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What is your study programme?
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For current information about the demonstrations, see uva.nl/protestsExternal link

Dean's message to all Faculty of Science students

Published on 14-05-2024
The indescribable suffering caused by the war between Israel and Hamas cannot leave anyone unmoved. It has now put the UvA in a situation we don't want to be in. In this message, I want to share with you my own assessment of recent times, the associated dilemmas and how we can hopefully come closer together again.
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For the record, it is not about my political opinion, which I express in a voting booth and fortunately I can do so in the Netherlands. Nor is it about my interpretation of a conflict that has been going on for many decades. I am not a human rights expert, lawyer, political scientist or historian: I read and hear what they think about it, just like you, and try to form an opinion. Which I don't find easy and not always succeed at.

I want to address three points. First, what protests and occupations do to staff and students. Secondly, the position of the university and faculty as an institution in a conflict like the one we have now. And finally, how we can hopefully start to ensure that we can be a faculty where everyone feels at home again, and turn the current polarisation into positive action.

Protests, students, staff

For an overview of recent times, I refer to and much has been communicated in the media. Let me first say something about the previous protests at the faculty. As far as I am concerned, it should be possible to protest or make a certain noise. That may cause some inconvenience and nuisance to teaching and research, to everyone who comes here to work or study, but it is part of our democratic society and therefore also part of our university. When this creates feelings of insecurity among some of our staff or students, it becomes problematic. I know that staff and students from Jewish backgrounds feel unsafe at our faculty right now, and for whom some of the slogans and expressions have very different connotations than some of the protesters may realise. This is not a good thing.

I spoke to a student who was at the protests at the REC last week. What was particularly expressed there was anger and helplessness about the conflict, and the unacceptable suffering - on both sides. But also anger at UvA's decision to press charges. What started on Monday as a fairly peaceful action by mainly students turned into a confrontation between police and protesters. I think a factor here was that there are big differences within the activists and their supporters. There is a large group, like the student above, who feel very involved and find the conflict so extraordinary that the UvA must speak out. There are several (smaller) activist groups, willing to go very far in the protests and not shying away from confrontation, which has led to unsafe situations and further escalation.

Dissatisfaction with the events of Monday night and police intervention led to a large march on the REC last Tuesday and then culminated in the occupation of a UvA building and blockade of the canal by a number of protesters, including non-UvA activists. After failing to reach an agreement with representatives of the occupiers on Wednesday, the UvA filed a report. Even before the report, the so-called ‘Triangle’ (Mayor, Public Prosecutor and Police) decided to end the blockades on the canal. Later, after the report, the evacuation of the UvA buildings was added. Yesterday, there was an announced protest on the REC, and despite a call for it to be peaceful, another UvA building was occupied. Some masked activists pushed further into the building, and employees had to flee. The images in the media of unfortunately speak for themselves. The UvA has decided to close the entire university for two days as we cannot guarantee the safety of employees.

It would be good if everyone, administrators, students and staff alike, reflected on the events and we all ask ourselves how this could have been prevented and what is needed now to restore calm. In particular, answer the question together: how can the different voices in our university be heard without leading to further polarisation?

What is a university's position in a conflict?

Conflicts in the world are, of course, too numerous. Sometimes near, sometimes far, almost always with many victims. Our personal involvement varies from conflict to conflict, which is not always logically explainable or justified. The university is primarily a place to analyse all aspects of conflict in academic discussion. The university should accommodate different views and not impose a political opinion on anyone. Sometimes the call for a stance as an institution becomes strong, as now with the severing of ties with Israel. I have noticed in the talks in recent weeks that it is very difficult to reach consensus on this. Is this symbolic, a signal to show disapproval, a means of pressure? Shouldn't we instead strengthen contact with (academic) movements working for peace and justice in a country? If the university focuses mainly on its role in academic interpretation, an image of indifference and arbitrariness may emerge if there are no consequences.

Referring to academic freedom, frameworks and house rules is absolutely necessary, but perhaps not enough when a conflict is so prevalent within one's community and beyond. It starts with naming what is going on, without woolly words. In the current case: the images of the Hamas attack on 7 October were horrific, with many casualties and still many hostages, and therefore families living in great uncertainty about the fate of their loved ones. Israel's military response has caused a humanitarian crisis in Gaza with many thousands of civilian casualties. Humanitarian aid from outside is hardly possible and a famine has ensued. Is it possible to adopt a position that is primarily humanitarian perhaps thereby less politically charged? Or a position that refers to how other parties assess a situation, such as an International Court of Justice?

What I regret is that the focus on some specific demands (publishing all collaborations, immediate severing of ties) has meant that attention to the conflict itself has been lost sight of. I don't think you can disagree on the gravity of the situation, and the many victims of the violence. You can differ on whether severing ties is desirable or necessary or not. There are arguments to be made for both sides. What I absolutely want to stress is that employees should be prevented from being personally addressed for their participation in projects that come under scrutiny, now or in the future, or addressed solely because of their origin, belief or nationality.

How to proceed

I hope we will manage to restore calm to the university in the near future. This will not be easy given the current fraught situation. At UvA level - as at many other universities - we are looking at what steps we can take. Some steps may be possible quickly, others will require more time. I hope there will be an understanding of that.

For all of us at the Faculty of Science, there is also a task. I am not asking everyone to take a stand or participate in a sensitive discussion. Ultimately, it is everyone's own choice whether or not to have an opinion or want to share it, and it is also fine if you come to the faculty just to work or study. We do have a collective responsibility to provide a safe environment for everyone. All students should feel safe to pursue the education they have come to our programmes for. All staff must continue to work well with each other, regardless of their origins or backgrounds.

Understanding each other starts with compassion. If that basis is there, I think it is less of a problem if there are different views in the elaboration of policy, and other options with broad support may then emerge. Last Tuesday and Wednesday I caught up with the FSR, OR and the research and education directors: we need to keep talking to each other. One conclusion was that it is good to pick up the dialogue in one's own circle (department, institute, research group, programme, study association, OR, FSR), each from their own responsibility. Our Faculty Diversity Officer also asks the D&I (Diversity & Inclusion) councils of the institutes for suggestions for activities. I personally encourage everyone to find out what needs there are in their own environment: what questions or concerns are there, how can they be addressed.

Finally, initiatives that can contribute something to the situation of victims of violence deserve all support. If there are any suggestions let it be known, to your colleagues, programme, institute or department, or mail it to me. This will hopefully focus on positive action during this difficult time.

Peter van Tienderen
​​​Dean Faculty of Science