An external committee headed by Carel Stolker, former rector magnificus and former chairman of Leiden University’s Executive Board, is to investigate reports of “serious institutional abuses” at the UvA’s social sciences department. “Safe spaces are places where you are free from the unorthodox and provocative. That is not good for academia.”
The choice of Leiden lawyer and emeritus professor Carel Stolker (68) as external committee chairman can safely be called intriguing. Stolker is a dyed-in-the-wool Leiden man, where he went to high school, university, received his doctorate and was a professor and dean of the law faculty. In 2013, he was appointed rector magnificus and college president, a double position he held for eight years at a university with the challenging motto Praesidium Libertatis, freely translated: bastion of freedom. Laurens Buijs (40), now reviled by many but also admired by others, has publicly denounced in recent weeks precisely what he sees as a lack of (academic) freedom at the UvA, and will undoubtedly be happy to have such a committee chairman.
Via Twitter, Buijs announced Friday evening that he is indeed pleased with “a solid, independent committee of external professors with a broad research remit. What more could you want? Compliments to the Executive Board of the UvA. I am glad that trust is back,” said Buijs, who has been affiliated with the UvA as a social scientist for years and currently teaches in the interdisciplinary social science program. Although not (yet) a doctoral candidate, he publishes widely and often in both public media and academic journals. On January 18th, he did just that, namely with an opinion piece on this website taking a radical stand against what he sees as the “woke” culture in the social sciences, particularly in the interdisciplinary social science program.
Buijs stated in the article that he had reported “serious institutional abuses” at the Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences (FMG) through the whistle-blower procedure and did not hesitate to criticize the organizational culture in the social sciences. According to him, it consists of a culture of wokeness where the diversity policy has gotten completely out of hand and imposed an “ideological monoculture” lacking academic freedom. The phenomenon of “non-binary” and the related obsession with pronouns is nothing more than “empty hype,” according to him.
The whole issue got out of hand via social media, when a student warned about Buijs’ views with a “trigger warning” on Instagram and a group of students organized a petition opposing his views, which he also expressed in the classroom. The UvA board - partly because of Buijs’ report – then ordered an external investigation into the organizational culture at the social sciences department.
In addition to Stolker, this investigation is being conducted by Groningen professor of leadership and organizational change Janka Stoker and Utrecht professor of language and cultural studies Berteke Waaldijk. The latter’s research interests
include the history of gender, culture, and citizenship. Among other things, Stoker was previously a member of the Supervisory Board of the University of Twente, where she undoubtedly bumped into current UvA rector Peter-Paul Verbeek, as he was a professor there for many years.
This threesome must, among other things, survey the admissibility of Buijs’ report; formulate an answer to the question of whether there are indeed serious institutional abuses at the FMG; consider the concepts of “academic freedom” and "wokeness” more closely, particularly in the context of teaching and research within the FMG; and consider “safe spaces and student demands for education,” as laid out in the report.
One thing is certain: the curriculum Buijs was teaching until recently was approved by the education director, simply because it could not be taught otherwise. But how a teacher then acts in practice during lectures is much harder to predict. Similarly, what a lecturer makes public about personal views on his private Twitter account is difficult for others to moderate. According to some of his students, Buijs “abuses his Twitter account to spread hateful comments against non-binary individuals.” Whether and how this all occurred is something the Stolker committee will have to clarify, including through interviews with those involved.
Anyone who has been around in the Dutch academic world, especially at the UvA, will undoubtedly think back to the Daudt affair in the 1970s. It was, of course, a different context (without social media, for example), but then, too, a professor (Hans Daudt) faced a group of militant students who demanded a different interpretation and presentation of education. The conflict then was not about different visions of gender and sexuality, it was an old-fashioned left-right opposition about a vision of society and politics. Daudt was widely criticized by Marxist students, who did not see him as “socialist” enough. They demanded a “confrontational study” and “anti-capitalist” literature. To make a long story short: Daudt was sacked, a committee was formed, and the political science program was restructured to create a one-man theoretical “in formation” political science department for Daudt. He was removed as a professor, with no students or staff, but with a salary. The “in formation” department remained for 20 years until Daudt’s retirement in 1990 when it was disbanded.
Christian Democratic Appeal
It is difficult to predict how the Buijs issue will be evaluated by the Stolker committee and what the consequences will be for Buijs and others involved. Stolker himself is a prominent Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) party member and co-wrote the CDA’s 2020 election program Nu doorpakken (Carry On Now) as a Leiden university administrator. It is a traditional CDA program that pays a lot of attention to families and households, “that which is most dear to us.” Not a single word about “non-binairy”, however. But his CDA background is not expected to play a role in the investigation that the committee will conduct in the coming months. Stolker is a highly experienced university administrator, who moreover - or rather logically - also has a vision of what academic freedom is and can be, including in the context of the issue now facing the social sciences.
In 2021, the year of Stolker’s retirement, he delivered a lecture at Leiden University’s The Hague Campus as part of the Cleveringa Chair. In his lecture “Is academic freedom under threat?” (see reprint here), academic freedom was of course discussed. According to him, this revolves around a number of principles that are essential and that will presumably also come up in his research on the social
sciences, such as: enter into a dialogue with each other, including students; make sure there is a clear policy on what academic freedom is; ensure free speech, even if it involves unwelcome opinions; include academic freedom as an indicator in university rankings; and be careful with “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.” The last two terms appear regularly in the discussion surrounding “woke,” including at the UvA. But they don’t belong at a university, according to Stolker. “Safe spaces are places where you are free from the unorthodox and provocative. That is not good for academia.”
When the Stolker Committee and its mandate were announced Friday afternoon, UvA Rector Verbeek let it be known that the UvA also “stands for academic freedom, a space for scientists to gather knowledge, discuss it freely and disseminate it without hindrance. It is the essence of the university, a space to debate existing and new knowledge, even when it is difficult. This space must be safeguarded; it is a great good. At the same time, we must realize that academic freedom can sometimes clash with other rights and rules and comes with responsibilities. Spreading hatred is not one of them, of course. Nor is it, for example, a license to ignore ethical standards in research.”
The trio of Stolker, Stoke and Waaldijk will now set to work and are expected to produce a final report by the end of June. Rector Verbeek intends to make that report public.