The university is an institution, not a tool

Columnist Sjoerd de Jong, writing in newspaper NRC on 22 February 2024, found it uncomfortable: four academics (two of whom are prominent figures from Utrecht University) sitting round the table with ‘informateurKim Putters, giving him advice on the formation of a new government. A depressing sight, says De Jong, a populist government, cobbled together with academic approval? 

Uncomfortable as it may be to him, this discomfort is totally unjust. Clearly, the four academics did not play a political role. They advised Putters on possible forms of government, based on their expertise in the field of parliamentary democracy.

We are seeing it more and more these days: academia, the universities, being almost casually manoeuvred into a political role. For example, when they are accused from outside, once again, of being a bastion of the Left. Or when they are required, from within, to take a stand in a political conflict.

Universities are crucial for democracy. Here at Utrecht University, under the strategic theme ‘Institutions for open Societies’, for example, we constantly contribute to the richness of the debate and, as a result, to the quality of democratic decision-making. We readily share our expertise with society, in advisory roles, in conversations with stakeholders, or in the media. But we do this as an independent institution, not as a tool.

Tekening van Decaan Vaessens

Thomas Vaessens
Dean, Faculty of Humanities, Utrecht University