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Stolker committee: ‘No institutional abuse, but academic freedom must be guarded’

Published on 29-06-2023 16:00
There is no question of a culture of fear or 'serious institutional abuses' that threaten academic freedom and the quality of education and research at the UvA’s Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences. This is the conclusion of the external Stolker committee in its report Powerful and Vulnerable, drawn up following a whistleblower report.
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The committee did express concerns, since academic freedom is, in practice, not always a given, and actively monitoring and promoting it is an important task for a university.   

Whistleblower report

The committee was set up following a report by social sciences lecturer Laurens Buijs and has conducted its research over the past few months within the faculty and specifically within the Interdisciplinary Social Sciences programme. ‘In its interviews, the committee paid attention to signs of a culture in which people do not feel free to speak out, suggest ideas, share information and knowledge, and learn; in other words, a culture in which, as the whistleblower puts it, colleagues and students with academic and political views that diverge from UvA norms are attacked, dismissed and/or fired. This was true for students as well as for employees and administrators,’ the conclusion says. 

The committee also examined whether Buijs himself may have been structurally restricted in his academic freedom in an impermissible manner or whether he had suffered from a culture of exclusion. ‘In the committee's opinion, there were no indications of this,’ reads the conclusion. 

Safety and courage

The committee points out that it is important that the university not ‘exclude employees with deviating views and perspectives’ and that it takes guts to go against the grain.  

Geert ten Dam, president of the UvA’s Executive Board: ‘It is good that the committee has conducted such extensive and meticulous research. Of course I am pleased that there is no culture of fear at the faculty. Free academic debate is crucial to us. But the committee rightly draws attention to the social and psychological safety that is necessary to be able to discuss sensitive subjects with mutual respect and in an atmosphere of openness. That is something all of us should care about.’ 

Academic freedom

In the second part of the report, the committee discusses academic freedom and possible threats to this freedom that the UvA should take into account. The committee hopes that other Dutch universities will also benefit from their recommendations. The committee says that it is concerned about the increasingly grim tone of the social debate, as well as political interference, social exclusion and the (lack of) freedom of choice for scientists regarding collaboration. ‘Actively monitoring and promoting academic freedom and institutional autonomy is an urgent task for universities,’ says the committee. 

The committee makes ten recommendations, including: that universities be clear about academic freedom’s place as a core value; that students should be actively involved in the discussion; that administrators should maintain a distance from decisions about the content of education and research; that woke/anti-woke fights should be avoided; and that the university should speak up about the relationship between academic freedom and societal debate. 

Peter-Paul Verbeek, UvA Rector Magnificus: ‘The committee’s recommendations and reflections on academic freedom are cause for concern. Polarisation in society has also started to play an increasingly significant role within universities, including the UvA. This places us before the tasks of preventing self-censorship and intolerance. Academic freedom is the soul of universities, and we must protect it and properly connect it with our involvement in society. The ten recommendations provide us with great tools with which to work on that.’ 

Safe spaces

Finally, in part three of the report, the committee provides a further extensive consideration of academic freedom, and discusses concepts such as wokeness, safe spaces and trigger warnings. 

The committee substantiates the importance of academic freedom for trust in science, independence and the conducting of groundbreaking research. This is an increasingly important issue, according to the committee, given the limitations of academic freedom abroad; geopolitical tensions; growth in international cooperation; discussions about diversity and inclusion; temporary contracts; polarisation; and a focus on free speech on campus. The committee describes the duty of care held by the government, management and colleagues among themselves and emphasises the importance of academic freedom being safeguarded from various sides, both on and off campus. 

About the committee

The external committee was set up to investigate the whistleblower report by Laurens Buijs and was also asked to take a closer look at the concepts of 'academic freedom' and 'wokeness'. The committee was formed by Carel Stolker, former rector magnificus and president of the Executive Board of Leiden University, Janka Stoker, professor of Leadership and Organisational Change at the University of Groningen and Berteke Waaldijk, professor of Language and Culture Studies at the University of Utrecht.

Download the full report 'Krachtig en Kwetsbaar' in Dutch (pdf) or download the report summary in English (pdf). The full report is currently being translated into English and will be made available in due course.