The Greater Importance of the Maagdenhuis Occupation

27. Klashorst Galerie

In recent weeks the occupation of the Maagdenhuis in the centre of Amsterdam has received more attention in the media and more people are understanding the students involved. The University of Amsterdam, in short UvA cannot simply decide and ignore its most important stakeholders. As I am partial to the students involved and try to contribute what I can, my position in this matter is clear. What is also clear is that the UvA students want more influence in the university decision-making processes. There is a greater importance to this occupation than simply a protest.

For those that disagree with my perspective on the Maagdenhuis occupation I partially understand them. The Maagdenhuis is property of the UvA and diplomatic routes to gaining more influence are always possible. I can think of forming pressure groups, unions, societies and become influential enough to advocate and lobby interests. Yet diplomacy and group structures to gain influence only go so far. Top management can still deny diplomatic influence coming from the students.

First things first, what is the UvA doing well? Generally speaking and based on my own research and observations the UvA is a big university and managing many activities. From education and research to making sure supporting systems keep running for students, teachers and other personnel the UvA is generally doing a good job. The UvA management is capable of taking care of its many locations and the people who study and work there.

The issue with the UvA is simple yet complex in context. My law teacher once summarised management the best four words I have heard to date, namely analysis, planning, implementation and control. The UvA, more specifically its top management has not properly understood the planning and implementation part in my opinion. I base my opinion on information from students in the Maagdenhuis, P.C. Hooftgebouw and direct UvA sources.

The best example of planning and implementation gone wrong is the case of “Profiel 2016.” This plan “Profiel 2016” in English “profile 2016” has been intended to directly introduce and execute a new liberal arts portfolio with changes in  academic programmes for bachelor students. The UvA for decades has had a very broad liberal arts portfolio to give students in its Humanities Faculty opportunities for personal development.

“Profile 2016” would be tighter to address budget cuts, shrinking academic programmes and to increase graduation rate for the future. The top management of the Humanities Faculty planned and expected to implement “Profile 2016” within a year while the old liberal arts portfolio had been going strong for decades. Forcing something new on people who are generally happy with what they already have based on you bureaucratic position of power is bound to lead to discontent. The discontent among students and teachers was so great that the top management of the Humanities Faculty had to change its plans.

Another example is the real estate agenda of the UvA. When I write real estate agenda I mean the phased out sales of university real estate to fund future plans and projects. Among this university real estate there are monumental and central buildings that are considered university heritage by students, teachers, personnel and neighbours alike. I can understand that the UvA wants to sell old real estate. The real estate and ground prices in the city centre of Amsterdam are bubbling up in a cycle of controlled speculation. Try buying an apartment in the the centre of Amsterdam and you get the point.

The plans are not quite clear yet. By 2020 though the UvA does intend to realise a part of its reinvestment and building plans for a campus here and there and other facilities. The implementation is again an issue. The attraction of the UvA for most students is its central location. Take the central locations away and the UvA like the Vrije Universiteit becomes a peripheral city university. The Bungehuis location that was occupied, it has already been sold. Communication about the real estate plans is lacking to say the least.

The examples  I have mentioned here are quite straightforward and simple to understand. What is more complex comes back to my favourite four word definition of management:

  • Analysis: determining what is happening and why.
  • Planning: formulation of solutions to address what is happening.
  • Implementation: applying the formulated solutions.
  • Control: checking whether the formulated solutions are effective or not, to what extent and changing what is necessary.
  • Analysis – planning – implementation – control(: the cycle can be applied as a routine.)

The greater importance of the Maagdenhuis occupation addresses all four management aspects mentioned here. I usually try to avoid bullet points, this is an exception out of necessity. The occupation of the Maagdenhuis is more than a sign of protest, disagreement and discontent. It is the big sign the management process in the UvA’s top management, organisation wise and faculty wise is lacking here and there. 

To understand what students and teachers want the university management needs to listen carefully to make a thorough analysis. A thorough analysis gives a good understanding  of what is going well and not so well. Plans based on a good understanding of the internal stakeholders, namely students, teachers and other personnel are more likely to work out for every internal stakeholder. Implementation is nothing more than applying a plan to make it work. When in implementation the plan has adverse effects and internal stakeholders are not happy, something is definitely going wrong.

When implementation of plans does not work out, the control situation generally goes into one of two directions. The management pushes its decisions through, more internal stakeholders become unhappy and a backlash follows thus the control situation becomes a matter of damage control. Or the control situation leads to management actually listening to the unhappy stakeholders and adapting to their needs.

In education, especially in higher education for the young future professionals who have to take over for the older generations the students are the most important internal stakeholder. These future professionals of varying degrees, from college to university level have the task of shaping the future for society and the next generations of students. When managers set the wrong example of pushing through plans by force of bureaucratic positions and authority then you might as well give up on teaching students the virtues of democratic systems of government and meritocracy. I use the expression “democratic systems of government” on purpose. I consider the word “democracy” overly abused.

The greater importance of the Maagdenhuis occupation is based on the examples quite simple. Every business and management student and professional knows this. An organisation, profit and non-profit is the sum of its people. When the UvA as a university has chosen to partly ignore its own students it is risking the happiness of its most important internal stakeholders. Bad management often leads to organisations falling apart and internal protest is a step to an organisation falling apart.

I have personally been in situations of bad or more precisely mismanagement before. I have left a school and several jobs for that reason. In the future my generation has to take over for the older generations and there are many challenges. By occupying the Maagdenhuis the UvA students do not just demand more direct influence in university decisions. They also reflect what the UvA’s top management has tried to ignore for too long, their own mismanagement and the unhappiness that follows.

Management is not easy, that is understood. Mismanagement has to be accounted for and the current UvA management has to face up to its own students, teachers and personnel. Most of all the UvA management has to hold itself accountable towards its own students. In failure and success, setting the right example is what makes a good manager and good management.

The greater importance in short is simple. When management fails and your internal stakeholders are unhappy the management is responsible. The UvA students are holding their management responsible and they are right in doing so. 

For more information please check out the websites of “De Nieuwe Universiteit” and the “Humanities Rally.”