People march in participation with the Maagdenhuis occupation, March 13, 2015. (Photo: Guido van Nispen)
When students kicked in the door of the main administrative building, the Maagdenuis, at the University of Amsterdam on February 25, the “New University” – or “De Nieuwe Universiteit” – movement introduced a new aesthetic dimension of protest.
The Maagdenhuis occupation, a protest against the financialization of higher education and against the concentration of decision-making power at the university, disrupted the everyday flow of doing, changing the normal organization of human sense experience on campus. By taking a building and reorganizing human activity inside, with emphasis on dialogue, deliberation and shared decision-making, occupiers created new aesthetic conditions necessary for a new politics, as philosopher Jacques Rancière, who recently visited the Maagdenhuis to show solidarity with UvA students, suggests.
Politics remains “aesthetic in principle,” Rancière, once wrote. By blurring boundaries between the expressible and ineffable, Rancière argues that aesthetics affirms antagonisms that the administrative order would rather see reconciled under its own imposed expectations.
Aesthetics appears, he wrote, in the creation of “uncertain communities that contribute to the formation of enunciative collectives that call into question the distribution of roles, territories and languages.” The Maagdenhuis has become space for a tension-filled community of students and teachers to advance a political aesthetic in the occupation, enabling an experience of the institution not as a given thing, but as a complex of social relations subject to change.
After a 1995 decision transferring public ownership of real estate to universities like UvA . . . education and research considerations started taking a backseat to commercial concerns regarding real estate planning.
Speaking to UvA occupiers, Rancièreaffirmed the salience of recasting space – like the Maagdenuis occupation – for political struggle against what in Dutch they call rendementsdenken, a rationality characterized by over-zealous concern with profit maximization and efficiency. Indeed, this is the mission of the occupiers: Democratize and decentralize the university to transcend the established order of rendementsdenken.
The Rise of Rendementsdenken at UvA
Ewald Engelen, a professor of finance and geography at UvA who spoke about the perils of the financialization of higher education at the Maagdenhuis occupation, explained in a coauthored article, published in 2014, how rendementsdenken became the ruling logic – and logic of rule – at his university. After a 1995 decision transferring public ownership of real estate to universities like UvA, he and colleagues argued, education and research considerations started taking a backseat to commercial concerns regarding real estate planning. The state’s retreat from management of real estate demanded tighter account of “costs, profits, assets and liabilities” at the university, setting “in motion a process of internal reorganization to produce the transparent cash flow metrics that were required to service the rapidly growing real estate debt,” the academics wrote.
Reorganization of the university’s governance structure in 1997, tying funding among different units within UvA to so-called “key performance indicators,” required a system of measuring, ranking and validating academic outputs.
Attempts to put a price on everything, maximize output and run the university like a company have had disastrous results.
The new process of fund allocation demanded “transparency.” This type of transparency differed from the kind demanded by proponents of antibureaucratic, direct democratic decision making. As Engelen and others showed, the former kind of transparency instead entailed quantification of all possible aspects of academia.
This would, the university maintained, establish proper incentives, improve the quality of education, attract more students and make UvA more competitive.
Harriet Bergman, a first-year research master graduate student in philosophy at UvA also studying economics at the undergraduate level, told Truthout attempts to put a price on everything, maximize output and run the university like a company have had disastrous results. She said the rule of rendementsdenken devalues important areas of inquiry – like language studies – not easily translatable into profit, while education at the university now tends to be treated in a merely instrumental way.
“It’s becoming a degree factory,” she said about UvA.
Natalie Scholz, professor of history at the university, wrote that struggling “to keep up with the output expectations in everything we do,” as demanded by the existing university structure, “we are quickly paralyzed by the thought, ‘You are not good enough.’ “
She said this culture of fear and shame is tied to the university’s obsession with reputation and public image.
“It suddenly feels like you’re harming the university when you become critical,” she told Truthout over the phone while away in Vienna, a city with its own history of student radicalism dating back to the “world revolution” of 1848, when students in the Academic Legion militia led the struggle against Habsburg absolutism.
In the past, critical perspectives combined with action, prompting reorganization of UvA along democratic lines, but much of that has been reversed.
After a series of student protests in the 1960s – including an occupation of the Maagdenhuis in 1969 – the state passed the Academic Governance Act in 1970, giving students a say in academic affairs and situating decision-making power within the faculty. Modernization of this act in 1997 shifted control to an executive board increasingly comprised of politicians, financial analysts and consultancy firm managers.
Prioritizing supposed efficiency at the expense of human beings and allocating – or rescinding – department funds based on related exchange-value criteria institutes an insidious mechanism of divide and rule.
Engelen and colleagues claimed this “professionalization” amounted to “corporatization” of the university. The professionals who came to command the institution required market metrics to evaluate and save education, their article explained, and administration of output-based evaluations, combined with UvA’s new use of financial instruments and real estate, provided theoretical justification for those professionals with purported expertise to wield greater power in the academy.
“Their way of thinking is just so detached from the everyday reality of our work,” Scholz said.
The Netherlands cut university budgets by 4 percent in 2002, which translated to a 14 million euro income loss for UvA. That same year, UvA purchased its first interest-rate swaps for 34 million euros as a means for managing risk, exchanging uncertain future interest payments for a secured flat rate, locking the university into set financial contracts. Together with the UvA board entering credit negotiations with four banks – ING, ABN AMRO, Rabobank and BMG – this deepened dependency on financial markets outside its control.
Scholz said this is all coeval with administration just being “negligent of the simple humanity of the people working at the university.”
Prioritizing supposed efficiency at the expense of human beings and allocating – or rescinding – department funds based on related exchange value criteria institutes an insidious mechanism of divide and rule, she said.
“It impedes creativity,” Scholz said. “It impedes real interesting work, and it also poisons social relationships.”
Patricia Pisters, professor of media studies at UvA, recounted how she – like many others – watched this all unfold for too long.
“I was chair of the department and have seen all this happening,” she told Truthout in an email. “For many years I tried to cope and deal with everything as well as I could. But on so many levels, so many things are really, really worrying – that I decided to speak out.”
“It was just . . . people being so extremely angry that they – unplanned – kicked in a door and stormed in and didn’t want to leave after that.
Pisters cited multiple “entangled” issues at UvA. She said the issues include imposition of a business model approach, move to a centralized mode of governance, increasing control mechanisms, bigger bureaucracy and constant cuts with crucial funds diverted to entities outside the university.
Responses to Rendementsdenken at UvA
Scholz said she sympathized with students when they first occupied the Bungehuis, despite some colleagues calling the move counterproductive.
“I thought from the beginning, ‘You know, maybe I don’t know exactly, but it feels like a great chance to open up the debate,’ ” she said.
The UvA Board of Directors – or College van Bestuur, CvB – threatened to fine students up to 100,000 euros per day during the initial occupation at the Bungehuis back in February.
“The university acted like, I would say, a multinational company and not a university,” Scholz said, about the administration’s intimidation tactics.
Bergman, 23, said the Bungehuis action was “really well planned” and “really well organized,” which inspired people.
She said police evicted students from the Bungehuis upon the administration’s request, but then plans for a demonstration the next day got even bigger.
Some 1,500 people – herself included – participated in the demonstration, she said, which culminated with about 300 students spontaneously entering the Maagdenhuis.
“It was just, well, people being so extremely angry that they – unplanned – kicked in a door and stormed in and didn’t want to leave after that,” said Bergman, who chairs the ASDV Bonaparte debating society.
A general assembly ensued, she said. Teachers and students discussed for four hours if they should stay or go, what they really wanted and whether they would soon get evicted.
The decision to stay opened what Rancière would term a new aesthetic dimension for antagonistic politics. Transformation of the space piqued the interest necessary for transformative experiences to take place, Bergman agreed.
She said at first many people just thought, “Oh, this building is appropriated. I’m angry as well, so I will join.”
Scholz, meanwhile, was abroad when the Maagdenhuis occupation started. She was in Gainesville, Fla., for a conference talk, when it went down, she said.
But, she said, soon after the occupation began, one student who had been in her seminar garnered admiration for facilitating a discussion when the mayor of Amsterdam visited. She said he ensured that everyone – even those in formal positions of power – waited their turn to speak and did not interrupt.
Students adopted hand signals and borrowed select assembly practices from those used during assemblies in the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011.
Both the democratic process within the occupation and the initial direct action involved in the Maagdenhuis “appropriation,” as students call it, differ from use of established channels deemed ineffective by many occupiers.
“It was just impossible to have discussions or real debate with the UvA in the legally admitted way,” Bergman said. “So we had to do something like civil disobedience in order to get through to them.”
Within the occupation, Bergman said, efforts are made to ensure all voices are heard.
“They’re so conscious of being respectful and empowering to others,” Scholz said.
At UvA, a trend toward flexible contract employment continues apace as it does in the US, with low-wage contingent faculty shouldering greater teaching loads under precarious labor arrangements.
Bergman said they have a general assembly every day with “an open character,” where many come to discuss big decisions like reacting to statements from the CvB, how to deal with power structures, and in what ways to engage the government. Smaller assemblies are held daily, she said, to figure out how to run the building, who to invite to speak, how to address people causing problems and how to make sure the building is clean.
During the day, between 100 and 150 people are walking in and out all the time, she said, while around 50 people clean, sometimes have a beer and then sleep at the Maagdenhuis at night. Up to 500 or 600 enter for large lectures like the one delivered by Rancière or the talk American anthropologist David Graeber gave while sitting cross-legged on a rug surrounded by hundreds of students.
Graeber, who helped organize the occupation of Zuccotti Park in New York, circa 2011, and is now a professor at the London School of Economics, returned home to an occupation at his own university.
Students occupied the central meeting room of the administration at LSE, the Vera Anstey Suite. They are demanding authentic democracy by way of “a student-staff council, directly elected by students and academic and nonacademic staff, responsible for making all managerial decisions of the institution.”
Bergman said the occupiers at the Maagdenhuis spoke with occupiers at the Vera Anstey Suite via Skype.
Dutch Rendementsdenken Vis-à-Vis Higher Education in the US
Higher education in the Netherlands more closely resembles the university situation in London than anywhere in the US.
Students at UvA do not face the same tuition-and-fees-based, debt-financed model of higher education that predominates in the US.
A March 2014 study by Demos found more than seven in 10 college seniors in the US borrow to pay for higher education with an average debt exceeding $29,000. This “debt-for-diploma system,” as authors of the study labeled it, emerged in the US just two decades ago, when state funding for college started being rolled back and education became increasingly privatized.
“It’s not comparable to that level,” Scholz said, comparing UvA to American universities. The “parts of the university landscape” where similar neoliberal regimes have been introduced, she added, are expanding, however.
In the Netherlands, though, the state still pays for most of a student’s higher education.
They are calling for a shift away from a “quantitative, output-based financial model to qualitative forms of evaluation” and for an agreement about equitable workloads with job security.
Bergman said about 70 percent of the education is paid by the state, and heretofore, it also provided “study finance” of about 250 euros per month to cover college expenses and make it easier for students to study. However, she added, the monthly stipend is going to be stopped and the money will be given to “the university” – in the rendementsdenken context “the university” does not mean students – directly.
At UvA, Bergman said, a trend toward flexible contract employment continues apace as it does in the US, with low-wage contingent faculty shouldering greater teaching loads under precarious labor arrangements.
George Blausten, a professor in the humanities at UvA who came to Amsterdam from the US, pointed out that the eviction of the Bungehuis coincided with National Adjunct Walkout Day in his home country.
Occupiers at the Bungenhuis also discussed openly how to end precarious labor at UvA and help ensure academic workers in the Netherlands they will have a job the next year and year after that, Bergman said.
In the US, the number of tenure-track professors has decreased since 1975 as greater reliance on adjuncts and graduate student workers to teach university classes has become common.
But, Bergman said, with the budget cuts hitting those in the humanities at UvA the hardest, the administration there plans to fire about 150 full-time equivalents.
“Those will be the graduate students teaching and everybody with a flexible contract,” she said. “So it’s actually that the people who have a job – the people who have tenure – those are the ones now having even more work to do. They also have to give the first-year courses now.”
Ongoing Struggles for a New University
Staff formed ReThink UvA partly in response. In conjunction with other occupiers, they are calling for a shift away from a “quantitative, output-based financial model to qualitative forms of evaluation,” and for an agreement about equitable workloads with job security.
The organization advances demands similar to those made by students, Bergman said, but they do not claim the occupation themselves and provide more of a teachers’ perspective.
It is very hopeful to see that there is knowledge, patience, room for individual voices, room for mistakes, and . . . a deep feeling of urgency and necessity.”
“They sort of wanted to show that they, as teachers, also were left out,” she said, “and that they aren’t just a group of radicals or people appropriating a building. So they can sort of push for the same demands as the students have without having to be all on – without all agreeing or having consensus about if they support the appropriation or not, and also without having to explicitly say that they are part of the New University movement.”
Pisters wrote in an email to Truthout that a return to participatory governance is called for by students, and staff could help, but it is necessary to also avoid situations where faculty and students assume even greater administrative duties without addressing existing overwork issues.
Under the existing regime, workers everywhere exhaust themselves – and the planet – in the labor process, Pisters explained.
Too much knowledge on the work floor is currently ignored, she added. Pisters also cautioned against micromanaging, holding endless meeting where nothing gets decided and letting departments become “little islands” again.
“But again, what I find amazing is that there is an enormous wisdom of the crowd – of students and staff,” she said. “In reactions, in email exchanges, in the General Assemblies and meetings, it is very hopeful to see that there is knowledge, patience, room for individual voices, room for mistakes, and . . . a deep feeling of urgency and necessity.”
The UvA executive board met with New University students in late March. Hans Amman, on behalf of the CvB “presented a 10-point plan that vigorously addresses the concerns of the academic community,” according to an official universitystatement.
“They want us to talk about the 10 points and not about our demands,” Scholz said. “They’re promoting their 10 points whenever they can.”
Bergman said the board does not want to give any consequences to the “conversation sessions” with occupiers, and those on the board only go so far as to say students’ concerns will be added to the agenda and their opinion will be taken into account.
“Screw us and we multiply,” reads the banner still at the center of the Maagdenhuis, indicating to the administration the movement’s eagerness to fight back while reinforcing for the New University an unwillingness to be ignored or co-opted.
The occupation, following Rancière, realized an aesthetic universe replete with new pedagogies that imply production of new social relations and even new kinds of people.
Scholz said part of the struggle is never to ignore the “human complexity in everything that we do” and acknowledge the always-present interconnection between “logical thinking and emotions” that makes meaning – or the struggle over it – even possible.
“It brings collective action to a new level of – you could say, even – humanness,” she said about evolving Maagdenhuis aesthetics.
Bergman confirmed that students intend to expand that aesthetic politics and escalate the struggle if necessary.
“We’re still not really sure how we’re going to escalate because we already have the symbol of power,” she said. “We already have that. So I’m not sure how, but I think that strikes will be the logical next step.”