rapidly fuelling and being fuelled by remarkably similar protest across European cities, such as Vienna, Warsaw, London and Oslo.

Whereas the great student protests of recent European memory were fights between students and faculty, the former claiming a seat at the table and the latter pro-tecting the corporatist order, this moment of protest was quite different, even if resemblances to past ‘revo-lutions’ helped to sanctify it with the gloss of progress. Like all successful protest, the events at and around the Maagdenhuis had many sources. Much of the mobilisation came from the humanities, where reform after reform increasingly ate away at the idea that the humanities in any real sense of the term could remain a viable part of the university as the central planners were shaping it. Push also came from other directions, such as the more theoretical and detached sections of the natural sci-ences. Students in many disciplines critiqued the com-modification of their time at university into individualised production of human capital, as explicitly aimed for by both university administrations and a string of ministers of education. The fact that the university is both in terms of demographics and in terms of curricula still overwhelmingly white, male and heteronormative was another source of the protests. Yet, what eventually melded together this web of critiques and movements was a forceful antagonism with what was the very basis upon which public institutions were said to function in accepted political discourse: added value.

As in so many liberal democracies, a certain understand-ing of ‘added value’ became received wisdom in Dutch politics over the past forty years: public institutions could only and would only be financed in so far as they produced ‘goods’ – health, security, housing, applicable knowledge, human capital, cultural homogeneity, behav-ioural conformity, etc. – that would enable the ‘growth’ of the financial means of society and the state. It was this ideologically engrained bottom line that eventually gave way when it was shown that extra-parliamentary actions – taking over a public building and performing one’s own idea of academic life within it – could not only draw support from faculty and civil society and kick-start a public debate but actually halt the supposedly in-evitable reforms that academic managers were imple-menting. In contradiction to Thatcher’s famous line: there were alternatives after all!

The energy of surprise and enthusiasm released by the protests should not be underestimated. The fact that direct and confrontational action ‘worked’, that it was even taken seriously and responded to, is somewhat of an anomaly for Dutch political circumstances and seemed to open up new horizons. Dutch political culture prescribes that all changes in policy follow from re-strained and institutionalised negotiations between care-fully regulated representative bodies. ‘Wild’ and ‘nega-tive’ protests are to be redirected to such ritualistic negotiations or simply side-lined as ‘ideological’ and ‘un-productive’. While these familiar attempts at delegitima-tion were immediately mobilised against the protests leading up to and following the appropriation of the Maagdenhuis, they failed to derail the movement, not least because the protesters were outperforming the university’s PR machinery on social median and soon also in the traditional media. In fact, such attempts seemed to only affirm the case of the protesters: academic man-agers are unable to respond to discontent and criticism without managerial domineering. One explanation could be that management appeared to be protecting their own privileges and trying to cover up financial misdeeds. So while university students and faculty could quite easily be dubbed ‘elitist’ in Machiavellian attempts to turn wider publics against those who seemed to exempt themselves from ongoing austerity politics – a strategy that was very effective a few years earlier when budgets for arts and culture we ruthlessly cut – that same dis-course of anti-elitism applied even more so to the ‘man-agerial class’ whose hoarding of public funds were being contested by the protesters.

It is impossible to describe in any detail here how the protests in Amsterdam developed and resonated with similar movements elsewhere. Nor is it clear at this point what those protest will mean for the future governance of and life at the University of Amsterdam – beyond the impressive immediate achievements of the stepping down of the university’s president and the promise of the board to support two independent committees set up by the academic community, with the tasks of inves-tigating the financial situation of the university and of developing proposals for its decentralization and demo-cratization. The aim of our special issue lies in a different direction. We strove to capture some of the imaginative energy that was released by the events this spring. We hope to document, exchange and inject some of the em-erging arguments and ideas that are going around about the future of the university. Even if the direct outcomes of the protests will not satisfy on all accounts, the cur-rent systems of control over universities have suffered severe damage and will be undergoing far-reaching re-construction in the coming period. The public debate about this future has just begun. It is in this light that Krisis wants to provide a platform for something that should not be forgotten between all of the meetings, policy papers, negotiations, late night emails and plan-ning: thinking out loud.

The university is in dire need of ideas, and they don’t come cheap. Krisis wants to do its part in creating and spreading new ideas. In preparing this special issue, we were interested both in analyses of protests and the changing governance of universities, in the Netherlands and elsewhere, and in projective ideas about the poten-tial future(s) of a new university. The special issue brings together a range of essays and interventions that radi-ate the concern, anger and passion surrounding these issues while also developing new concepts and imagina-ries of what academic life is and could be.

Writing in response to moments of rupture and protest is complicated. Such writing does, at least, three things all at once. First, it commemorates by fixing certain ver-sions of what happened to paper, adding to a collective memory of ‘how we got here’. Second, it thereby inevi-tably prolongs the very struggle at hand. Analyses, in-terpretations, accusations and justifications bend the unfolding of the fight further into the future. Protest demands a collapse of the difference between participat-ing in and writing about an event. Writing thus raises the question: ‘where do we stand?’ Thirdly, this means that writing about protest is endemically judgemental. The genre invites all kinds of claims about what should have happened, what should have been done, what should be done now. Commemorating, taking a stand and making judgements are all part of the writings in this special is-sue. In doing these things in different ways and with varying emphases, the contributions provide a wide array of meanings to ‘the university’ and its future. In this sense, the special issue responds directly to and re-affirms the central claim of the Maagdenhuis protest: the university ought not be and cannot be an organisation built on the monochrome logic of ‘added value’.

Struggles, diagnoses and futures

Krisis chose to organise the special issue along three points of focus: struggles, diagnoses and futures. Under the heading of struggles, the reader will find contribu-tions that not only describe specific fights taking place but also be able to sense the passion and engagement. We see how the work that people – in this case academ-ics – do, is both deeply personal and overtly political. All of the contributions resist the managerial splitting of this entanglement. Diagnoses deal with the problem at hand. What is actually the problem and how can we grasp it in such a way that we do not argue ourselves into passivity? While some contributions focus more on the way in which universities tend to be organised, oth-ers foreground changing conceptions of the university. Finally, there are contributions which explicitly propose future images of the university, both in terms of struc-ture and organisation as well as alternative concepts and callings.

Because this special issue is conceived to respond di-rectly to protest, we start the issue with contributions about struggles. Nguyen Vu Thuc Linh, John-Erik Hans-son and Ola Innset provide a sound place to start by ana-lysing the changing circumstances of working in universi-ties under neoliberal reform. They locate struggles emerging in cities such as Amsterdam, London, Toronto and Warsaw in histories of resistance and solidarity in the postwar period. Next, Jonas Staal takes us right into the lively practice of the Maagdenhuis protest in his es-say on the art of the new university as it was created during the protests. Instead of merely taking artistic ex-pressions, practices and objects as auxiliary to the politi-cal moment, Staal seeks to understand the protest itself as a Gesamtkunstwerk in which images, performances, posters and banners are composed. Sina Talachian and Vasileios Koutsogiannis pick apart the Maagdenhuis pro-test by analysing the various student movements that formed its core, showing how different notions of de-mocratisation played out and entertained tense relations between them. On this basis, Talachian and Koutsogian-nis develop an argument for sustained radical claims making, which they associate with the decolonising ef-forts of one of the groups involved, the University of Colour. Silje A. Andresen, Levon Epremian, Thomas S. Jakobsen, Michael Jones, and Hilde Refstie take the fight to Norway in their analysis of changing academic gov-ernance and ineffectual forms of participation. Critically discussing existing modes of representation, they show how the fight for democracy in universities can be akin to fighting a fog: the opponent continuously reforms it-self in response to attempts to get a hold on it. The sec-tion is rounded off with a deeply affective essay by Josef Früchtl and Natalie Scholz, both participants in the protests in Amsterdam. Exploring the registers of politi-cal emotions at the heart of the protest and implicating personal experiences and attachment into the analysis, the essay calls for sustained engagement with the aes-thetics of anger, rebellion and protest.

The section on diagnoses is opened by Rutger Claassen and Marcus Düwell, who lay out a triple democratic defi-cit in university governance, which will have to be dealt with. The relations between academic communities, society and university administration will have to be re-invented at all three sides, they argue, in order to make genuine progress in efforts to democratise universities. P. W. Zuidhof allows us to more fully understand ques-tions of neoliberal reform in universities by providing a careful dissection of its tendencies and mechanisms, while also highlighting some specificities of the Dutch context. Out of an admission of complicity, Zuidhof seeks to look beyond to a post-neoliberal future. Ap-proaching the problem from a different angle, Kati Röttger offers her perspective on how and why we should begin to recognise anew the usefulness of what is so often rejected as useless, academic knowledge. In an essay adapted from a lecture held at the Maagdenhuis as part of the academic life of the appropriated building, Röttger argues that it is the unconditional creation and exchange of knowledge that has been progressively squandered in contemporary universities. Paul Benne-worth sees in the protest an opportunity to redress longstanding tensions in the relations within universities and those between universities and their environments. Applying the notion of soft-coupling, which is opposed to top-down modes of governance based on distrust, he advocates a rethinking of universities on three levels: po-litical structures, within universities themselves and be-tween academic generations. As somewhat of a bridge to the section on futures, Mieke Bal enacts the power of imagination in an essay, focusing in particular on the role of the humanities in contemporary universities. Tying together multiple philosophical and literary sources, from Flaubert to Benveniste and Spinoza to Zola, she argues for the work of ‘versioning’ in the humanities, implying the constant production of multiple visions of the world. Even if all contributions to this special issue foreshadow new forms of academic life out of the rubbles of the past, the section on futures features contributions that aim to imagine and describe the future in more explicit ways. The section is provocatively opened by Willem Schinkel who argues both for the need to protest against the current state of academic affairs, yet also claims that pleas for a return to past privileges, idealized autonomy or fixation on democratic governance are but regressive moves in a fight that must articulate its own affirmative idea of the university’s place in the world. Schinkel lists what he dubs ‘the public tasks of the uni-versity.’ Such affirmative ideas for a new university are presented in three subsequent interventions. The first, by Kirsten Kalkman, opposes two attitudes toward aca-demic study – Alcibiades’ erômenos and Socrates’ er-astès – in favor of the latter and draws connections be-tween this source of inspiration and the launch of De Bildung Academie, referring to Humboldtian ideals of academic cultivation, which she and other students are involved in. A second proposal comes from Amos and Machiel Keestra, who work out a ‘circulation model’ of university education. Identifying key shortcomings of the current education model, their intervention describes multiple ways to keep things moving: ‘circulation be-tween research and education, between insights of teachers and of students, between disciplines, between disciplinary and experiential knowledge, between doing research and (meta-)reflection upon research, and so on.’ While much of the protest and discussion focuses on the embattled position of the humanities, Wessel Rei-jers provides some much need insight into how ideas for a new university might be used to reshape education and curricula at technical universities training future engi-neers. His proposal revolves around a new image: ‘the virtuous engineer’. On a more conceptual terrain, Rogier van Reekum argues that although ties between academic work and the outside world must be multiplied, current visions of academic worth do not allow us to imagine those connections in adequate ways. Van Reekum pro-poses a vision of experimental activism as an alternative to current fixations on the knowledge economy and the production of factual evidence. Finally, Mike Neary and Joss Winn describe their ongoing efforts to build and proliferate cooperative practices and organisations of academic work in higher education. Not merely con-cerned with labour conditions or educational forms, co-operation extends all the way into research methodolo-gies. Thus, Neary and Winn offer a concrete example of the new university in the making.

New Art for the New University

In front of the University of Amsterdam Maagdenhuis building there is a red cube. The cube appears to be a foundation, a support structure, for an abstract metal geometric construction that emerges from it. Its constructivist nature may indicate a desire for change and replication – as if the structure is not quite finished, temporarily frozen in its growth process. If this is truly a ‘monument’ for the New University, as Alexander Nieuwenhuis and Rudolf Valkhoff’s piece is called, then it is one that seems to doubt its own nature because, rather than commemorating structures from the past, it yearns to imagine the future. It is as if the thousands of students and supporters of the New University who were standing around the red cube they had adopted as their symbol of protest were demanding not only a new university but were also planting the seed  for a new art.

Monument for the New University (2015), Alexander Nieuwenhuis and Rudolf Valkhoff
Monument for the New University (2015), Alexander Nieuwenhuis and Rudolf Valkhoff


1. The Practice of Occupation

On Friday, 13 February 2015, a group of students from the University of Amsterdam occupied a university building, the so-called Bungehuis, and subsequently the famous Maagdenhuis, which has been occupied more than ten times since 1969, when it was famously declared ‘Karl Marx University’. The student occupation of 2015 declared itself the New University and demanded the democratisation of the university, direct elections of the internal university board, political and financial transparency, an end to the budget cuts in philosophy and language departments, ending the university’s real estate speculation practices, and improving adjunct teaching contracts. In essence, it was a protest against university privatisation and commercialisation.

What is crucial about this student occupation is that it is not just a protest, but that the New University is actually proposing an alternative to current practices. The students are currently organising their own studies in collaboration with sympathetic teachers and the student union, which have joined the protest. There are full days of lectures, debates, workshops, film screenings, and reading groups  – free of charge to anyone. The New University’s programs and policies are decided upon in daily student assemblies, thus making the old University of Amsterdam into a site of student self-governance. In other words: the students and teachers are performing the university they always desired. They shape a structure of direct democracy and self-governance that creates a space, an imaginary, that allows them to articulate and enact these desires. They are not giving in to the world as it is, but dare to imagine and desire for it to be different, and thus act it differently.

The students never asked for ‘permission’ from the university board to occupy the Bungehuis. They never discussed it with any political parties, they simply occupied a building. In other words, they engaged in what the board considers an act of violence; an occupation that brought the former board chairman, Louise Gunnink to oppose the occupation of what she referred to as ‘her’ university. This perception of a university space as something that is privately owned is the crux of the issue. In fact, occupation was an attempt to reclaim education as a common good from the clutches of the bureaucrats and managers. One could even claim that their occupation was an act of self-defence, a reaction to the government’s decision to slash the basic educational stipend (basisbeurs), which would return education to one based on class and those who can afford it.

The establishment of the New University through occupation was an act of self-defence that sought to maintain the principle of education as a common good. The New University framed itself as a non-violent movement, which offered obvious strategic advantages, but at its core was the act of occupying as self-defence. Austerity was seen as an act of violence against general society, and as members of that society we claim the right to oppose the authorities through occupation. The unnecessarily violent expulsion of the students on April 11 proves that our opponents have no hesitancy in affirming their will through power, and we, as those who have decided to resist, will have to find creative means to articulate and practice new, opposing forms of power.

In any case, a single expulsion cannot squash the movement. Over the past few months, the New University student occupation has unleashed a chain of events, with New Universities being established all over the Netherlands – in Leiden, Utrecht, Rotterdam, Maastricht, Nijmegen, and Groningen. But the student occupation movement has also engaged in discussion with other student protests worldwide, from South Africa to Istanbul to London.

The protest symbol, the red cube, refers to the student protests that have taken place outside of the Netherlands, namely the 2012 Red Square student protests in Quebec, which took the lead with their now-famous saying ‘Être quarement dans le rouge’ (‘Being squarely in the red’), which refers both to student debt and to the red banner of internationalism. The New University thus recognises that our political and educational interests are not limited to a specific school, city or country, but also addresses the well-being of others who are facing a common enemy. A declaration of cross-border solidarity by protesting against the privatisation of our common, public resources – politics, economics, ecology, education, healthcare, and culture – by corporate capitalist forces is the essence of internationalism. In recognising this common enemy, we are able to make the common internationalist struggle tangible and visible.

Art History is Present (2015), Art History Department, New University Photo: Matthijs de Bruijne
Art History is Present (2015), Art History Department, New University
Photo: Matthijs de Bruijne


2. The Total Work of Art – Revisited

This issue of visibility brings me to the question of art. During the pro-New University demonstrations in Amsterdam on 13 March, we saw art history students gathered around a banner that read: ‘Art History is Present’. The question that we as artists now need to address, as curator Vivian Ziherl observed during the protest, is whether contemporary art is present here as well.

During this period, I worked with fellow New University artists, like designer-filmmaker Rob Schröder, who had a prominent role in designing posters and conferences in the 1980s student movement and artist Matthijs de Bruijne, who over the past few years developed work in collaboration with the Dutch cleaners’ union campaign called ‘Schoon Genoeg’! (‘We’ve Had Enough!,’ where schoon is a pun that also means ‘clean’). Together with students from the Sandberg Institute, we explored how artists and designers can reshape their work when they position themselves in the heart of a political struggle. This was an attempt to address the question regarding the New University – what kind of university do we actually want? – by rephrasing it for the art world: in what kind of world do we want to be artists? Do we dedicate our work to make ‘capitalism more beautiful,’ as artist Hito Steyerl has noted, or do we attempt to define our practice in a different political context? What does it mean to be an artist inside the New University compared to being an artist trying to get a painting or sculpture sold at some generic art fair? What is the social project being articulated by the New University, and what should the place of art be in this project?

What is crucial when thinking of our work as artists in the context of social movements such as the New University is that we should not seek to make singular, so-called ‘autonomous’ artworks. A social movement is not a ‘gallery’ in which to exhibit one’s work. Rather, the assembly of participants in this social movement is itself the artwork. What the New University is essentially creating by offering free education and encouraging open assembly is a set of new social relations, a compositional model that assembles precarious forces such as students, teachers, workers, refugees, and artists into a new, political entity. This touches upon the concept of the ‘Gesammtkunstwerk’ (the total work of art) as Joseph Beuys, artist and co-founder of the Green Party (Die Grünen), described it. Despite the fact that his methodology has become known as ‘Beuysian,’ his approach was an attempt to depart from the Wagnerian conception of the total work of art as a model orchestrated by a singular author. His famous dictum – ‘Jeder Mensch Ein Künstler’ (Every Human Being an Artist) was not, however, a call for everyone to become individual visual artists. Rather, Beuys was articulating a new social ecology that applied to the whole of humanity, in which the main value of human life lies not in the domain of labour, but in the collective capital of creativity. The capacity to create, to make worlds, is not limited to the position of the artist alone; it applies to the whole of society.

Beuys saw himself as an instrument for the extension of the domain of creative capital, to connect his authorship to a multiplicity of authors that together create a new ecology of life: the total work of art was no longer restricted to the theatre stage, but could actually be extended to the whole ecology of society. In that context, the quality of the artwork lies in its transformative capacity: its capacity to engage the collective capital of creativity in each and all of us. In Beuys’s case, it was located in a revolutionary, ecological socialist project. To reconstruct social relationships around common capital rather than the individual privilege obtained from engaging in the rat race that corporate capitalism has laid out for us, was the ideological aim that structured Beuys’s artistic convictions.

The very idea of the New University – the ‘university within the university,’ the ‘parallel university’ – in that light is an intervention in and of itself. It’s a conceptual framework that allows us to rethink the social relationships of common knowledge and the collective right to education. As such, from a Beuysian perspective, it can be considered a collective work of art that performs and thus creates the imaginary of a new university and, through this collective performance, restructures social relations. While we can relate this movement to the Beuysian idea of the total work of art, it also departs from the last remaining notions of authorship in his work, because the New University movement has done everything within its capacity to avoid appointing leaders – singular authors – who could undermine its radical pluriformity. While this position also threatens the possibility of holding the movement accountable for its aims – as everyone is always responsible for everything, which in times of crisis easily turns into no one being responsible at all – the foundation of a broadly carried movement needs an equally broad and differentiated sense of identification.

3. The Art of the New University

So let’s say that an artist makes a banner, which in art schools is considered as the ultimate horror of ‘protest art,’ a derogatory term that disqualifies art that attempts to engage in political transformation as ‘activism’ and ‘propaganda.’ In this case, I propose to analyse the banner ‘NIEUWE UNIVERSITEIT – WELCOMES YOU –’ (2015), a 17-meter canvas that hung from the roof of the Maagdenhuis. The idea was initiated by artist-student Marleen van der Zanden, but, of course, the banner is not the ‘artwork’. It cannot be evaluated as merely a singular object or canvas. Its quality lies in its capacity to contribute to the articulation of the common political imaginary that the movement as a whole is trying to bring into being. Nevertheless, Van der Zanden’s endeavour can be analysed in very specific aesthetic terms.

Van der Zanden analysed the front of the building before her intervention and decided that the New University’s aesthetics were first and foremost that of a student protest, not an actual new university. The University of Amsterdam’s logos were still intact and the student banners were simply too small to make an impression on passersby and visitors that a totally new institution had been created. In simple visual terms, the massive building overwhelmed the other student occupation signs and banners.

NIEUWE UNIVERSITEIT: Welcomes You (2015), Marleen van der Zanden et al.
NIEUWE UNIVERSITEIT: Welcomes You (2015), Marleen van der Zanden et al.

The very visual nature of the occupation itself already forebodes that the occupiers will ultimately be evicted while the building itself will remain. Thus, this monumental University of Amsterdam site effectively works as an architecture of conservatism. Van der Zanden thus had to first of all engage with the sheer size of the building, her intervention had to be a spatial one that could destabilise its conservative, monumental nature. This resulted in the choice of a very large canvas that could span the entire façade and thus effectively lay a claim on the total institution and transform it into the New University. The building is, in a sense, wrapped around the banner, rather than the other way around. Prior to the banner, the prospects of the New University in visual terms were speculative at best, but suddenly the banner had made it a reality: the New University came into existence because it is borne and performed by students and teachers alike. The banner inscribes this claim into the architecture itself.

The banner thus enforces the imaginary of the New University; it makes a future scenario – the indefinite end of the University of Amsterdam, the beginning of the New University – real in the present. By making this imaginary visual and materially tangible, it becomes something we can relate to: a point of concrete orientation in the tedious struggle of building an institution anew. Moreover, Van der Zanden also decided not to create an overtly corporate identity. Whereas the font of the banner is very readable and meticulously painted, she consciously did not print it, but kept the human hand – the hand of the painter – that created the canvas visible.  Thus, she perfectly balanced the need for a legitimate, visual claim on the old university, indefinitely declaring it as the legitimate New University in the present, but remained reminiscent of the fact that the New University is not a corporation that imprints its demands and structures upon its subjects as the current board of the University of Amsterdam does. Rather, it considers itself as a collective creation – one in which human scale, human needs, human sociabilities, are the foundation and not its collateral damage. Van der Zanden seems to be re-evaluating the practice of futurist art because, after all, the New University has yet to be fully born. Meanwhile the imagery she proposes has already declared that it is there in the present. The New Art of the New University is a futurism visualised and acted upon in the present. The New University and its art propose a ‘utopian performance’, as theoretician Timotheus Vermeulen termed it, which refers back to the famous ’68 dictum: ‘Be realistic, demand the impossible’. In the case of the New University, this could be rewritten to say: ‘Be realistic, practice the impossible.’

The artist contributes his or her visual literacy to the social movement, by which we mean the capacity of artists to ‘read’ form. You could say that the space that defines art as distinct from politics is that of morphology, a genealogy of forms. Artists articulate specific sensibilities through form, and they understand that there is a relation between the form in which we organise, the form in which we assemble, the form in which we communicate, and the possibility of political transformation that results from it. We can only act upon this future in the present if we learn to imagine a different future. Art is what connects the space of the impossible to the present; it occupies the space of our political desires and imaginaries, and creates the means for them to manifest themselves in a collective and shared presence. Morphology thus also connects the concepts of past, present and future, allowing different ‘spheres’ of time to become interconnected. In this process, solidarities are created through the overlapping of time – how the students from 2015 engage in a dialogue with the students from 1969. The years of ideological erosion are ultimately discarded, and 1969 re-emerges in the present day. The nightmare of global capitalism that separates the two is discarded allowing a new history to be articulated. In other words, after 1969 comes 2015.

Let’s examine the artwork ‘Driving a Wedge Through the Corporatized Art School’ by Robin Clark, which was produced for the student protests at the Chelsea School of Art in London. The red triangle is seen violating the bureaucratised and privatised art school and refers directly to Soviet constructivist El Lissitzky’s poster ‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’ (1920), in which the red wedge symbolises the revolutionary Bolsheviks, who are penetrating and defeating their White movement opponents during the Russian Civil War. Clark has attempted to visually link two different historical struggles. The White Movement, loyal to the Tsar, has become the armies of managers loyal to corporate capital.

The red wedge links the two time frames to one another: an abstract shape that represents the revolutionary consciousness of an alliance of peoples, students, teachers, workers, artists, to resist and overcome oppressive structures of power.

The red wedge of the 1920s is the red square of 2015. And in both 1920 and 2015 it was an artist who created it. Let’s keep that powerful truth in mind when we create our New Art for the New University.


Driving a Wedge through the Corporatized Art School (2015), Robin Clark
Driving a Wedge through the Corporatized Art School (2015), Robin Clark