[Column] Free debate

Monique van der Veen wonders where TU Delft stands on the matter of endorsing free academic debate. Our Code of Conduct should define behaviour more precise, she suggests.

Monique van der Veen: “If you are concerned about polarisation at all, then assuming that ‘I am the problem’ is a very good option.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

With the Charlie Hebdo trial running, it seems like a fitting time to finally read The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. Cartoons and a book that are deemed so hurtful by some, that they even justify killing the offenders.

Our ICT Code of Conduct, that we all had to sign in order to use the TU Delft ICT facilities, states ‘We observe the standards of decency by refraining from hurtful statements’. I would call this an ill-defined phrase because there are hurtful statements that have no place in a healthy, professional environment, and then there are potentially hurtful statements that serve a higher goal. Let’s give an example close to our academic home. An anti-immigration or limited immigration argument could be made by an academic or student, and substantiated by economic arguments for example. A refugee who is part of the TU Delft Committee might find that hurtful. But does that mean that an academic debate on that topic cannot take place? It is different when statements are made to harass individuals based on their refugee status. I think we can all agree that the latter should have no place in our community.

The general TU Delft Code of Conduct describes the expected behaviour at the TU Delft community. The choice was made not to phrase this as negative statements (‘thou shalt not’), but in positive statements of how we should behave in terms of six identified core values. It contains the expected values like ‘Respect’ and ‘Integrity’, but it also contains more unexpected ones, of which I particularly like ‘Courage’. In general, the Code of Conduct sounds good. However, it does not state the boundaries of undesirable hurtful statements. In fact, it doesn’t even mention that TU Delft should strive for free academic debates of ideas in its quest for truth about reality – which is after all the endeavour of science.

The current Code of Conduct leaves quite some room for interpretation here

While it would seem odd that a university doesn’t endorse free academic debate, I genuinely wonder where TU Delft stands on this matter. For example, when the TU Delft feminists unsuccessfully tried to censor a screening by Vox and Studium Generale of The Red Pill *, TU Delft’s response was not to make a statement to defend free academic debate, but to invite the group to co-organise the Diversity Talks events. Another example is TU Delft employee, Dap Hartmann, who was called a ‘right wing extremist’ and a ‘bigot’ by colleagues because of expressing hurtful ideas, which caused him to stop writing columns for Delta. Also then, TU Delft was silent. And I get it, the TU Delft culture is conflict-avoidant. Perhaps that also explains the lack of public debate at TU Delft that Bob van Vliet lamented in a recent column. TU Delft would rather appease, let the dust settle and let it quietly go away. A positive slant might be that TU Delft tends to seek harmony, which certainly can be the wise approach at times. But there are also times when a higher principle is at stake, when the courage to take a position, to be a beacon in a storm, is needed. After all, courage is one of TU Delft’s core values.

This does not mean that all expressions should be condoned in a university setting. The current Code of Conduct leaves quite some room for interpretation here, while I think it would be good to precisely define behaviour that is objectively unacceptable. The university that took the lead in safeguarding free academic debate is the University of Chicago with its Chicago principles that state that ‘Universities should be expected to provide the conditions within which hard thought, and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgment, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions, can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom’. The Chicago principles have since been endorsed by 76 institutions. Furthermore, the University of Chicago also defines harassment very precisely. I’d be happy to take part in an effort to add them to our Code of Conduct in a manner appropriate for TU Delft.

* The Red Pill is a documentary in which the feminist filmmaker Cassie Jaye finds out that men’s rights activists do have some good points.

Monique van der Veen is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Applied Sciences, department of Chemical Engineering. You can read about the work of her research team here and follow her on Twitter at @MAvanderVeen

Monique van der Veen / Columnist

Columnist Bob van Vliet

Do you have a question or comment about this article?


Comments are closed.