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Foto: Universiteit Leiden/Monique Shaw

Committee concludes: No institutional abuses at UvA

Dirk Wolthekker,
30 juni 2023 - 11:01

There is no evidence of “an oppressive culture” or “serious institutional abuses” that threaten academic freedom at the Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences of the UvA. That is the conclusion of the Stolker Committee in the report “Powerful and Vulnerable” it published today in response to the whistleblower report of lecturer Laurens Buijs. 

Still, the committee does have concerns, because academic freedom is not self-evident in practice. Actively monitoring and promoting it is an important task for the university, according to committee chairman Carel Stolker, emeritus professor of private law and former rector magnificus of Leiden University. Stolker was commissioned at the end of January to investigate possible institutional abuses and the possible existence of a “woke” organizational culture at the Faculty of Society & Behavior (FMG), particularly in the social sciences department. In addition to Stolker, the Committee included Janka Stoker (RUG) and Berteke Waaldijk (UU). 

The Committee did not find an oppressive culture at the interdisciplinary social science program

The immediate reason for setting up the Committee was an opinion piece on the Folia website by professor of interdisciplinary social science Laurens Buijs. With the publication of his article entitled “Woke culture threatens academic freedom in social sciences,” a UvA-wide and national discussion erupted, which partly derailed in social media. It dealt with the (threat to) academic freedom, what exactly is meant by this term, and whether or not this freedom is unlimited. 


More open culture 
Buijs wrote the opinion piece because, in his view, the UvA administration had taken too little action on his whistleblower report in which he had raised abuses and what he considered to be a lack of academic freedom. In the article, he observed that the FMG was pursuing a diversity policy that brought in “the Trojan horse” and which made “radical woke ideology” the norm. In his view, this was evident in the unscientific and “obsessive” use of the term “non-binary,” among other things. The accompanying use of alternative personal pronouns was, according to him, “empty hype.” 
The Committee conducted extensive research into this in recent months and has spoken with many of those involved. In doing so, it looked for signs of a culture “in which people do not feel free to speak out, suggest ideas, share information and knowledge, and learn.” The Committee did not find such an oppressive culture at the interdisciplinary social science program. “The interviews revealed a more open culture than the complainant (Laurens Buijs, dw) describes. This applied to students as well as staff and administrators.” Also, according to the Committee, there are “no indications” that Buijs himself was curtailed in his academic freedom. 
President of the Executive Board Geert ten Dam responded that she was “pleased” that no such culture exists. “But the committee rightly calls attention to the social and psychological safety needed to discuss sensitive topics with mutual respect and in an atmosphere of openness. We should all care about that.” 

The Committee expresses concern about the increasing grimness of public debate, political interference, social exclusion, and scholars’ freedom of choice about collaboration

Concerns about academic freedom 
And what about academic freedom? Is it under pressure or is it not so bad? It is under pressure, the Committee concludes. Not only at the UvA, but also elsewhere, a conclusion the European Parliament also reached last spring. The Committee expresses concern about the increasing grimness of public debate, political interference, social exclusion, and scholars’ freedom of choice about collaboration. “Actively monitoring and promoting academic freedom and institutional autonomy is an urgent task for universities,” the Commission said. 
The Committee therefore proposes ten recommendations to safeguard and strengthen academic freedom. These include demonstrating academic freedom as a core value, actively involving students in this, administrative distancing from the content of teaching and research, staying away from woke/anti-woke “battles,” combating a culture in which colleagues and guest speakers are canceled, and speaking explicitly about the relationship between academic freedom and public debate. 
The soul of the academy 
UvA Rector Peter-Paul Verbeek said in a response to this part of the report: “The Committee’s recommendations and reflections on academic freedom are cause for concern. The polarization in society has become increasingly prominent within universities, including at the UvA. This presents us with the joint task of preventing self-censorship and intolerance. Academic freedom is the soul of the university, and we must protect it and properly link it to our social commitment. The ten recommendations offer us good tools to shape this further.”