Anton Pijpers, President of the Executive Board of Utrecht University, on the protests

Utrecht University has seen various forms of protest in recent months. In the Netherlands and also at UU, tensions are rising. The Executive Board receives many e-mails and questions every day about how the board deals with this. Anton Pijpers explains.

Can students and employees still protest safely?

Peaceful protests are part of a democracy and an academic institution: the place for an open dialogue, with respect for each other's views. The university wants and needs to be an environment where students and staff are safe, feel safe and dare to speak out about social issues. We are a university where protesting is allowed and possible, and we give people every opportunity to exercise free speech. This we have demonstrated many times in recent months. But protesting is different from occupying a site or building and barricading entrance doors and emergency exits.

Police intervened in two protests. What was the reason for this?

Let me start by saying that I feel disappointment that it turned out this way. It is hard to make such decisions, and as the Executive Board, we certainly do not take this lightly. To answer the question, some context is needed. We are talking about two situations, on Tuesday evening, May 7, at the UB, and on Wednesday at the Drift.

What happened on May 7?

On Tuesday evening, more and more people gathered in the UB courtyard. At first everything proceeded quietly. As time went on, more and more people joined with full face coverings, and at some point the entrance gate was barricaded. We have contacted a delegation of the protesters several times that evening to initiate a dialogue. They indicated that they did not want to talk in a smaller committee, but with the whole group in the courtyard. It started to get dark, lots of people had full face coverings, and it just didn't feel right. This caused us to think that I wouldn't really get into a conversation with the protesters.

When the barricade was enlarged and strengthened, safety was compromised. As the Executive Board, we are responsible for the safety of employees and students on our grounds and in our buildings. I also feel personally responsible for that. But at that point we could no longer guarantee the safety. As it became clear that there were people present who were not UU students or employees, the atmosphere also turned for the worse. Several times, we have asked people to leave, as we had already indicated at the beginning of the event that the UB grounds were going to close, as always during the course of the evening, and that the grounds would have to be deserted by then.

I ended up making two formal requests to leave the UU grounds and gave ample time to do so. Many people complied to this request. A small group remained who did not. Then the local authorities, i.e. the mayor, the Public Prosecution Service and the police, took over. The police also repeatedly asked the remaining protesters to leave. When they persisted, the police took action. We could see what was happening in the UBB courtyard. Many protesters walked with the police themselves, but a limited group did not, and they were led away. I myself had the impression, from what I could see, that this did not involve violence, though in the case of some protesters it did involve coercion, by lifting them up, for example.

And what happened on Wednesday, May 8?

On Wednesday there was a protest that turned into an occupation of an educational building on the Drift. There, too, we tried to get in touch with representatives of the protesters. Fortunally, that was successful, and we were invited to a meeting with a spokesperson. That took place amidst a large group of protesters, on one side of the street, and the other inside the building. Everyone has seen photos and images of that.

I appreciated that it was possible to be able to talk to Raha who I could look into the eyes. I was welcomed, offered water, and I was able to make myself understood. And most importantly; we were in contact. The fierceness was in the words, in the immediate need to meet their demands, not in the behavior. What was striking was that the group of protesters inside the building used full face coverings, the group of people standing outside did not.

So why proceed with the eviction anyway?

At the end of the conversation in the midst of all those protesters, I again pointed out the house rules, and asked to leave the building at 10 pm, closing time. They did not want to do this en they did not comply. It was unknown to us how many and which people were in the building. The doors were closed and the doors and windows were barricaded from the inside. We as the Executive Board are always ultimately responsible for the safety of people in our buildings and on our grounds. I also feel that responsibility very personally. I can no longer guarantee the safety of people when our security has no access, and where doors are barricaded.

We would have been virtually powerless if a fire had broken out, for example. Hence the choice to formally claim the building, meaning to formally order everyone to leave. We really are always willing to provide opportunities to protest, but if we can no longer guarantee safety, then it stops. Again, we then had to hand it over to the local authorities, who then decide whether and how they proceed to evacuate. Again, such a decision weighs heavily on me.

But it's your ‘own’ students and staff?

The safety of all UU employees and students is of utmost importance to me. I think it is important to say that the groups of protesters included non-UU people. Unfortunately, that also contributed negatively to the atmosphere. Our goal is always to de-escalate. To seek contact, even when that is not easy. Especially on Tuesday night, we experienced a wall of people who didn't want to make contact. We think the diversity of groups contributed to this.

What dilemmas do you run into?

One dilemma I already mentioned is the question of when something is considered a protest and when it is not. We have now agreed nationally with all universities what the ground rules around a protest are. For example, face coverings are not allowed. Occupation is not protesting and staying overnight in buildings is not allowed, especially when safety cannot be guaranteed.

A dilemma of course, is that we also see what is happening in Gaza and are shocked by it, and still want to maintain contact with critical partners at universities. That makes us look at this carefully. We also say something about that in our updated statement.

Who are you talking to?

That's a problem. In fact, we don't always know that (precisely). In every situation, we see different groups and partly different people. That makes it unclear to us who we are talking to, what the size of the group is these people represent.

What about employee and student representation?

We weigh all interests and try to do justice to all input. This week there are elections for student representation, it is important that all of our students go vote, a great privilege in our democracy. These are the people elected to represent the voice of the community, doing this work on behalf of everyone. And we have had critical conversations with them on several occasions as well.

We need to nurture these representatives, and not least the student representatives and student assessors, who critically monitor and advise us in our decisions. Mind you, they advise and we make the decisions. The student assessors are not responsible for our decisions; they too are advisors. I hear that they are now sometimes fiercely attacked for their role, that is unjust, again we should be happy that there are people who want to fulfill that role.

Can everyone really speak out and can everything be said?

A factor in all our considerations is that several students and staff currently do not feel safe because of what is happening. I'm not just talking about Jewish students and staff, but also many students who say they just want to go to college and staff who just want to do their jobs and now feel hindered doing that. Who feel pressure to speak out or participate, and who are making different choices about that. Everyone should feel safe at our university. We do everything we can to make that possible, but honesty dictates that we are concerned about polarisation and what consequences that has.

How do you look back?

It was a tough week, for everyone involved. For students and staff, and also for colleagues at security, property management, maintenance, communications, and no doubt also for the protesters. I also found it tough myself. It is impactful and difficult to talk to people who are very angry. But my fellow board members and I will continue to try to stay in touch. Maybe we didn't do things right, but I want to continue to be in conversation, because that's how we do it here at the university, how I want to do it, and I'm sure: my colleagues want that too!

Are there any lessons learned?

We perhaps could have been in conversation with our own community even earlier and more, perhaps we tried for too long in the context of UNL with all the universities to come to an agreement on what we want to do. Because that has taken a lot of time recently. In the meantime, however, we have certainly had conversations with many students and staff.

Finally, is there anything else you would like to say?

From my point of view, having a conversation with each other does not mean that you always have to agree or come to an agreement with each other. Now it sometimes seems that if we do not immediately and fully meet the demands, then the feeling is that people have not been heard. I look at that differently. We have nearly 50,000 students and staff with diverse views. I stand for respecting each other and each other's opinions and accepting that there are people with different opinions, who think and act differently. I want to provide space for all UU people, for all those perspectives within a respectful dialogue and not through demands.

And perhaps in conclusion, people are always invited to participate in thinking about university policy. I hope we can connect with each other that way in the near future. Consider this an invitation from me to that end.