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Last week, the purpose and ownership of the university were popular topics at several academic openings of the year throughout the Netherlands. In Twente, the slogan Rethinking the University echoed the recent reformist waves in Dutch academia, while the protests at the University of Amsterdam made clear these currents are anything but dead. Professor Beatrice de Graaf discussed in Rotterdam the value of two models of “academic life and its purpose: the utilitarian ‘goose model’ and the Humboldtian ‘Bildung’ model”. And the universities of both Leiden and Amsterdam invited British scholars who reflected on the question ‘what are universities for?’ Obviously, none of the openings were original in making the university itself topic of discussion. At this point in time, however, it is not mere academic narcissism; rather the reinvigorated student protests, declining funding and increasing demands for ‘accountability’ make the university an interesting locus where social, political and economic developments intersect.
This first day of the new academic year, where scholars, politicians and artists all over the Netherlands imagine ideal futures or embraced treasured pasts, coincided with my entrance into this world. At least, that is how starting a PhD felt to me: the reversed direction of visible financial transactions between me and the government inverted my experience of the university. In some way, as a student, I was a consumer of the knowledge and skills offered to me at varying market prices in the Netherlands, Belgium and the US. As an employee – because that is what most regular promovendi here still are – I feel more included in the tradition(s) of the university as public safeguard of scientific knowledge.
These reflections on my life in academia are not intended as input for a psychoanalytic session. Together with the academic year openings they reflect two main approaches to the public meaning of the university and the societal value of knowledge – precisely the topic of my PhD research at Leiden University. Since the 1990s many would have approached the university as a business enterprise: from the power of management and an increasing share of third-party funding to student evaluations and real estate speculation. Related to this is the future-oriented societal legitimation of scientific research as the motor of the economy, which will bring innovation, health and prosperity. In the other approach, the orientation is towards the past. Lately, many turn to history and tradition to justify the university and academic education especially. It is a significant site for the transfer of intellectual heritage to new generations: an ‘organic archive’, as some would have it.
The PhD-project under the supervision of Dr. James McAllister that I am starting as we speak will focus on precisely this theme. How has the identity of the university changed in the last half century, in particular with respect to its embedding in, reliance on and contribution to society? After all, ever since science policy in the Netherlands gained substantial shape in the 1960s, there has been attention to the social meaning of the university and the knowledge that is preserved and produced there. But since then, changing socio-economic circumstances have given rise to a number of ideal-types about the public dimension of academia, which have in turn been translated into a variety of institutions and structures (think science shops, technology transfers and advisory councils) as well as government policies aiming to steer and control Dutch academic life.
Questions, which are the main thing I have at the moment, are: what epistemologies of science have guided different ideals of the university since the Second World War? Who designed the various science policies, with what rationalities and with what (unintended) consequences? What has it meant in the last 70 years to make knowledge publicly valuable or ‘valorizable’ – to use a contemporary buzzword? What concepts of knowledge and value does ‘valorization’ imply? And in what ways has Dutch academia developed differently than their more neoliberal counterparts in the United Kingdom and States? Did each ideal image of the university mirror a societal ideal and, if so, what were these then? The coming months I will look for more questions and for some focus, hopefully. I believe that laying bare the historical development of the university as a public institution for knowledge production and protection contributes to our current discourse on the university. Perhaps, in four years, I will respond with a book titled ‘what universities were thought to be for’.
Thanks to Noortje Jacobs and Jeroen Bouterse for insightful comments, constructive editing and continuous encouragement to write.
Jorrit Smit is a PhD candidate at Universiteit Leiden, under the supervision of Dr. James McAllister. The research project “Valorization of Scientific Knowledge: Philosophy, History and Policy” is funded by NWO as part of the ‘Promoties in de Geesteswetenschappen’ program.