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UvA discusses protests: 'Escalation will not get us any further, but conversation will'

Published on 12-06-2024
In May, events surrounding the UvA's response to the war and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza escalated. The message from the demonstrating groups was and remains clear: the UvA must do something. But the campus is divided on the questions of whether the UvA should do something, and, if they should, what it should be. Rector Peter-Paul Verbeek and FMG dean Agneta Fischer look back and ahead.
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After a spiral of violence such as the UvA has never experienced before, the path to dialogue seems to have finally been found. Students and employees are talking to each other, to the Executive Board and deans, through study advisors and confidential counselors, in organised group discussions, in programme groups or team meetings and with the representative advisory bodies within the UvA.

The Executive Board and deans are engaged in ongoing conversations with employees and students within the faculties, how is that going?

Fischer: 'There are major differences between the faculties. At FEB, A-UMC and ACTA there is much less discussion, but at the FGW, FMG and FNWI, and especially at the AUC, emotions have been running high. There have been intense conversations with groups of students and employees who are either very angry and indignant or who are worried and no longer feel safe. These conversations are sometimes difficult, and sometimes the differences seem unbridgeable. But these discussions have to be had, otherwise we won't be able to reach any sort of agreement. Peacefully establishing that you cannot agree with each other is also a step in the right direction.'

Did these conversations start too late?

Verbeek: 'I have been asking myself that question constantly lately. If someone does not feel heard at the UvA, then - unintentionally - they have not been listened to enough, even though there were many discussions at an earlier stage, initially about whether the UvA should speak out and then about whether we should stop our collaborations in Israel. In any case, from now on it is especially important that we reconnect with each other. Even if we disagree with each other, we must respect each other's position. Together we must do everything we can to prevent things from going off the rails. Escalation doesn't get us any further, but conversation does.'

The UvA has around 44,000 students and almost 7,000 employees - how do you involve them in the conversation?

Verbeek: ‘'What has happened in recent months affects the entire university. I want everyone to at least have the opportunity to express feelings and opinions. We are holding conversations throughout the university: with representatives of activists, with students and employees who feel unsafe because of their identity or experience, with people who would like the space not to speak out and want to focus on their education or research. I would like to emphasise that everyone can participate in UvA-wide dialogue sessions on campus. The Central Diversity Office is organising a number of dialogue sessions and HR will provide support - including through independent discussion leaders - if there are initiatives for dialogue within the faculties.'

Fischer: 'Many colleagues are already working hard to keep the conversation going: department chairs, programme group leaders, study associations, confidential counselors and study advisors, and, of course, there have also been numerous conversations between teachers and students. The Teaching & Learning Centre has been providing assistance to teachers, the CDO has their virtual walk-in consultation hour, and there is also external help: every UvA employee or student can contact Slachtofferhulp, if necessary. We continue to look at how we can supplement these initiatives.'

What about the roundtable discussions on the ethical framework?

The Executive Board and deans of the UvA have taken the initiative to supplement the policy on (research) collaboration with third parties, such as universities in war zones, in the short term. This is being facilitated through roundtable discussions at all faculties. A limited number of staff and students are being invited to each session so that a real conversation can take place. For this reason, parallel discussions on the topic this are also being organised in some faculties. The point is to collect as many arguments as possible in order to make a reasoned assessment (not just a vote of who is for and who is against something). Based on these arguments, the broad academic working group will prepare a draft advice. This proposal will be discussed during a town hall meeting on 24 June. From 28 June, it will be on the participation platform Denk Mee and the entire UvA community can provide inputExternal link.

What will happen after the summer?

Verbeek: 'It is clear that maintaining the strong connections between different groups of staff and students requires everyone’s attention in the long term. Everything currently under discussion will help with that, but there is more to discuss than just the ethical framework. We will take stock of the situation after the summer.'

Students: Click here for more information.