[Column] Set the right example

Columnist Bob van Vliet believes that deans and directors should take a more active part in the public debate about controversial issues.

Bob van Vliet: “Comparing everyone with the same yardstick also depoliticizes the whole thing.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

Someone higher up in the organisation recently asked me how I think that deans and directors should deal with discussions and campaigns on controversial issues such as climate policy or the war in Israel/Palestine. I believe that universities have a responsibility here that goes beyond organising meetings aimed at personal well-being such as the ‘share & care’ sessions that were held at TU Delft in connection with the situation in Gaza.

The desire to be ‘neutral’ and ‘inclusive’ seems to result in everyone in positions of authority anxiously avoiding anything that could involve opposing opinions. But universities should proactively make an effort to stimulate substantive discussions, especially on issues that you know involve strong feelings. Not only because it is a task of universities to reflect critically on society and politics, but also because it is simply a part of good education.

If you want to educate students to become critical and democratically minded citizens, you must set the right example. When something happens in the world that a significant group of students is concerned about, that is the perfect opportunity to show how you can deal with it academically and democratically.

In the case of Israel/Palestine, that example had to come from a group of students. They showed how this could be done by organising a meeting in which relevant researchers shared their knowledge about the situation, followed by an opportunity for questioning and discussion. In other words: they organised their own education.

Do what those students do

I have rarely been so impressed by a group of students. Still, I would have preferred this event to have been organised by someone with some academic authority such as a professor, director, or dean. Because then it would also have sent the message: this is how we do things here.

In addition to organising academic discussions about societal issues, I would also like to see the higher ups actively participate in these kinds of discussions. Opinion pieces in Delta are almost exclusively written by students and PhD candidates. Nothing says ‘we don’t really find this important’ more clearly than leaving it to students and PhDs.

Of course, I understand that it is not always possible or appropriate for people in a leadership role to publicly take strong positions. But considerations with less definitive conclusions, or a clearly argued explanation of your struggles with an issue are also worth publishing. I also realise that TU Delft is not even remotely a democratic organisation. But it would be good to pretend that it is a bit more often.

So that is my answer. Set the right example. Do what those students do. Or at least support them publicly. If you believe that critical thinking, substantive debate, and democratic engagement are important, then the important people should visibly put this into practice.

Bob van Vliet is a lecturer at the 3mE Faculty and is specialised in design education. Reactions are welcome via B.vanVliet@tudelft.nl.

Bob van Vliet / Columnist

Columnist Bob van Vliet

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