From concern to counterforce

“You know, you’re not going to stop neoliberal reform of the university.” A professor once wrote me this. I soon learned that she was equal parts critical of such reforms and resigned to them, and it seems like many of us exist in this contradiction. Now I admit, reading these words from a superior makes building a local counter-movement to these changes feel as effectual as trying to corral cats — and almost as silly. That might be the case most of the time. But not always. And definitely not this month at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. So here’s what happened and how it might be of interest to others in parallel situations.

The latest trigger was when the university library staff received letters at home informing them they couldn’t count on keeping their jobs. Among the 168 staff members (of whom 56 would be cut) the frustration was unmistakable, and their response included a silent protest by about 150 at the latest meeting the works council had with the board. Three days later, the board announced their decision to put the whole reorganization of the library on hold while replacing its responsible officer. The outcome wasn’t ideal – many were convinced this was simple scapegoating, were uncertain what the replacement would mean, and knew delays didn’t mean the issue was settled. But it showed that the path to cuts and reorganizations could be disrupted by organized employees prepared to stick by their arguments.

More than jobs

Their concerns were focused on jobs – especially as far as the unions’ roles were concerned. But beyond that, many of the library staff had become part of a group of employees who, over the past year of combining pressure with negotiations, had been drawing links between the treatment of administrative staff as expendable on the one hand, and the flexiblization of academic labor on the other. They had been drawing attention to the pressurized and uncertain work conditions this brings for both administrative and academic staff lucky enough to be left with jobs. And beyond the issue of jobs, they had been challenging a broader corporate logic being put into practice — one of cutting costs and while maintaining or increasing productivity.

The board’s response to the library staff this month, as throughout, has attributed the unrest to the process, the communications, and the speed at which changes are being made, rather than to their content. It even ventures to warn employees about how including staff input and advice prolong uncertainty by drawing out decision-making. It also explains that any investments in quality education and research must be cut from administrative services, siting inefficiency. Underpinning all this is an unwavering insistence that reorganization and the cuts it brings are a necessity beyond contestation in these times of crisis. This narrative at times directly references, and other times just indirectly echoes, the narratives circulating on national and European scales at this moment.

Learning curve

Starting to contest these narratives within the university’s institutional channels and among students and colleagues has been educational. It also revealed some things that surprised me.

  • First, students largely saw themselves as atomized self-investors when it came to their educations, but raised some concerns, for instance, when the stresses of their lecturers started showing (I was surprised this link was made more readily than the link to issues of growing class sizes and rising debt).
  • Second, unions were pigeonholed, unpopular, and rigid but could — and indeed needed to — be mobilized by the most active employees in the workplace (instead of the other way around).
  • Third, the critical voices of full professors quickly gained broad attention, but despite being respected and enjoying job security they were not the first to be mobilized nor to use their positions to speak up.
  • Fourth, there’s a qualitative difference between the administrative staff who serve and support the core academic work of the university and those administrators who make up a managerial stratum meant to carry top-down governance. In this case, policies promoting efficiency applied only to the former.
  • Fifth, even simply putting out comprehensive counter-narratives allows people with whom these narratives resonate to come out of isolation.
  • And sixth, reforms toward efficiency and austerity seem to be separate from a changing model of governance that leaves employees less autonomy and decision-making power with regard to their everyday work practices, but in fact one relies on the other. That is, the higher the priority given to policy informed by narrow financial goals, the more redundant the commitments to consulting employees become, thus funneling power from the bottom to the top.

So how can that power be regained? And what does this mean for struggle at/for our universities? I don’t have a comprehensive answer. But judging from the library staff’s example, putting one’s foot down over who controls the conditions of work at the university certainly opens up an important site for contestation in practice.


Donya Alinejad is a PhD candidate at the department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. She does research on the role of internet media in the formation of selves among the children of immigrants from Iran in Los Angeles, California.

2 thoughts on “From concern to counterforce

  1. I love the opening sentence here:

    “You know, you’re not going to stop neoliberal reform of the university.”

    I love it for its strangeness–capturing the critique + resignation of the person quoted, part plea, part command.

    Counter-examples to conventional wisdom–this is a version of that old chestnut “you can’t fight city hall”–have to start somewhere. The worry, of course, is that
    effective organizing at one location, if it happens outside the context of a broader movement, becomes an excuse to move to move obscure tactics, at less contested sites.

    But that can be tomorrow’s problem. For today, cheers to those organizing at Vrije Universiteit–keep up the fight.

  2. Thanks for your support! I share your need to place something like this within a broader movement, and a few of those active at the VU are also, individually, active in solidarity movements with Greece and also against public spending cuts by the Dutch government more broadly. However, we experienced some difficulty politicizing this effort beyond its status as a workplace struggle over jobs, working conditions, organizational stuff as it was feared we’d lose broad support upon becoming more politically partisan and less inclusive. Seems to me that’s an ongoing balancing act that can only be perfected through practice. Here’s to tomorrow’s problems 🙂

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