Controversial politician to lead Dutch universities

Backlash against VSNU’s appointment of Pieter Duisenberg, who called for investigation of anti-conservative bias on campus

September 11, 2017
Pieter Duisenberg
Pieter Duisenberg

Academics in the Netherlands are in revolt over the selection of a politician who called for the investigation of potential anti-conservative bias in higher education as the president of the association that represents Dutch universities.

Critics also see Pieter Duisenberg, who has stepped down as an MP for the centre-right People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) to take up the post at the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU), as heralding a move towards a higher tuition fee, "market-driven" system.

Guy Geltner, a professor of medieval history at the University of Amsterdam, said he thought the appointment was "bizarre" and has set up an online petition to demand his resignation, which has so far garnered more than 3,500 signatures.

Earlier this year, Mr Duisenberg proposed a motion in the Dutch parliament that asks the government "to request advice and consideration from the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences" about "whether self-censorship and limitation of diversity of perspectives" is common in universities, after being approached by conservative academics with claims of discrimination.

Professor Geltner said the proposal to investigate the political affiliations of Dutch academics "sounds awful" and "brings us back to a very dark period in recent history".

"Even the suggestion is an intimidation," he said. The plan was "lifted from the playbook" of "the Trumpists", he argued, and was an attempt to paint academics as a "fifth column".

Professor Geltner also feared that Mr Duisenberg wanted to make Dutch higher education "market-driven", with high student debt and university leaders commanding the salaries of "corporate executives", ideas that were "not [for] the Netherlands", he said. 

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But some believe Mr Duisenberg's position on academics' political affiliations have been misconstrued, and admire his engagement with higher education as an MP since 2012. Jo Ritzen, a former minister of education for the Labour party, which has served in coalition with the VVD, said that Mr Duisenberg was not calling for "government screening of academics before they are appointed".

Instead, Mr Duisenberg was "ill at ease" with academics using their positions to express "ideological points of view", Professor Ritzen said – although he added that Mr Duisenberg should make it more explicitly clear that he does not want some people excluded from academia for their views. Mr Duisenberg has previously said that he is not advocating "quotas on political views" in Dutch universities.

His appointment nonetheless marked a "very important change" for the VSNU's approach to policy, Professor Ritzen added, although he did not think it would pave the way for increased tuition fees in the Netherlands, which are currently around €2,000 (£1,833) a year for European Union students.

Instead, he would likely steer universities towards improving the employability of their students, and researching topics that "satisfy the curiosity" of ordinary people.

There is also controversy over how and why Mr Duisenberg, who will take over as president in October, was appointed. Professor Geltner said there was a "widely shared perception" that his appointment was part of political "horse trading" as the VVD and other parties try to hammer out a coalition deal following March's election.

But a spokesman for the VSNU said there had been no political involvement in the decision, which had been unanimously approved by the university presidents that make up the association's board. He declined to say who had put forward Mr Duisenberg as a candidate. VSNU policy positions would also have to be agreed by the entire board, he added.

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