A spectre haunting the University of Amsterdam has marched into the Maagdenhuis and settled within its venerable halls upon an old mattress. Surprisingly, the student movement is entirely English spoken, and many internationals have rallied ‘round the flag — but to what effect?
text — Bob van Toor | images — Daniël Rommens
The University of Amsterdam has survived two historical weeks; both in the sense that history might have been made, and that it is being repeated. As in 1969, students protesting for more democratic and transparent management have occupied the offices of the highest executive echelons. A certain consciousness of the gravity of the occupations of the Bungehuis and the Maagdenhuis has permeated even those faculties somewhat removed from the battlegrounds of the Spui and Bungehuis; those less affected by major budget cuts and the across-the-board elimination of jobs and academic programmes as being experienced in the Humanities.
To many students, however, the occupations, the showdowns between insubordinate students and University president Louise Gunning, the demands and rallies, remain but a distracting news item on Nu.nl in-between revision sessions. One would expect that international students might be among the least concerned: even to those who stay in Amsterdam longer than a semester or two, the situation might seem a little abstract. Yet international academics are enthusiastically jumping into the fray. In fact, non-natives were at the forefront of the crusade against the university’s technocratic leadership from the outset.
Now is the winter of our discontent
However, a quick recap of the skirmish might be welcomed by those who weren’t. Discontent with budget cuts, reorganization of the Humanities faculty and the disappearance of 7 ‘small’ language degrees had been brewing for weeks when on February 13th, a group called De Nieuwe Universiteit occupied the Bungehuis, which had just been sold by the UvA so as to be developed into a hotel. In the following week, the board subpoenaed the occupiers, threatening to fine each of them €100.000 for every day of the occupation.
Although the university stressed that the sum was not unusual, this ham-handed move demonstrated the board’s insensitivity to the intricacies of the symbolic scuffle. Dozens of outraged staff members signed a statement claiming that they too were among the occupiers and should thus also be fined. All subsequent attempts at constructive dialogue failed and after ten days, the occupiers were removed from the Bungehuis by police force.
The next day a small group of students, remaining at the Maagdenhuis after a larger march on the Spui, angrily broke down its doors. Loudly calling for the University’s Board of Executives to step down, a few dozen students went in — and stayed.
An international perspective
A week before the Maagdenhuis occupation, when protest first sparked at the Bungehuis, several internationals from both the UvA and AUC immediately joined De Nieuwe Universiteit. ‘I recently received my PhD. But with the direction the UvA is now taking, I would never have gotten into the same programme had I arrived a year later,’ said one, sitting with a British friend in the bubbling, occupied cafeteria.
‘The bridge is falling down as I’m walking over it’.
Originally from Turkey, she was involved in many social movements there, she explained. Perhaps, she thought, internationals from the more activist student milieus could inspire the Dutch with their own experiences of subverting power and repertoires of social action.
Now, in the Maagdenhuis as before in the Bungehuis, significant numbers of international students are present in the occupied administrative centre — many of them attracted to the talks by the university’s more revolutionarily engaged professors like Dan Hassler-Forest and Linda Duits.
‘I saw a live stream online of what was going on inside here yesterday, and noticed that everyone was speaking English. That was surprising, but it made it clear to me that internationals were a part of this as well — or at least welcome to join’ says James, a student from the UK.
‘The university tries its best to attract international students’, says a psychology major from Germany who wishes, like almost all students here, to remain anonymous. ‘And so it should: universities have to be international societies. You cannot invite these people and then expect them not to want to be involved in the way their institution is managed.’ He is hoping to attain a Master’s degree here. ‘It would be relatively easy for me to get my degree and leave for another country, but I feel it’s important for international students to be here today and show solidarity.’
Lost in translation
What began as a purely regional, internal debate on university management grew into a global movement as the week progressed, with the fervor to occupy the UvA’s real estate spreading and prominent academics like Noam Chomsky and Judith Butler expressing their solidarity with the occupation. The protesters themselves partly facilitated this by choosing to debate and communicate almost exclusively in English from the first day in the Bungehuis.
At the general assembly at the Maagdenhuis, one in every few speakers stands out with native English among the many Dutch accents and whispered consultations on how to translate lokaalvredebreuk.
It soon became clear that neither the majority of Dutch occupiers and self-proclaimed facilitator Jaap Oosterwijk, nor, regrettably, board president Gunning, were gifted at Anglophone oratory, and many scoffed at the ineptitude of both sides to convey their arguments eloquently in their second language, in line with a long-existing argument at the UvA to curb the use of often sub-par English at the institution. What was essentially a Dutch university’s internal struggle, the critics felt, should be settled in Dutch.
And yet, the move seems to have worked in the protesting students’ favour, with international academics, both locally and abroad, chiming in on feelings of discontent more widely shared. ‘It is strange to see what is still a national debate held in English,’ says the German psychology student, ‘but it’s a very good move, and shows the progressive nature of both Amsterdam and this movement.’
And yet, for all they bring to the table, the internationals present in the occupations might have aided its detractors, too. As was the case with the Spinhuis squat last year, the occupation might well have been aided by members of other Amsterdam subcultures, more experienced in these matters. Anarchists, international socialists, squatters and members of other overlapping circles not directly involved with the university, always formed a part of the occupations’ core; some of them (former) students, others only sympathizing with friends or the general subversive cause.
This did not go unnoticed, and the persistent idea that a significant part of this university protest was carried out by unenrolled rabble-rousers provided the opposition with ammunition. An online report on the Parool website attracted comments such as: ‘Most of these protesters are actually those so-called exchange students — students who can’t afford education in their own country, and therefore come here, where the government pays most tuition. It’s unlike Amsterdam’.
‘Go occupy a historical monument in your own country!’, said one, regrettably typical, reply.
But all in all, it seems that international and native students have rightfully and successfully joined forces to reach their goals — diverse as those goals may be in the highly individualistic democratic universe within the occupation. A handful of investigative visits to the idealists’ front line revealed, if anything, that international students are exemplary in their fervor for social change, not to mention their much greater ability to eloquently argue for it.
Contrary to critics’ insinuations, the vast majority appeared to be students, although among the internationals were one or two lost VU-postgrads (‘I’m studying social movements, and just wanted to get involved in something’). Students, moreover, who have just as much to lose as their Dutch comrades, if not more. In the words of the Turkish PhD at the Bungehuis:
‘I don’t know what being here will mean for my future, but it’s a risk I’ll take.’
As she left for a General Assembly, she quipped: ‘And besides, meeting Roel van Duijn here after reading so much about the Dutch Provos was great.’
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