On Tuesday, April 5th, Yvonne van Rooy, President of Utrecht University, spoke at the University College Utrecht in an “interactive panel discussion” on the current education cuts, the future of UCU, and of higher education in general.
by Arturo Desimone (a student at the UCU, who was at this event and wrote the following report)
Tuesday I went to the lecture of Yvonne van Rooy with my friend Nijat, a foreign student from Azerbaijdan. The lecture hall was not as full or packed as expected, partly the social network of the head of UCU’s student government, the UCSA, was very represented in the audience. Part of the faculty was there and many people working in the administration. Yvonne van Rooy sat at a table with Fried Keessen, the Director of Education at UCU. The moderators of the discussion were the UCSA president, a student who is the head of the college’s student government (UCSA, with whom we got into a revealing debacle on facebook. UCSA lied about the pro-military nature of their upcoming UCU festival when the whole student movement confronted UCSA on the festival promotional page) and the head of All Students’ Interest Council (ASIC). ASIC and UCSA are two miniature, play-make-believe bureaucracies on campus where students pretend they are important civil servants and politicians organizing student life and working tirelessly day and night to keep the life and energy of the campus alive. (This is their PR image, not reality as I think both these student-authority institutions are superfluous and the whole campus would be a healthier and friendlier place if they disappeared magically overnight)
The atmosphere in the hall was alienating. The people in the auditorium seemed to be quite intimidated and afraid of Van Rooy. It was as if they sat under a spell of confusion thinking that she is a coordinator and expert who is partly of the university, but that she also heralds partly from the streets (perhaps the Catholic ghettos of Maastricht where people are abused by nuns at the convent and then run away into a life of solitary endurance as entrepreneurs) smarter and possesses the skills and perceptive faculties to understand and keep at bay the nefarious forces of the crisis and its anxieties. The audience of academics and students seemed to feel they are quite handicapped to handle the task of navigating the turbulence and unpredictable dangers of the crisis. Though they supposedly are intellectual and read difficult books they feel stupid and blind when it comes to the mysterious and less pure entities of financial survival. Therefore they fearfully rush to hand over all responsibility to Van Rooy, a bit like she is Leviathan in Thomas Hobbes’ political allegory, where the anxious and immature populace during a time of difficulty seal a contract and sign over all decision-making power to a bizarre totalitarian robotic entity who can commit any abuse the latter deems necessary. She is a tough dominatrix who will save them, she knows the dirty business of managing cuts and they will compromise on anything to survive, constantly honoring this manager as she systematically insults and belittles everyone in the room. Very much the Freudian castrating female I would say, not to stereotype women but everyone in the room seemed castrated by this tight-lipped, infantile accountant who squinted angrily and proudly from her odd-geometry eyeglasses and sports a post-Hitlerian hair-do. She reminds me also of Lady Macbeth, who “unsexed herself” and therefore does not qualify as gendered but more a violent, spiked cash machine on wheels of financial agglomeration and political electric sabotage.
Van Rooy explained in a fashion of showing a deep, cynical disrespect for her audience. She mentioned the problem of lang-studeerders, making some cracks about this, and that she had finally begun to rid the confused youngsters of having “the embarrassing problem of too many courses too choose from, and there not knowing which course too choose.” It is clear the humanities and philosophy courses are the most quickly to be cut, this is confirmed by professors on campus and a Flemish professor who spoke to a few of us at the occupation. For half an hour she portrayed students as all being Dutch students who need a schop onder the kont, a motivating kick to stop wasting the money and energy of the government as the fun is over now that there is an “Era of Budget Cuts.” The Director of Education, who seemed to espouse much tension and nervosity throughout the whole session despite that he was always smiling uncomfortably, also mentioned “the Era of Budget Cuts,” which sounded like a despairing slogan or a chapter from a mythological Epic poem. Many students within the UCSA-manager Preiss’ social network got speaking turns before anyone else. A frequent question was on concerns about how to better privatize the university.
One girl, who I think was a Middle-Eastern-American exchange student, asked Van Rooy if she understood the consequences of universities privatizing, becoming more exclusive and more like firms. She mentioned developments in the United States where these policies go hand-in-hand with a kind of exclusion or xenophobia, and said she was concerned being from an Iranian refugee family. Van Rooy answered dismissively that the Dutch would not follow the “American model,” whatever this meant, probably the typical European colonial pretension that they know the Americans who are more successful world-managers now will still always remain culturally inferior. She said also “we will not follow the British model” of dealing with cuts, I doubt she knows what this means (other than maybe, her bureaucracy will act rapidly and sneakily enough so as to do the damage before 200.000 students “get it” and take to the pavement like in England) and her response was more to ignore the validity of this student and her question. I am convinced she did not answer a single point of anyone unless it was a request for her to explain the importance of what she is doing and how it is impossible for us to understand.
During the Q&A, the UCSA president skipped anyone he deemed suspect of asking a confronting question and who was not connected to the UCSA disco afterparty circuit, but at some point there were five minutes left for remaining curious people.
During the speaking hour not once did Van Rooy explain why these budget cuts on education are necessary, why they are justified. Not once did she go into the consequences upon the lives of students. She referred only the stereotype of the scatter-brained, child-like Dutch student who cannot manage his own educational life, because he is too spoiled, has too many luxuries. Such a luxurious student should not mind his nest being somewhat diminished, his allowances decreased during a time of emergency.
Every aspect of the discussion and talk seemed founded on assumptions. Van Rooy spoke and most people reacted, not once challenging or questioning these implicit assumptions, as if it was not an opinion but a proven and visible reality that it is necessary to cut most of the philosophy courses, while privileging management studies and economics-sans-theory, because “we are struggling to survive in the Era of Budget Cuts.” To ask such a question was naive, as if we had already arrived at a consensus way back. I confronted Van Rooy when the UCSA moderator, after having me wait four speaking turns, let me have the floor. I introduced myself saying my name and that I am with the Landelijk Studenten Protest. I announced we protested in the Hague against her policies on March 25th
Van Rooy refused to answer my points and questions in a coherent manner so I will rephrase:
Why is it that you don’t find it necessary to explain what the direct consequences for students are of your policies? You are whimsically saying tuition fees will sky-rocket and this is necessary as the students here have parents who can afford. What you are doing in the raising tuitions is part of the Dutchification of student life in the Netherlands. The Bulgarian and Polish students among others, who are among the most dedicated to their studies in the Netherlands cannot afford the new tuition fees even though they are usually from the middle classes of their countries. These policies are exclusionary.
When we occupied your building, the Geesteswetenschappen main building during our Open Occupation in February we organized discussions. (While you and rest of the College van Bestuur were off drinking chardonnay and shopping in France with our money.) A lot of students who felt a sense of exclusion by your policies voiced their concern, among them students with handicaps, especially invisible handicaps. They have autism, they have ADHD and trouble concentrating. They cannot finish a study within 3 years, they need 4 or 5, maybe 6. Their doctors and healthcare professionals say they cannot manage in 3 despite that these students are often academically talented and motivated. Now they will have to pay fines and lose their futures because they are categorized as lazy “lang-studeerders.” Maxime Verhagen (CDA) did ten years over his studies, probably smoking weed. A decade. That is a lang-studeerder, not four or five years. I am not here to accuse you, although I’m sure it sounds that way. I’m concerned for these students who spoke out at our Open Occupation. I am speaking on their behalf, they are afraid of what your policies will do. Why do you not mention these effects, is it true, are you aware of these consequences, what do you have to say to this?
Van Rooy refused to answer the question but gave the usual evasive condescension, despite the seriousness of “my” allegations that she constructs policies that could promote discrimination. Her answer nonetheless was very much an eye-opener: she referred immediately to the “mass protests” that had taken place in the Hague on January 21 for a few hours and in which all the professors and universities had made an appearance, with musical anthems of learning and homo universalis by DJ Jordy. On this Friday masses of students had conglomerated for the great mellow-protest after which they all went home patting themselves with flattery that they had surpassed the student protesters of 1968 and were all revolutionaries now. Now that they defied the tanks they could go back to the UCU College Bar, drink Eurest beer while dancing to a song clip that Sylvio Berlusconi in Italy is probably also appreciating via his Iphone at this minute in space-continuum, and the next day study Macroeconomics and Micropolicy Analysis under the elk tree, clutching a flower of resistance in their hand as they read, with full confidence they had stood up to power idealistically. I tried to tell Van Rooy there had been student demonstrators in the morning as well, in a smaller group that was much more brutally harassed by the police because theirs was not the government-organized event; theirs was an actual protest rather than publicity work.
It became clear what the function of the January 21, mid-afternoon amusement-demo was for all the universities in Holland to congregate. Van Rooy said she had supported this initiative, that we had all tried this strategy of confronting the government but apparently discovered, through this emotional process of challenging the austerity measures, disobedience cannot work and we have no option left but these reductions. The professors had all offered a lot of hard talk during and before this demo, but afterwards gave up and did not further rebel against economic downsizing. She and us were all in the same boat, and she happened to know how to steer the wheel.
I had been appalled when talking to UC students, including the whole personnel of the UCSA, who were bragging after Friday January 21 they were the same as students in the seventies with their Molotov cocktails after one lukewarm action under chaperonage of their managerial pastor. It was not so much a photo-op as a publicity and therapeutic stunt. The student bodies and the less aware academics now had the opportunity to flatter themselves and massage self-esteem: they had marched, and felt brave. This January national demonstration-afternoon, which took place after the more marginal, politically incorrect student manifestation wherein a few young demonstrators with the Landelijk Studenten Protest in the morning had gotten trampled by police horses, revealed its true anaesthetic function. Celebrated by Yvonne van Rooy, this DJ Jordy rave with professors uttering confused Platonic diatribes seemed really an abrogation of responsibilities: you do one mass-hysteria action, but do not succeed in convincing the VVD-CDA?–this provides a green light to compromise on every principle of upholding your university.
Van Rooy emphasized a firm like UCU specializes in ending the phenomenon of lang-studeerders. UCUers are pressured to finish a degree swiftly within 3 years, regardless the high-stress risks to their psychological health. UCU is arguably a model in the sense that College van Bestuur policies will preserve the fostering of “leadership qualities.” Van Rooy said it is also important to have students keep learning how to “ask critical questions.” But they are especially cutting the most popular philosophy courses, while the foundation of Western philosophy is supposedly methodical questioning and critique. In Western societies the moralistic emphasis on the value of asking questions, which in some cases even becomes a dogma paradoxically inhibiting free thought and the range of expression, is deeply entrenched because the Church and universities taught and read Post-Socratic philosophers. What I think Van Rooy must mean is not leadership qualities, but managerial qualities. The critical questions will be “do we care about students with handicaps? Can we afford to care about talented students from Eastern Europe, Africa or Asia?”
Van Rooy does not favor other kinds of “critical questions,” such as: Why are these measures necessary? What are the long term consequences? Are there legitimate reasons to get hysterical about a deliberately constructed financial crisis? Who made it, are students and professors really responsible for this crisis/ If not, why is Yvonne scapegoating them along with other bullied social strata? How to justify the measures? Will Verhagen be fined for having spent ten years of student financing on his achterwerk smoking cannabis? And what qualifies Yvonne van Rooy to do this job, other than her one admirable career move, of having gone a year on exchange to study Art History in Rome while she was probably doing what she did in France while we occupied the Utrecht University Drift 21 building: playfully guzzling away socioeconomic space-time and consuming other people’s investments.