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Opinion | ‘Woke’ as a threat to academic freedom is exaggerated scaremongering

Tijmen van Voorthuizen,
1 februari 2023 - 10:26
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It’s that time again, thought former history student Tijmen van Voorthuizen upon seeing ‘the periodic letter of complaint’ from an academic ‘about an alleged threat of wokeism’ at the UvA. ‘It is a grotesque exaggeration of a development that is anything but threatening to academic freedom.’

This time the article came from Laurens Buijs, ISW lecturer at the Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences, who expressed serious concern about the thinking of his students and colleagues and the alleged downsides of diversity policies at our university. Buijs thus places himself in a line of colleagues who preceded him with complaints about cancel culture, ‘wokeism,’ and the hypersensitivity of students. A veritable new intellectual tradition seems to be developing in which so-called ‘woke’ thought at the university is being portrayed as one of the greatest threats to academic freedom today. Every so often an article appears in a university or national newspaper proclaiming such a viewpoint by one or more academics. Many times, these are grotesque exaggerations and scaremongering about a development that is anything but threatening to academic freedom.

What strikes me is that the same clichés are repeated over and over again ‘wokeness’ causes black/white thinking and hypersensitivity to opposing views

But what exactly is the problem? Laurens Buijs sees the UvA’s diversity policy as a killer for academic freedom. As a result, he says, students can claim that their social safety is violated when a professor expresses an unwelcome viewpoint. In addition, the UvA’s policies have supposedly caused a ‘narrowing’ of academic debate, putting academic freedom at risk. Buijs has since initiated the Whistleblower Procedure and the UvA is investigating the problem he raised with the program where he teaches.


A little while ago, Niek Pas and Steije Hofhuis wrote a similar argument in NRC and Elsevier, among others. They saw postmodernism, which had allegedly gone overboard on American campuses, as the cause of ‘wokism,’ which they said threatened academic freedom and sought to eliminate the concept of objectivity. To make matters worse, this wokeism then allegedly crept into Dutch universities. They criticized at length the KNAW for ignoring this problem and cited as an example of the policy gone mad research by Judi Mesman for which a large grant had been awarded.


Finally, there were several interviews in Folia some time ago with UvA lecturers who gave all sorts of examples of obstruction of debate among students, with ‘wokeness’ as the cause. Students reportedly no longer want to be confronted with certain opinions and language. So it seems to be a combination of overblown, postmodern diversity policies and an excess of oversensitive students. 

More threatening to academic freedom are problems with funding that foster mutual competition among scientists

Much has already been said about Laurens Buijs’ case by UvA’ s Diversity Officer, Machiel Keestra, in his response in this magazine. Niek Pas and Steije Hofhuis have received numerous rebuttals, including from Mesman himself and the president of the KNAW, who have refuted Pas' and Hofhuis’ erroneous characterization of the ‘woke’ movement. I concur with those responses and would add to them. What strikes me is that the same clichés are repeated over and over again. ‘Wokeness’ creates black and white thinking, a crumbling of the ideal of objectivity, and oversensitivity to opposing views and language.


The first contradiction in this is already in the perceived black/white thinking. The aforementioned critics signal a certain binary view in woke ideology of what is right and wrong, of who are the oppressed and who are the oppressors. At the same time, there is supposedly an overblown constructivism in which there is no longer objective truth. Buijs sees this in non-binary thinking, Pas and Hofhuis in postmodernism. But how can an ideology simultaneously reject truth but endorse a binary conception of right or wrong? So ‘wokeness’ is not as monolithic a threat as outlined by the alarmists. Ironically, this criticism of "wokeness’ is also the standard response of many conservative American opinion makers. "Woke’ is apparently not the only thing that has come over from America. 

Then there are the anecdotes about supposedly hypersensitive students from various faculty members. Of course, it is true that in recent years there has been an upheaval, both among students and faculty, in thinking about issues such as racism, colonialism, gender, and sexuality. I experienced that myself as a student. Does this upheaval limit academic freedom? Of course not. Rethinking the use of language, for example, strikes me as an academic exercise par excellence. 


Academics in particular must understand that the language we use to express ourselves influences how we understand the world. So using other words also means that new insights into certain phenomena may emerge. In short, words matter, so it is not necessarily ‘woke’ to reflect on language use. Therefore, uncomfortable teaching situations arising between teachers and students should not be thrown in with ‘woke’ problems. 

No academics in the Netherlands are being fired or blocked from publication because they are not ‘woke’ enough

The complaints about ‘woke’ are clichéd, vague and, moreover, refuted often enough. Yet the complaints keep coming and academic freedom seems increasingly cornered. In a sense, this is true, but not by the imaginary ‘wokeism’ raging across the country like a storm. In 2021, for example, several Dutch academics became victims of far-right intimidation after their data was shared by the infamous ‘Vizier op Links.’ Even earlier, lecturers were named and shamed on the social media channels of ‘Left-wing indoctrination at my university.’ Both platforms caused quite systematic harassment of alleged ‘left-wing" academics.

But there is an even bigger, extraordinarily pressing problem that all the woke critics seem to overlook. In a 2021 NWO report, many academics themselves indicated that their integrity and independence as researchers is compromised by the way research is funded. Government funding directly to universities has declined and, in its place, research is funded on a project basis, based on privatization and competition among scientists. Scientists are thus put under enormous performance pressure before they can conduct any research at all. Researchers are also only eligible for many forms of funding if they have a permanent position at a university.


Similar conclusions were drawn by KNAW researchers who studied the state of academic freedom in the Netherlands. The consequences for independence and academic freedom are obvious: scholars are judged on their personal performance and failure, and researchers without permanent appointments are excluded from significant funding.


Thus, the true threat to academic freedom in the Netherlands is not a handful of students and academics adhering to an incoherent ‘woke’ ideology. In the past, concrete and systematic harassment of academics was more likely to come from the right wing. But even more threatening to academic freedom are the problems with funding that promote mutual competition among academics. Fussing about wokeism is exaggerated scaremongering. No academics in the Netherlands are being fired or blocked from publication because they are not ‘woke’ enough. What’s more, the biggest complainers about wokeism can get their way on the radio, TV, and in the newspapers. If they are really concerned about academic freedom, the scientists who complain about wokeism would do better to spend their energy on the problems caused by the breakdown of primary research funding.


Tijmen van Voorthuizen is a former history student and now works at the Projects Office.

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