Dutch universities are reputed in academia for their ruthless neoliberal way of functioning. Yesterday I got proof of it while attending a research meeting at the department where I am spending this academic year. This department, which I won’t mention out of respect for the people being part of it and who are not to blame for how the university (the world) works, is one of the good ones within the faculty of humanities. It also has an excellent academic reputation in the Netherlands, in Europe, and even overseas.
The meeting comprised three parts: a round of presentations of the new people, presentation and discussion of one PhD candidate’s research proposal, and details about current projects, future events, and money issues. Nothing remarkable emerged from the two first activities. The third one, however, was a whole new experience for me. The department’s director talked about various things: diverse European networks to which the department belongs, upcoming academic events, conferences. I was having trouble following what she was saying, which is not surprising given the fact that I know nothing about this University and this department. But then it struck me: she was using a lot of terms I was unfamiliar with in the context of a research meeting. I was so astounded about the nature of the terms she kept using over and over that I took my notebook and wrote them down.
She spoke of money, stakeholders, consortium, strategic teams, lobby (a particular woman who was a lobbyist in Brussels that would be good to contact), 15 million Euros we could eventually demand to the UN. Another woman who got one and a half million Euros for a project from some entity was also explaining to us how the strategy for organising certain conferences was to follow the money. Money is the cue. Not ideas, research interests, research needs, academic collaboration. No. The cue, the issue, is money.
Although I have been in various universities in different countries this was a first time experience for me. We all know how academia, and more particularly the human sciences, has difficulties surviving in the profit oriented world we live in. Working conditions for academics at universities everywhere are horrendously precarious, and money and funding are a central issue. They have become THE issue.
It was not encouraging at all. It was sad and worrying. It made think of Bruno Latour reporting on his ethnographic work in the seventies. The academic world has not got any better since Latour published La vie de laboratoire. In fact it is getting worse by the day.