By Christoph Lindner @cplindner
Christoph Lindner is Professor of Media and Culture at the University of Amsterdam, where he writes about cities, visual culture, creative practices, and globalization.
Amsterdam has long been a transnational hub of countercultural activity, from the religious turmoil of early-modern Europe, to the Provo youth movement of the 1960s, to more recent experiments in underground art and urbanism.
One iconic moment in that long, sinuous history is the student occupation of the Maagdenhuis in 1969 (pictured above). Located on a public square in the city center, the Maagdenhuis (meaning, literally, the house of virgins) is the administrative headquarters of the University of Amsterdam. It was occupied for five days in May 1969 by students demanding greater equality and inclusivity in university governance, largely echoing – but also extending – the May ’68 student riots in Paris.
At the time of writing, the Maagdenhuis is again under occupation, and a large-scale rebellion against the university’s leadership is once more underway (pictured above). This time, the occupiers are composed of a broad coalition of university students and staff, as well as various other sympathizers from within and beyond the university community. I don’t want to rehearse the full string of events leading up to the occupation (if you’re interested, you can read a précis here: http://antipodefoundation.org/2015/03/11/financialization-sucks/), except to highlight that the core issue prompting the protests is what many see as the university’s disproportionate corporatization and neoliberal managerialism.
It is also worth mentioning that the unrest is spreading nationally to other Dutch universities and that a number of international academic heavyweights – like Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky, and David Harvey – have written in support of the revolution. The main demand that the various protest groups all share is an end to top-down governance through increased democratization of the university.
At stake in all the ongoing protests, debates, occupations, marches, twitter campaigns, facebook rallies, dance parties, bonfires, cook-ins, cook-outs, and other forms of expression and resistance is a fundamental question about who the university belongs to – management, students, workers, government, taxpayers, etc. Bundled up in this question is a much larger one about what values should govern a university in today’s world.
Two things stand out in the current state of affairs. First, the protesters are putting on a daily programme of intellectual/cultural events (ranging from guest lectures and writing workshops to art installations and thought experiments) that rivals the quality and innovation of anything currently being offered by the university’s regular degree programmes. Perhaps the system will absorb this intellectual energy and launch a new BA in Unrest. More likely, and more desirable, is that we might learn something from each other about what we can achieve intellectually when working outside or around the system.
The second and more important thing that stands out is the role of citizenship in both the university protest movement itself and the larger political and social causes which which the movement has allied itself (namely, to speak in general terms, causes resisting the growing financialization and precarization of contemporary life). Working to build, nourish, and sustain a new university community through cultural citizenship has been a critical aim of the university protests.
There are no clear solutions to the issues currently being raised in Amsterdam. Some of these issues are extremely local. What to do with small language programs with dwindling student numbers? Or should we sell the Bungehuis (an historic university building) to property developers to turn into a luxury hotel? Other issues are national and specific to the Dutch context: how will academic freedom be affected by the implementation of a “national science agenda” that sets fixed national priorities for research funding? Or, what will be the impact on scholarship of universities and funding bodies requiring more and more research projects to be co-financed by private partners?
But the biggest issue – and the one that most universities around the world are facing in one form or another – is how to reconcile a university’s core practice of knowledge production and exchange with the financial and political realities that determine its ability to exist? In other words, what future is there for the university as an institution centered on free thinking and knowledge sharing in the age of neoliberal globalization?
I can’t answer these questions fully here. But I will say this: the Amsterdam protests reveal the full, surreptitious extent to which the core values of European universities have drifted over time to become increasingly calibrated with those of the market economy. Some of this has been intentional on the part of governments and university leadership (and almost always couched in the language of financial exigency), but some of it has also been the result of slow, steady change inside the working culture of faculties and departments as we have quietly adopted and internalized this shift – due to a combination of exhaustion, pragmatism, optimism, and inattention.
This does not make the university a corporation. It does not remove the university’s commitment to education and research. And it does not mean an end to free thought. But it does weaken our ability to pursue academic innovation and quality (in both research and teaching) as our primary objective.
Despite this doom and gloom, one thing I have learned from the protests taking place in Amsterdam is that citizenship matters at universities now more than ever. The question is what kind of university citizenship are we talking about, and what forms can it take? This discussion is urgent in Amsterdam and elsewhere.
Amsterdam, March 16 2015