Column: Bob van Vliet


Much of the discussion about social safety is about hierarchy, writes columnist Bob van Vliet. But you can also call it something else: a lack of democracy. ‘We have zero power over our administrators.’

Bob van Vliet: “Door iedereen langs één meetlat te leggen, wordt het geheel onterecht een apolitiek gebeuren.” (Foto: Sam Rentmeester)

The Works Council is looking for ideas to enhance social safety. The Executive Board too wants (in Dutch) ‘to use the expertise in the organisation’.

My suggestion: democracy.

Delta currently writes about little else than the aftermath of the report by the Inspectorate of Education. And rightly so. Everyone agrees that the aggressive reaction of the Executive Board and Supervisory Board confirms the conclusions of the report, and shows that they did not get the message.

What strikes me is that everyone continues to courteously direct their suggestions to the Executive Board. The only call to step down (in Dutch) that I have seen – from fellow columnist Dap Hartmann – was directed at the Supervisory Board. The trade unions dare only hint at it. Otherwise, it seems a matter of course that it will be the Executive Board – this Executive Board – that will lead the drafting and implementation of a plan to finally get serious about creating a healthy work environment.

Unfortunately, that is a sensible assumption.  After all, we have zero power over these people.

Is that not also the problem? Much of the discussion about social safety revolves around hierarchy. But you can also call that something else: a lack of democracy.

‘Organise binding referenda on big decisions about the future of the university and on the reappointment of administrators ’

In a previous draft of this column, what followed here was a snarky section about why I would like to be able vote out our current Board. But that is not really my point here. My point is how bizarre it is that the feudal structure of universities is so rarely a topic of discussion. That I am sick and tired of the fact that those with the power to speak on behalf of ‘TU Delft’ can say so many things that I see little or no understanding or support for amongst colleagues. That we have so damned little influence on all of this. That precisely in the place where facts and arguments should be more important than authority, those with authority cannot be forced to have their facts and arguments in order.

Apart from a culture problem, we also have a structure problem. And that structure is partly the reason for the culture. As the leaders of WOinActie – Rens Bod, Remco Breuker, and Ingrid Robeyns – wrote (in Dutch) years ago already: the extremely hierarchical organisation of Dutch universities facilitates socially unsafe behaviour.

Do something about that. For example, give bottom-up evaluations a decisive voice in deciding whether someone deserves a promotion or not. At the moment, supervisors and administrators are only accountable to those higher up than them.

Democratise the university. Stop organising meetings to ‘share ideas’ and ‘to enter into discussion’. Instead, organise binding referenda on big decisions about the future of the university and on the reappointment of administrators.

And let’s be honest, the time to ask for good ideas for improving social safety has passed. Ideas abound. They have been listed in internal reports for years now and the Inspectorate lists a few as well. The problem is that too little is done about it.

How wonderful it would be if we were allowed to hold our bosses responsible for that.

Bob van Vliet is a lecturer at the faculties of Mechanical Engineering and Architecture and the Built Environment and is specialised in design education.

Columnist Bob van Vliet

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