Amsterdam students force Uni rethink

Maagdenhuis: occupation agreed to leave voluntarily on 12 April 2015

Maagdenhuis: occupation agreed to leave voluntarily on 12 April 2015

by Jack Ferguson, in Amsterdam The student movement at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) has scored a symbolic victory with the resignation of the President of the Executive Board, Louise Gunning. It follows a dramatic PR disaster for University bosses, after they pressured city authorities to sending police officers to violently evict staff and students occupying the University Senate, known as the Maagdenhuis.

The Maagdenhuis was the third University building that had been occupied since the beginning of the academic year last September. The previous site, part of the Faculty of Humanities which is threatened with drastic cuts, has also been forcibly evicted, which sparked a mass march and the further occupation of the University Senate back in February.

Students turned the large building into an alternative teaching space, with staff donating their time for free lectures under the banner of De Nieuwe Universiteit. In the weeks following this, it appeared that the College van Bestuur, or Executive Board, was listening to protesters, releasing a statement that they understood their concerns and were willing to negotiate.

This was facilitated by a much greater involvement of staff in what had been a student led protest, with hundreds of professors and lecturers publicly supported the issues raised by the occupation. The core of the protest is a feeling that UvA has suffered because of financialisation – research and teaching agendas are being moulded to only ensure profitability, rather than advancing knowledge and education.

This has been accompanied by the entry of the University into the world of property speculation, as it has engaged in all kinds of financial dealings on the back of its large portfolio of property in the centre of one of Europe’s most crowded and expensive cities. Alongside this, there is a feeling that professional managers and bureaucracy have removed democracy and academic involvement from the decision making of the University, in order to implement this neoliberal agenda.

After discussions between De Nieuwe Universiteit, ReThink UvA (a body grouping critical staff), the Humanities Rally (against cuts to their faculty), the officially elected Employee’s and Student’s Councils, staff unions and the Executive Board, a tentative agreement was reached. Two committees are to be formed, one examining the financial affairs of the University, and the other to oversee democratisation of its governance.

The protest groups are to play a leading role in their formation and implementation. Fragile trust between management, staff and students had been built up on this basis. The occupation agreed to leave voluntarily on Sunday 12 April.

However, in a move that has backfired spectacularly, the Board declared that this was not fast enough for their purposes, and pressured the Amsterdam city administration to send in police during the final event of the occupation, an academic Festival of Arts and Sciences. Nine were arrested, and others violently evicted in shocking scenes.

The eviction was met two days later by a massive march through the University campus, with near universal chants of “Resign” in reference to the Executive Board. Their hasty actions have radicalised many who were previously more moderate, and shattered what trust had been built up in their good faith. After hundreds of staff signed an open letter demanding they go, the position of President Gunning became untenable.

An interim replacement has been appointed, with hopeful signals that incoming managers are more inclined to listen to the protests’ demands. In the meantime, work on the committees forges ahead. Occupiers emphasise that the eviction cost the movement nothing but a building, and has in fact brought many more people over to the cause.

With their position significantly weakened, the Board are in much less of a position to resist implementation of change. It is to be hoped that the victories of the movement here at UvA can be built on, to provide a working example of change at a University won by radical movements, which can provide an example across the Netherlands and around the world.

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