Opinion David Bernstein
MAASTRICHT. The problem with the New University is that ideologues of all stripes are the same. They are only interested in one voice: their own. That is what David Bernstein, professor of Forensic Psychotherapy, argues.
The New University roadshow came to Maastricht on Tuesday, inspired by its confrontation of students and staff with the university administration in Amsterdam. The movement seemed eager to take the fight to the next battlefield: our university.
Their demands contain a mixture of quite reasonable proposals and other ones that require more careful inspection. The points that they raise regarding the high teaching loads for some faculty members, and the consequent reduction in time devoted to students, are worthy of action. Indeed, the teaching norms have increased in some of our faculties, and I hear from some of my colleagues about the pressures that they experience as a result. More progress on that front is needed.
At the heart of their critique, however, is the idea that our university structure is illegitimate. It is part of a worldwide capitalist and undemocratic system that breeds needless competition and serves only the interests of the powerful. They demand that our university become more democratic, so that more stakeholders would have a voice, rather than the usual vested interests. On the surface, this also seems like a reasonable demand. After all, who doesn’t want more people to have a voice?
But is our university structure, in fact, illegitimate? Is there a crisis at our university, which can’t be solved except by radical intervention? Would the New University improve matters, if it were to take over our institution? And what exactly do they mean by “democracy”?
When our current university president was inaugurated four years ago, Maastricht University was indeed facing a crisis. However, it was not a crisis of its own making. It was a financial crisis, caused by the worldwide economic collapse. In response, the Executive Board took some difficult steps. They initiated a hiring freeze to deal with the budget shortfall, which temporarily increased faculty workloads and the number of temporary contracts. They reached out to the Province of Limburg and the Euregion, strengthening ties that have brought economic and other benefits. And they succeeded in attracting world-renowned academics and undertaking cutting edge initiatives, such as Brains Unlimited, improving the quality of Maastricht University.
The upshot is that Maastricht University has already turned the corner. Budgets are in balance, and the hiring freeze has been lifted. New positions are being created and filled. Disparities in education hours are being addressed and efforts are undertaken to reduce more temporary contacts by making permanent ones. How do the stakeholders feel about all of this?
In the meeting held by the University Council on Tuesday (17th of March), what struck me were the many different voices representing our community. Some people spoke of the strain of high workloads, of insufficient faculty time for students, and of the stress of competition. Others spoke with satisfaction about life at the University, of their passion for teaching and learning, and of their esteem for each other: for their teachers, students, and coworkers. In their comments emerged a nuanced picture of life at a modern research university where education and knowledge creation are valued, and where the stresses and strains of operating in a high pressure academic environment are evident. In other words, a vibrant and thriving, though sometimes stressed, university community.
And what kind of democracy is being offered to us by the New University? We got a taste of it on Tuesday evening. One of the moderators, a guest from the University of Amsterdam, gave us a short introduction to a system of hand-gestures used to facilitate democratic debate: waving one’s hands upwards when you hear something you like, moving one’s hands in circles when a speaker is taking too long to make her point, etc. So far, so good! However, a curious double-standard soon emerged. When members of the audience held forth at length about the evils of global capitalism, they were granted as much time as needed. When the university president spoke, it was a different story: after a minute or two, he was interrupted by the moderator, who using the hand-gesture for “Time is up,” directed attention to the next speaker. After this happened to the president for the second time, I realized that this was democracy in action, New University-style: only some voices were worthy of being heard. I also wondered why the New University is making demands rather than looking for dialogue and joint approaches with the Executive Board? What happened to the Polder Model? When one of our colleagues asked them, whom did they represent anyway, the answer was silence.
The problem that I have with the New University, in a nutshell, is that ideologues of all stripes are the same. They are only interested in one voice: their own.
David Bernstein, professor of Forensic Psychotherapy (FPN)