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Opinion: Holding meetings behind closed doors kills university democracy

Opinion: Holding meetings behind closed doors kills university democracy

Photographer:Fotograaf: archive

MAASTRICHT. “We will now close the public part of the meeting.” Those who attend a faculty council or University Council meeting can be sure to hear the chairperson utter this mantra. What happens in those confidential meetings? We  employees and students, and above all voters - are not allowed to know. It is a secret. What is worse, councils often meet beforehand, without the board; even behind locked doors. What does that mean for the public debate in the councils? Is it even a little exciting? Well no. At the same time, everyone complains about the poor turnout at university elections. Could there be a connection?   


Things are brewing up again in the world of university employee participation. It has been doing so for a while, but now even politicians are becoming involved. D66 and SP feel that councils should have a greater say in budgets, a majority of the MPs want a student to act as an ‘assessor’ for every faculty or institute board. Even minister Bussemaker wants to tighten the rules here and there, but she mainly feels that the councils should take a hard line more often.

All well and good, but then there has to be someone who can hear and see that. Audience, reporters, other individuals than the council members and /or the managers themselves.

Obvious? Not on your nelly. Sure, in normal democratic relations, like in Parliament, or in the municipal council, discussing matters in public is standard. Meetings held behind closed doors are absolutely forbidden, except in extraordinary situations. Simply because without the public eye, there is no democracy; without the public eye, there is no supervision by the voters on the people they have elected.

Try and find that in what we hope is still something we can call a university democracy. Try and find that in our Maastricht university, which - believe it or not - refers to itself in its strategic programme as a ‘bastion of openness’. Here, the highest representative advisory body, the University Council, works with an agenda that has a standard ‘confidential’ section. For every meeting, whether it is a council committee meeting or the council as a whole. This is considered normal, both by the managers - especially them - and by the council members themselves.

Or take the largest faculty, FHML. In recent months there has been some improvement but before that, the faculty council’s agenda only showed a short list of public items (such as the opening, the minutes and the final question round), and a very long list of confidential items. To be fair, there are always a lot of professorial appointments, and those are by definition confidential, but even taking that into account, the ratio was remarkably uneven. They even went as far as putting the subject Creation of Maastricht UMC+: state of affairs on the agenda twice, once in the section that was open to the public and once in the confidential section. Guess which discussion took longer. Even the faculty budget (!) was often first discussed away from the view of prying eyes. The good thing at FHML is that at least they show the items on the agenda that are confidential. Other councils, including the University Council, have the bad habit of not even doing that, so the outsider only knows that there is something confidential, but not exactly what that is.

Where did it go wrong? Because it wasn’t always like this. A run through the long list of former University Council chairpersons speaks volumes. Huub Smeets was council chairman from 1985-’87, as an ‘extra-university member’. “In addition to the confidential personnel issues and appointments, there was occasionally a confidential University Council meeting, by way of exception,” he reports.

His successor, Peter Hilderink (’88-’94): “Of course there was the nomination committee, but in other committees confidentiality was highly exceptional. I cannot remember in my time there ever being a confidential meeting regarding student affairs, personnel policies, education or research. I think there may have been one or two on financial matters (during a suspension of the University Council itself), but even that was a rare exception.”

The next chairperson was Huub Spoormans (’94-’98): “There were hardly any confidential meetings held by the University Council or council committees. It was relevant in particular in discussions about the appointment of members from the Executive Board. Confidential meetings didn’t really fit in well with the management culture at that time.”

In his own words, Spoormans “put an end to it” after the then minister of education Jo Ritzen announced the ‘modernisation’ of university management (MUB) in 1997 and in doing so robbed the councils of much of their powers. With the arrival of the MUB, he says, publicity was forced into a defensive position: “The current management culture is less about being open and making collective decision-making and more about managerial control. This automatically creates the need for closed meetings.”

Nevertheless, Spoormans’ successors were fervent advocates of openness. Ton de Goeij (’98-‘2002), Philip Vergauwen (2003-’04), Jacques Beursgens (’04-’06), and Louis Berkvens (’06-’08), the last council chairperson before the present one (Herman Kingma) took over, all say that they limited confidentiality to a minimum. Beursgens: “My motto was: as few closed meetings as possible; after all as a University Council you represent your supporters and they benefit from openness, not from secrecy.”

Berkvens: “In my time, the confidential section was not a standard item on the agenda. It has to be an exception, look at the regulations. ‘The university council promotes openness, public exposure and mutual agreement within the university as much as possible,’ it says.”

So, no other conclusion can be reached than that it has crept in over the years. While even Herman Kingma claims to be an advocate of openness.

It is possible to have some understanding for the underlying mechanisms. Managers who believe more in ‘managerial control’ (Spoormans) feel it is in their interest to have private discussions, preferably away from the glaring light of publicity. They have the tendency to go public at the end of the discussion. Councils suffer because of this. So Kingma argued that this body should not be the last to receive the issues - already cast in stone - from the Executive Board. With success: the University Council is now involved in the process of policymaking at an earlier stage, when it still makes sense. But the price is high: just because matters have not crystallised out yet, because there are no definite points of view yet, managers feel it is necessary to have meetings behind closed doors. Fear of the competition? Of the supervisory board? Of image damage? Who will say, but that fear rules, is a fact.

It is true that the councils do their bit with enthusiasm too. Managers who threaten to only submit a note if it is discussed confidentially, well, one could say No to that. That might be a good thing to do for once. Of course then human vanity – we, the chosen few, members of the inner circle, know more than others – would have to be curbed a little.

Meeting as a council beforehand without the board, discussing the points of view in advance or maybe pre-digest, to subsequently be fully prepared when the board arrives; you can understand that. But have the consequences been considered? Not very thoroughly, it appears. Because the public meetings do not excel in lively debate. Not with the managers and not with the council either. How is it possible that the students and members of staff are always in such mutual agreement? Surely, there were different parties? We can no longer see that.

And those who see no debate, don’t believe in elections anymore where various candidates just shout about how they are the best.

Some light at the end of the tunnel: the University Council - unfortunately only years later - is now also getting irritated that the Executive Board wants to discuss so many subjects behind closed doors. It recently made a remark about it, asking whether this could be reduced. We shall see.






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