De unie moet kiezen: of de ME of ‘positive societal impact’

Datum 8 dec, 2022

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(deze publicatie is in het Engels)

DRIFT supports the OccupyEUR protest movement and denounces the bizarre response last week by the university to whose family we belong. If this is how the organization continues to treat its critical minds, it has very little claim to the ‘positive societal impact’ central to its strategy.


An occupation ‘light’

Monday last week: newly-minted protest group OccupyEUR chose Erasmus University Rotterdam’s Woudestein campus as its stage for action. They asked their uni to further cut ties with fossil fuel giants, end precarisation, end student debt and end inaccessibility.

Many DRIFTers also visited the occupied Sanders building. ‘Occupation’ in this case meant that around 50 students and staff members stayed in the building’s main hall all day. Our impression: passersby could do just that – go about their day. Or they could hang around and read a few provocative banners, listen to engaged speakers, or have some climate & justice conversations. No education seemed hindered and there was no aggression on display.

Even the soup wasn’t safe

Fast forward to 6pm that day, and the University’s management board is breaking their promise to accept the invitation for dialogue. Instead, campus security and the handful of police officers already present are suddenly joined by large numbers of masked police officers, some in regular uniforms but more in riot gear. Most attendees heed the call to leave and those that stay put are promptly dragged out and arrested for ‘lokaalvredebreuk’, an offense so obscure that your family would fight you during Christmas scrabble if you dared put it on the board.

If that wasn’t enough, the most painful symbolic act is yet to occur. One police officer is caught on camera pouring vegan soup, donated by the Erasmus Food Lab, down a drain. We will add food waste to the various transgressions of Rotterdam’s finest.

A textbook transition dynamic

Much has been said about the university response already, but we want to use this statement of support to point out some worrying implications from a transition perspective. In short: the OccupyEUR movement is bringing some much-needed and accurate pressure, in the form of transformative power. But the university’s forceful dismissal of their protest suggests that the institution isn’t ready to engage with fundamental change, in stark contrast to its key strategic themes of sustainability, future-orientation and social impact.

The events last week appear to us like a textbook transitions case. It rings very familiar to the action research work we do to help understand and accelerate fundamental change towards just and sustainable societies.

In that work, we discuss with (potential) changemakers that by solely relying on the combination of niche innovators and transformative forces in incumbent players, they aren’t seeing the whole picture of societal transitions. We even described this dynamic in a peer-reviewed article published in Sustainability Science: “It is important to make processes of decline, breakdown, and phase-out more explicit in frameworks that describe the dynamics of societal change.”

To make it even more concrete, as part of a large EU-funded project, some of our researchers looked deep into the role that social innovations, among which the divestment and other protest movements, play in European energy transitions (think Groninger Bodembeweging and ABP Fossielvrij). One of the resulting recommendations of that massive case study: “Appreciate those actors working on ‘framings against fossil-fuel based energy pathways’ as pointing you to blind spots that might easily undermine any progress that you are achieving with climate policies.” (p104)

So why does our university not ‘appreciate those actors’ when they bring up those ‘important processes’, right on our doorstep? Especially when they come in the shape of students and staff already familiar to the organisation? Whatever the reason, it’s a move counterproductive to its ambitions.

It’s hard to dictate change

As a powerful and influential organization, the University is enmeshed in a regime that will continue to be challenged as societal and ecological pressures mount. When we reason from a transitions perspective, as OccupyEUR effectively did, we see that current collaborations are often not about building a sustainable future but are optimising and prolonging the unsustainable present. There is little impact in maintaining an unsustainable status quo.

Universities of all places should have room to foster and develop alternative visions of what our future could look like. Transitions are uncomfortable processes of fundamental change – stamping out challenges by force won’t make them disappear. Rather, we need to look in the mirror and face the painful realisation that our established way of knowledge production is all too often complicit in ecological destruction, social exclusion, and workplace exploitation. OccupyEUR brought the mirror, but our university didn’t seize the opportunity to have a good look in it. If we can’t have these crucial discussions about the present and future of the university, we quickly lose our claim to creating “positive societal impact”.

Our university showed last week not to be open to uncomfortable conversations and questioning what the status quo they are prolonging entails. How about next time? It is time to come clear about what the University really stands for.

UPDATE: The Erasmus Board has stated that it is going to clarify its fossil industry connections and seek dialogue. We hope it’s the start of a tipping point.

UPDATE 2: The University has since declared a climate and ecological emergency and “will also structurally map relationships with organizations that have a major impact on climate and ecosystem […] accompanied by a broad dialogue”