Why was I there?
Last Monday I was asked to hop along on a visit to the Young Democrats in Utrecht. The young democrats are the youth-wing of D66. D66 is generally a center-right-wing party with some progressive elements. On the one hand they claim to want to stop subsidies by the State for nuclear power and to support education. On the other hand they believe it problematic that the Dutch have the lowest amount of working hours every year in the industrialized world and we should work towards a 40-hour workweek (why this is a problem).
I was invited by a friend from De Nieuwe Universiteit who was to participate in a discussion about the recent protests in Amsterdam together with a member of the Central Student-Council of the University of Amsterdam (UvA). There were about twenty people present. The Central Student-Council was represented by Tariq Sewbaransigh. My friend was delegated from De Nieuwe Universiteit and while setting up I was asked to partake in the discussion as a panel-member as well. This made for the peculiar position where we had three speakers with divergent ideas about the changes we want to see at the university. I believe we should radically change the university governance structure into a fully bottom-up approach where those closest to the actual dissemination and creation of knowledge, students and teachers, should have the most important say in how their departments operate. This turns the current system literally on its head as the Board of Directors (CvB) is currently the organization which makes over-arching decisions about the entire university which have to be implemented by the faculties. The lower in the structure of the university one is the less one has to say about the governance of the university. I've been known to say that the current CvB shouldn't disappear and be replaced but that the CvB as a concept needs to be re-evaluated and, potentially, disappear. Tariq was rather more conservative in his approach to the problems at the university, believing that we should strengthen the way in which the student and teacher bodies have a say in the governance of the university but that we still need a CvB that is, simply, more accountable. My friend was roughly in between our approaches.
The discussion was marked by an explanation of the protests as well as a very interactive exchange of questions and answers. The first thing that Tariq, my friend, and I noted in our post-commentary walking back to the station is that a lot of what we were saying seemed to not actually be understood. Furthermore, there was one person who, on multiple occasions, commented on the Bungehuis and Maagdenhuis occupations by stating that it was simply not allowed. The fact that De Nieuwe Universiteit has managed to get a board-member fired through its actions should show that, even though the protests are nowhere near reaching their goals yet, direct action does get satisfaction. The most important thing that D66 have done for students in the last year was voting in favour of a massive cut in the student grant.
My ideas, for almost complete decentralization, were met with a most interesting response. I clearly stated that the only people who can make useful decisions about education are the educators and educated and that they should be united in 'local (in a university)' councils to make decisions on their departments. I clearly stated that no manager, even if they come from the academic community, has the knowledge of what happens in every department. A psychologist may have adequate ideas for what could be good in a psychology department but the needs for any of the humanities or sciences are different. Any solutions such a manager comes up with may fit a few departments but can't properly fit all departments. It is the attempt to find universal solutions to problems that are fundamentally localized. Such solutions can only create additional friction because of the difference in problems or they have to have been watered down to such an extent that it doesn't actually solve any problem at all.
The commentary from the public on this proposal generally came down to teachers and students not being professional managers and not being able to make decisions because they would not have an idea about how to manage. This response is, of course, most telling. I had previous stated that no professional manager could make adequate decisions because of their distance from that which is being governed and within a minute some members of the public state that the people who are right in what needs to be governed can't because they don't know how to manage. In that statement is entangled the most important problem with our society, top-down management of people (by force), comes from.
What I have noticed in the Marxist texts that I have read is a certain mistrust bordering on contempt (and in a work like Paul Lafargue's The Right to be Lazy it felt like outright contempt) for 'the working class.' It is this same mistrust in which the commentary by the Young Democrats was drenched. It is the idea that we, humans (because what is 'the working class' these days?), are incapable of managing our own affairs. It is the idea that those who do the work don't know what is required for doing the work. That there must always be a manager to say which way to turn the screw or where to send the freshly-written paper. Of course, this is exactly what we tend to see in a setting of management. When someone constantly tells you what to do many people will, eventually, shut down their thinking habits and become mindless robots. Does this mean we cannot think for ourselves and manage our own affairs when we are given the chance?
It may sound classist but I would say that the University is the perfect place to explore if this social construction can be changed. In an environment which should engender a critical mind, which is predicated on our ability to think for ourselves, can we not expect self-management to find at least a modicum of success?
The only valid commentary I heard from the Young Democrats was the idea that people might make decisions out of self-interest which is a problem I can't deny may exist. Of course, this problem is equally present with a professional management. We have to recognize the fact that we live in a world ruled by the demands of money (or, if you will, capital). With the protests of De Nieuwe Universiteit we could try to enter a brave new university in which we work to self-management and we can be assured of making mistakes. However, if one or two departments, in some way, fail they will probably have to go to other departments or a faculty/university-level emergency fund for failing departments. When the central management, the CvB, fail they may bring the entire university to the brink of bankruptcy.
The exact form decentralized management can take in the university is hard to foresee. I can try and create a model which may work in a few departments and fail in other departments. What is often forgotten is that true democracy demands constant experimentation. When one form of governance doesn't work as we would like it too we must find a different form. The only imperative is then the ability to experiment and keep experimenting. With a centralized CvB making most or all decisions this experimenting becomes dangerous not just because of the aforementioned reasons but also because each experiment will cost enormous amounts of money. Getting a university with tens of thousands of students and thousands of staff to change a little bit will inevitably be an expensive affair. Getting a single department with two-hundred students and a dozen teachers to change can happen virtually overnight and within the same department we could even see several governance structures operating at the same time.
The change that we are demanding in the university will, doubtlessly, cost a lot of money as well. To detractors I must thus say, it is imperative that we create this change as the current governance structure of the university is detrimental to students, teachers, and the creation of new knowledge. The high centralization and bureaucratization detracts from the actual purposes of the university, which continues to be the dissemination and creation of knowledge. When a teacher has to fill in countless forms in the hopes of getting hir research proposal granted a lot of time, effort, and inevitably money gets lost in bureaucracy that could have been used to create or disseminate knowledge. Self-management will take away the need for a lot of this bureaucracy and make it possible for teachers and students to meet each other in a more amicable setting which will, on its own, already improve the dissemination of knowledge. Moreover, it will make it possible to discuss issues in a smaller setting that are being ignored in highly centralized institution. I'm talking of issues such as colonialism and heteronormativity in the university but also of avenues distinct to each field which are being left unexplored at this moment because of an overly controlling centralized and bureaucratic university.
In conclusion I would like to plea for some trust in the ability of humans to make organization structures. The fact is that management structures are creating a culture of uncriticality and lack of thinking which then self-legitimizes these management structures. What we are seeing, however, is only a very limited and shallow kind of human being; a kind of human being which indeed needs this management. I would suggest we take the bold step and start experimenting. For those afraid of mistakes that may be made, don't be. I can assure you mistakes are going to be made but this is necessary in order to find governance structures that work for what we want the university (as also wider society) to be instead of desperately clasping on to bureaucratic and centralized institutions which consistently fail to 'deliver the goods.'