Dijkgraaf has no concerns about academic freedom at TU/e

Education Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf regrets that academics at TU/e are afraid to voice criticism, but also points out in a written response to parliamentary questions that he does not see any indications that academic freedom is under threat.

photo EasternLightcraft / iStock

In late October, GroenLinks/PvdA MP Lisa Westerveld submitted written questions to Minister of Education, Culture and Science Robbert Dijkgraaf. The reason for these questions was, among other things, an open letter by seven professors, staff members and students published on the Cursor website, in which they write that there is too little room for substantive criticism and that a change in management culture is needed at TU/e to guarantee academic independence and freedom. The writers also state that they have received critical responses from colleagues who do not endorse their concerns.

In response to Westerveld’s question as to whether “the unrest at TU Eindhoven is linked to the strict hierarchy, the limited supervision and participation and the dependence on the corporate sector”, the minister writes: “I do not share your analysis. All universities, including TU/e, are structured in such a way that administration, supervision and participation are meant to act as countervailing powers to each other. [...] I see no reason to assume that this system is not working (well) at TU/e and that there is a causal relationship between the unrest and the non-functioning of this system of counteracting powers within TU/e.’

Voicing criticism

On the open letter, Dijkgraaf writes the following in his response to the parliamentary questions: “I have read the open letter and find it regrettable if there are people who are afraid to voice criticism about and within TU/e. However, I also read in the letter that not everyone at TU/e shares this view. I believe it is right and important that there is room within the university for an open debate, including on the university itself.”

According to the minister, academic freedom stands or falls on journalistic freedom. “News media must be able to operate independently within institutions. Both academics and journalists must be able to conduct their research in freedom and independence. It is the responsibility of the institutions to safeguard that independence.”

With that final comment, the minister places the responsibility back on the Executive Board, Westerveld points out. “When it comes to academic freedom and independent press, I think the minister also has a share of the responsibility,” she states in a written response to Dijkgraaf’s answers. “Especially when there are signals from different quarters that it is under pressure.”

Collaboration university and corporate sector

In his letter, Dijkgraaf emphasizes the importance of “open science”. Scientific research does not always have to be “immediately applicable.” “Pure curiosity deserves recognition as a driving force for research.” But collaboration between universities and the corporate sector is also valuable. “Collaboration between researchers, the corporate sector, government and other organizations is and remains important. Not only to allow for innovation, but also to ensure that research and education remain well attuned to the big questions and challenges of our time.”

Robert-Jan Smits, President of TU/e’s Executive Board, is satisfied with Dijkgraaf's written response. “It is good to see that the minister does not just underline the great value of cooperation between universities and the corporate sector, but also points out that the safeguards for this cooperation are well-regulated both on paper and in practice,” he states in a written response.

Boudewijn van Dongen, professor of Computer Science at TU/e and one of the signatories of the open letter, is less satisfied with Dijkgraaf’s answers. “Of course he values academic freedom and curiosity, but these are just words,” he replies in an e-mail to Cursor. “When it comes to research funding, most of the funding goes to innovation: research with direct, measurable results for the corporate sector.”

Share this article