UvA Board Chair Geert ten Dam pleads for tolerance at the university in her opening speech. ‘The space for open debate should be as wide as possible, provided that academics uphold their responsibilities.’
With a fresh start and new opportunities, the academic year can begin again at the UvA. But with a clear message in advance from the board president: ‘No one is automatically in the right, so we must be prepared to listen to each other.’ This is especially true at a university, argues Geert ten Dam in front of the more than 100 UvA academics present in the Oude Lutherse Kerk.
After all, a university is, in Ten Dam's words, a ‘pre-eminent place for confrontation with facts and opinions that irritate or even offend.’ And it is precisely here at the UvA where things went wrong ‘more than we would like,’ she illustrates in her opening speech.
‘Wanted’ poster She lists a number of lowlights, including activists' call to deny Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson admission to the university because of his views on gender identity, climate, and feminism. That one dates back to 2018 but is still alive and well in the collective memory of the UvA administration. ‘As a college, we have always been of the opinion that every student body has the freedom to choose its own guests, provided that that person respects the limits of the democratic rule of law.
Peterson eventually did come to the university; Jeroen van der Veer, on the other hand, did not. After the former top Shell executive saw his face pictured on a student-made "Wanted" poster this year, he decided to cancel his visit to the UvA. ‘Making it impossible for someone to speak and even threatening him and cheering when he withdraws: This is absolutely a no-go,’ Ten Dam said in her speech.
Fossil fuel industry
Then there is the most recent example of intolerance, namely the stubbornness with which some (by no means all) students and staff refuse, according to Ten Dam, to have a joint discussion about cooperation with the fossil fuel industry, let alone come closer together. No open attitude, no will to listen to the other. This worries her.
‘Intolerance goes hand in hand with polarization and gnaws at the roots of our democratic society. It is at odds with our academic mores, especially with academic freedom and the respectful treatment of one another.’
‘Embrace the discomfort’
How should we deal with this? ‘The space for open debate should be as wide as possible, with the caveat that academics uphold their responsibilities,’ Ten Dam believes. ‘This means to respect, listen, and argue - and to not just tolerate dissent, but to seek it out.’ Or as Mayor Femke Halsema puts forward later in the evening, "Embrace discomfort," a quote she borrows from writer Adriaan van Dis.
Ten Dam's ‘plea for tolerance, above all in one's own home’ is received with thunderous applause, and is followed by a warm musical intermezzo by the UvA orchestra J. Pzn Sweelinck and a flawless performance by the Amsterdam Student Choir. Once again it turns out that music reconciles and brings (different) people together. This is just what the UvA now needs to do, Ten Dam must have thought at the end of her speech: "This is the responsibility of all of us.’