Can universities continue raising tuition, speculating with public money, making top-down decisions, offering no job security to contract faculty – even discontinuing entire disciplines solely for financial reasons? If the student protests in Amsterdam continue to get results and inspire other university populations across the world, universities may be pressed to move towards more decentralized and democratic systems.

But just as this struggle to keep market forces at bay is happening at a macro level, so too is it happening at a micro, or field specific, level. Certainly, it’s currently playing out in the struggle between analytic and continental philosophy, specifically in the context of the chair for Phenomenology and Hermeneutics in Freiburg. But what will happen to critical thought at a macro-level if it loses the battle at a micro-level?

Which New University Will Triumph?

After weeks of protests in Amsterdam, which have gained the attention of the international media, students with the New University occupation movement have compelled the board of the Universiteit van Amsterdam to make important concessions like installing to independent committees who will look into democratization and decentralization. Speakers for the movement, which has spread through most Dutch universities by now, continue to say that their concerns are not just about the positions and right of students and faculty, but about the deteriorating effects of decades of neoliberal policies for public services in general (education, health care, mental care, but also material services like transport and mail). The protesters demand not just better conditions in which to complete their studies, but also the freedom to criticize forms of management that introduce administrative instruments to measure the quality of the services delivered, yet fail to address the real needs of real people.

Since the early nineties, universities have been subject to immense changes, which should have transformed them into professional and efficient organizations. Professors lost much of their power to managers in the name of entering the 21st century. At my own workplace, VU University Amsterdam (the other Amsterdam university), I have seen these developments take their toll. Reorganizations followed each other in quick succession while, at the same time, money was transferred from classrooms to large construction projects and financial speculation. In 2012, when massive cuts in the budgets for teaching and its support were announced, protests began. Short occupations against the discontinuation of disciplines and other top-down decisions at both universities followed. University researchers started their own platform to promote a turn of minds – protesting the endless competition for money, for talent, and for students, that has put the integrity of researchers increasingly under pressure.

Similar protests in Canada and the UK have emerged. The US, has also seen protests on the position of non-tenured faculty. Protestors in Chile asked for better, public and free education, and their tenacity and longevity finally paid off. As in Amsterdam, the issue clearly was not just about management structures, but also the kind of education that is at stake when a public institution like the university is being left to market forces. A truly public university should provide room for a broad range of disciplines and approaches, not just the ones which are economically desirable, and it should promote critical reflection across fields – which brings us back to philosophy and to the Freiburg chair debate.

Philosophy’s Critical Contributions

Philosophy offers no directly useful results for the market or for industry – but continental philosophy can and does offer critical reflections on the stakes the market holds in academia. Analytic philosophy, on the other hand, often stays silent on such issues. So, what would happen to philosophy’s thought contribution on the modern world if analytical philosophy overtook it?

This is precisely what’s happening at Freiburg University, where the Phenomenology and Hermeneutics chair is being shifted from a continental philosophy foundation to an analytical one. Why will such a move be so deleterious?

Heidegger’s Notebooks

We can’t start looking at the Freiburg chair controversy without addressing the Martin Heidegger issue. Heidegger, who once held the Freiburg chair, has just been outed as having Nazi sympathies with the recent publication of his Black Notebooks (a surprise that should be no surprise given previous research by Victor Farias). Although this should not have been news, the Notebooks still created a shock big enough to lead Günter Figal, who holds the Freiburg chair, step down as chair of the Martin Heidegger Society (but not from the Freiburg chair). The Notebooks also led to media coverage and to supporters of the chair arguing it should get a new face distanced from conservative racism. But this controversy, while it should stimulate us to invest in critical reflection on issues of racism and injustice inherent in the Western philosophical tradition, is not the only controversy at hand. In fact, we are back to dealing with market forces.

Losing Out in the Name of Efficiency

When universities began to embrace a more market-based system, research funding was transferred from the universities themselves to independent funding institutions and to the market. The theory was that this transfer would instigate more competition amongst researchers, and the competition would lead to improvements in research quality. Applications would be reviewed by committees of independent experts, who would judge whether the research plans were worth their estimated monetary value. But this procedure also led to a funding preference for research applications predicting timely results. In philosophy, this meant a preference for research projects on the history of philosophy and analyses of conceptual matters – in other words, analytic philosophy. The kind of questions continental philosophers pursue, like the relation between ontology (what we hold to be real) and society, tend to be more interdisciplinary and do not follow an “efficient” research schedule. And so, many chairs that addressed subjects such as philosophy of culture, of society, of philosophical anthropology and ontology lost funding.

Yet continental philosophers are the very ones who aim to disentangle the implicit connections between the market, the organization of academia, and injustices in society. They are the ones who can think through emergent issues like the Heidegger issue in their own field. They are the ones who are able to link the general struggle for academia with critical analyses of what is happening in the world at large. In this respect, it is not just a coincidence that in the Amsterdam protests, I saw a banner saying: “no reformation without decolonization.”

Further Reading

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About The Author

Angela Roothaan
PhD in Philosophy from University of Amsterdam

Angela Roothaan received her Masters in Philosophy at Leiden University and her PhD at the University of Amsterdam. After several temporary positions as a teacher and researcher of philosophy, she was awarded tenure as assistant professor at VU University Amsterdam in 2002. A passionate writer, she has published five philosophy books in Dutch and many academic articles, which always probe the intersections of science, ethics, spirituality and politics. She also writes a blog with the aim to bring philosophy out of the ivory tower.