[Column] Damned difficult

The Nashville discussion (or lack of it) shows that public and well-argued debate is hard to find at TU Delft, columnist Bob van Vliet writes.

Bob van Vliet: "So far reaching that I would have appreciated it if we had all been involved in a substantive and open discussion on the subject before the decision was taken to go for one particular option." (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)


In a classic episode of the popular comic xkcd, the main character is sitting at their computer, typing furiously. The reason for getting so worked up? Someone is wrong on the internet! That’s a little bit how I felt about the whole Nashville thing last month, and the response to it at TU Delft. I wasn’t able to write anything sensible about it, however. Not in the 500 words or less required for this column, in any case.

Partly this was because I know Marc de Vries personally. Not all that well, but still. Mainly, I was just too mad at too many people. All these people at the university who were wrong!

As it turns out, things aren’t quite what they seemed. Strange story (Dutch link), but a lot of the people whose names were underneath the Dutch Nashville declaration never really signed it. The whole thing still bugs me, though. Once again, this discussion made clear how utterly we lack a culture of academic debate here in Delft.

‘Multiple people asked me for my opinion’

Aside from the painful declaration itself, there was the call to fire De Vries, in an open letter full of misquotes and other factual errors. There was the question of why on earth we have a Professor of Christian Philosophy of Technology, as if there weren’t other endowed chairs as well. Is this only OK when they’re financed by big corporations who also receive academic blessing for missions in which some things are beyond question?

There was the justification (Dutch link) of the Executive Board for such a chair: all the other universities have them too. That argument didn’t even fly in kindergarten. And the overall response of the Board was simply a refusal to respond. After all, they declared, we’re a very different kind of university from those in Amsterdam, where the leadership did take a position. Exactly, I thought, angrily typing away at column drafts, one where no-one seems able to engage in a proper discussion.

The title of that comic is Duty Calls. Any public position, even if it’s just a columnist for the TU Delft university newsletter, comes with certain responsibilities. And with expectations. Multiple people asked me for my opinion. Yes, I thought, I should have an opinion on all this. Especially since these other people are spouting such nonsense, or refuse to go on record about it.

This was rather pretentious, of course, for a teacher-third-class, not even a PhD, to try and serve as moral conscience for an academic community. But surely there must be people with higher titles and paygrades than mine who feel a sense of public responsibility? A month later, I may not be so angry anymore, but I am disappointed. With so many learned people gathered together here in Delft, all working to shape the future, you would expect more public debate, with better argued contributions.

After all, that is one of the most important functions of a university: public thinking. Here at TU Delft, however, we seem to find this damned difficult as soon as there is the slightest hint of moral or ideological disagreement involved.

Bob van Vliet is a teacher at the Faculty of  3mE. Before, he was a teacher at Industrial Design Engineering and Architecture and the Built Environment

Bob van Vliet / Columnist

Columnist Bob van Vliet

Do you have a question or comment about this article?


Comments are closed.