Values as a blueprint, not as a veil


The TU/e is working hard to define a new set of core values that describe our university. Values are important to steer policy decisions, and to make clear what our university stands for. We must be careful, however, that our new value statement is not used to conceal our problems, argues columnist Max van Mulken.

Those of you who are interested in the internal happenings at our university have probably heard rumblings about a new TU/e Value Statement that is currently in the making. A first set of values (Personal, Open, Engaged, Curious) was published in 2021, and is currently up for critical reflection. Many people are currently scrambling to find a new set of values that is clearly defined and broadly supported. I believe this to be a good development; we live in challenging times where societal power dynamics seem to be shifting as quickly as the wind. If we don’t regularly adjust our sails to meet these changes, our boat may capsize.  

We also need to give thought to how these core values will be used. In almost every Dutch university’s declaration of values, buzzwords as “diversity”, “equality” and “inclusion” are commonplace – our very own value statement is no different. It is easy to see why: while there is a lot left to be desired, many people at all Dutch universities are working hard to make their university a place where everyone feels valued as a member of the community, regardless of gender identity, sexual preferences, religious expression, or ethnic background. Yet despite having these core values, Dutch universities consistently make news headlines due to their failure to address transgressive behavior against those in vulnerable positions. 

It is unfortunately not possible to stop all transgressive behavior. However, there is a great deal we can do to make our community a safer space. The first step towards improvement is acknowledging that problems around social safety exist. Instead, whenever something bad happens, university boards are quick to distance themselves. Armed with their value statements, they can reject structurally unsafe situations as completely foreign to their university. In doing so, they can use their values as a veil to hide behind, painting these instances as isolated cases rather than signals of a structural problem. 

I can see why, of course. Boards do not like to admit that their organization has an unsafe working environment. However, while denying these problems may be good for public image in the short term, it also causes problems. Not only does it completely invalidate the experiences of the victims, but failing to admit that a problem exists fundamentally prevents us from solving it. Doing so sets an organization down a dangerous road, at the end of which lies a culture of fear where no one dares to speak up because they are worried about being silenced (or, even worse, being treated as if they themselves are the problem).  

Universities have an exemplary role in society. Especially within universities, where critical thinking is essential for education and research, we should show how valuable critical feedback can be. New core values can help with this, but only if we correctly and structurally apply them. I am happy to see people from all corners of our community work together to find a broadly supported value statement. It is important, however, to realize that not everyone in our community will fully embody these values just yet. We must use the new value statement not as a veil to deny the existence of our problems, but rather as a blueprint that describes what we should strive towards at this university. 

Max van Mulken is a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of Mathematics & Computer Science and also a member of the University Council. Views expressed in this column are his own.  
He was inspired to write this column after reading Laura Schranz’ work on “Complaints within individualist neoliberal academia”. 

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