Ten questions about the Gaza protest on campus

June 5, 2024

Following the protest at the University of Amsterdam, a tent camp also appeared in Wageningen a fortnight ago. We put 10 frequently asked questions about the situation to Rector Carolien Kroeze.

1. Suddenly there they were, about 15 pop-up tents on the frequently used bridge between Orion and Forum. Is it a problem?

No and yes. We are committed to freedom of expression. It is very good that young people are taking the space to voice their opinions. At the same time, of course, it was a bit stressful at first. We had just seen protests get out of hand in Amsterdam. That was a shock to me. And then suddenly there were tents in Wageningen too.

Fortunately, it soon became clear that the vast majority of activists were actually our own students and staff. They presented us with their demands, and we made it clear to them what our house rules were around protest, for example that teaching, research and value creation must be able to proceed, that the encampment should not get bigger, that it should remain safe, and so on.

2. You speak regularly with the activists. How do those conversations go and what are they essentially about?

I think we have spoken with the activists about 12 times by now. The talks are almost without exception constructive and with a positive atmosphere. The activists include our students and employees, and there are often a few ‘witnesses’ too. These are activists who listen, take notes, but have no substantive input.

At their core, most conversations revolve around understanding each other's point of view better. What do they mean by breaking institutional ties? Why do we think that this is not the right way forward? What consequences would various options have for day-to-day work at WUR? These explorations also help us to further think through how we want to implement our collaboration principles.

3. Don't the activists have a point? The violence in Gaza is no longer proportionate.

We agree on many things. We agree that the humanitarian situation in Gaza is appalling. Everyone understands that. Violence, destruction, aid shipments that never reach Gaza at all or once there fall prey to gangs: it is simply beyond comprehension, and it must stop.

But we differ on fundamental points about the role that the university as an institution has in this. I value the university as an independent knowledge institution, where there is room and space for open and free debate. And I am very committed to academic freedom for our individual employees.

The activists want us to break institutional ties while continuing to allow for individual cooperation. I don't believe that this is possible, or the best way forward, for a couple of reasons:

  • First of all, it is not the role of a university as an institution to have an opinion about a geopolitical conflict. That is really not our task. We are asked to generate knowledge so that the people who do have to think about it make the right decisions. By the way, I fully understand that students and colleagues want to do something, or contribute to solutions of societal problems. There is plenty of room for that; as individuals, or as a collective. And it is precisely to preserve that space that it is important for the institution to not speak out.
  • Secondly, academic freedom is very important to me. Be happy that we as a university administration do not say: you must cooperate with this institution, that one you may perhaps cooperate with, and this one you are not allowed to work with.
  • Thirdly, we have collaboration principles. They form the framework within which researchers must engage their own moral and ethical compass to decide which project is or is not acceptable. This moral consideration really falls primarily to individual scientists, and I also want to leave it there.
  • And that is not to mention the practical obstacles: ongoing projects are built on underlying contracts that would have to be broken, whereas we want to be a reliable partner. There are financial risks involved, employees hired for the purpose, and so on.

Let me conclude with something we do agree on: these principles of collaboration have not yet sufficiently landed in the organisation. I want to briefly mention them here: collaborative projects should i) match our mission and goals, ii) be safe, iii) safeguard academic freedom and integrity, iv) respect human rights, and v) contribute to the free flow of ideas, knowledge, and data. WUR uses these principles to assess the projects themselves, not the partners we work with.

These principles were adopted in March 2023, but have not yet sufficiently taken root in the organisation. We have committed to implementing the principles now with more emphasis and support. And because it can be quite complicated to make good considerations about cooperation, we are also setting up a support structure: people you can turn to for tips or who can help you further if you get stuck.

4. Aren't human lives in Gaza more important than cooperating with an Israeli university?

You are implying that stopping cooperation would save lives. I am sorry, but I strongly doubt that. There are also many critics of the Israeli government within Israeli universities. I would venture to say we have more impact precisely by staying in touch with them.

5. What does cooperation with Israeli knowledge institutions actually look like in practice?

We have an exchange programme with one university. Although clearly, no Dutch students are going there now. For the rest, we are mostly involved in cooperation in the context of European consortia where there is also by no means always direct contact between the Wageningen and Israeli colleagues. To illustrate, one of the projects involves 158 international institutions. Is that still an institutional link between WUR and Israel? You can argue about that.

6. You have already spoken repeatedly with the activists, and there is security patrolling the grounds 24 hours a day. Isn't that a bit disproportionate?

I really want to emphasise that the security staff is also there for the activists. There have been a number of instances of unwanted visitors at night that were sent away by the security staff. So no, I wouldn't call it disproportionate. Apparently, it is necessary.

You are right that the protest requires a big time commitment. Not only from me, but also from my support staff and from Facilities & Services. They too are sometimes working 12 to 15-hour days. So it also comes at the expense of other important work. At the same time, these are students and employees from the WUR community, and they are genuinely concerned about the situation in Gaza. I find it important to take their opinions seriously and explore what these ideas would mean for WUR.

7. Might there also come a time when you are forced to conclude that further talking is pointless?

I am always open to dialogue with all students and employees. It is my deep belief that remaining in dialogue with each other is the best way out of difficult situations. That is also one of the reasons why I think we need to remain in dialogue with our academic colleagues in conflict zones.

In the talks with the protesters, we try to understand each other better. We look for connection, and for what we agree on. But there may come a time when we have to conclude that we are not coming closer on certain issues. That is something we will have to face at that point.

Incidentally, I speak not only to the students on the bridge, but also to others, including representatives of Jewish students and staff. Those are very poignant conversations. They tell me about how the demonstrations affect them, and what emotions they evoke. There are some who no longer come to campus. I find that sad and highly undesirable. I wish us to be an open and safe campus for all our students and staff. These are also conversations I want to have with the consultative bodies we already have (democratically elected): the employee participational bodies and the student council.

8. The activists fear that WUR will send the police on them at some point. Is it true? Can WUR call in the police at any moment?

First of all, of course, that is not how it works in our democratic rule of law. The Mayor is in charge of public order and safety for the entire Wageningen Municipality, including the campus. We report to the police if we think boundaries are being crossed. The Mayor, the Police Chief, and the Prosecutor ultimately decide whether or not to intervene.

Secondly, I think police deployment is only a short-term solution for the situation on campus. Sometimes there is no other way, but I would rather not risk the relationship with the activists. It seems obvious to me by now that we are doing all we can to prevent police intervention. The house rules for protests have already been flouted several times. Consider the blockade of the F&A Next conference, with 300 international guests being denied entrance for hours. Or people shouting slogans that include the word ‘Nazi’ in a way that is highly offensive to our Jewish students and employees. Or a sit-in with a megaphone in teaching and office buildings.

Still, in these situations, we try to find other solutions than calling in the police. In short, we look at what is needed from day to day, and try to reach an outcome through dialogue, and to avoid escalation for as long as possible.

9. What did you find most difficult in the past few weeks?

I think the answer is the same for any administrator in any situation: weighing the dilemmas you're facing. After all, that is what you were appointed to do. This can be anything, from relatively small things: should the activists be allowed to stay overnight, despite it being against house rules? All the way to really big questions: As an academic institution, how can we be meaningful to the world, also in conflict zones? How do we deal with changing circumstances in ongoing projects? You listen to the people around you, you weigh the pros and cons, it keeps you busy day and night, you deliberate, and at some point, you make a decision that you believe is best.

10. What is the most ideal solution as far as WUR is concerned to get the activists off the bridge?

I said to them from the beginning: I would love it if we could show how this protest can be conducted in the Wageningen way, peacefully, and be brought to a jointly supported conclusion. The activists have made their point. We have had constructive conversations. This led to us committing to helping researchers make their own considered moral and ethical decisions around collaboration. We will start doing so already before the summer. That is a tangible result. I would consider it in line with the Wageningen tradition if the activists were to clean up the camp on their own initiative.