Dear Professor Fischer,
Today we, the ASVA Student Union, are appealing to you to take active policies on creating a safe, yet open study climate at the University of Amsterdam. Currently, this sometimes goes seriously wrong, as demonstrated by Laurens Buijs’ statements in the media and subsequent reactions over the past month.
Academic freedom is one of the pillars of science: only through a difference in opinions and good substantive discussions and research, new insights can surface. So a difference of opinion and the freedom to express it is important, but this does not mean that people should be treated disrespectfully or dehumanised.
Currently, some students do not feel safe to express their opinions (controversial or otherwise), while others feel unsafe by an attack on their identity. ASVA is therefore concerned about the skills of both students and lecturers to conduct academic discussion in a respectful manner. While many claim that a choice must be made between academic freedom and safety, ASVA believes this is not the case. Therefore, a way can and should be found to teach both groups this fundamental skill.
Therefore, ASVA suggests that conducting respectful academic discussion should become a regular part of curricula. This can be done, for example, by expanding subjects that deal with academic skills, which every student receives in their first year. This extension should at least be introduced in the curricula of the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, given that the focus on people and groups can quickly create sensitive situations. The situation that arose around Laurens Buijs is an example of this, but it is by no means the only situation where this is relevant.
While this would already be a step in the right direction, it is still not enough. A teacher’s behaviour very much determines the atmosphere in a lesson. It is therefore important that when teachers are appointed, they should be trained in creating an atmosphere where everyone feels safe to express their opinions without marginalising other students. Tools should be provided to teachers to ensure free and safe discussion in their curriculum and classroom.
There are still numerous questions that need to be answered before these lessons and trainings can be designed. What is a safe discussion? How do you convey your views in a respectful manner? How do you better understand others? How do you separate your academic knowledge from your personal views and how do the two relate to each other?
We as ASVA therefore call on you to actively pursue policies on creating a respectful discussion atmosphere, where both safety and freedom can be guaranteed. Together with lecturers, students and other stakeholders, we would like to discuss this topic with you in order to work together towards a safe and free learning environment for all students and lecturers at the university.
ASVA Students’ Union