UvA and VU: What sets us apart could bring us together

As I reviewed my 2018 milestones over winter break, I remembered drawing up pro’s and con’s lists for various MA programs. At the top of my list would be one of the few joint programs between the two universities in Amsterdam, the University of Amsterdam (UvA) and the Vrije Universiteit (VU); being admitted to this program was definitely an important milestone. Since I took classes exclusively at UvA during my BA, I am looking forward to trying out some courses at VU later this year, and am quite curious about how I will experience VU. Over the years I’ve gathered that there are some historical differences between the two universities, and that they affect the way they deal with diversity.

The RMA program I am currently enrolled in is the result of an ongoing series of projects which started in 2011 when UvA and VU first announced their intentions to form an alliance. The proposed cooperation gave rise to discussion about the compatibility of the identity of the two universities. Right away, it was pointed out that while UvA is decidedly secular and modernist, VU was established by the Reformed Christian ‘pillar’ of Dutch society. How did these different identities come about, and what does it tell us about the way the two universities have historically valued difference in academia?

I previously wrote about the Athenaeum Illustre. It was renamed the Municipal University of Amsterdam (MU) in 1877 following an 1876 higher education law inspired by the German bildung educational model. The law to some extent shifted the purpose of education to helping talented individuals develop themselves as individuals and world citizens, as opposed to upholding class by educating the elite about ideal Dutch ‘civilization’ and ‘taste’. Latin was replaced by Dutch as the language of instruction in higher education. In addition greater importance and autonomy was granted to a number of natural sciences, sparking what is referred to as a ‘Golden Age’ of natural science.

Other consequences of the 1876 higher education law were for example that MU was granted the same privileges as national universities and allowed to issue doctoral degrees. The same year it was renamed it acquired Hortus Botanicus, followed by Binnengasthuis, an academic hospital at Gasthuis, and a group of laboratories which would become the Roeters-Eiland complex. With the municipality continuing to fund the institution and appoint lecturers, this period saw MU turn into a progressive, secular, modernist institution known for its solid programs in the natural sciences. The identity and attitude of the institution at this point resembles how I have personally experienced UvA.

The same 1876 law, which diminished the previously central role of theology at universities, prompted Reformed Christian preacher and future Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper to found VU in 1880. The ‘free’ or ‘liberated university’ was established as a private university which paired orthodox neo-Calvinist theology with science under the motto ‘Our help is in the name of the Lord’. Fundamental to the identity of this new university was the neo-Calvinist idea of sphere sovereignty, the central theme of Kuypers Dies Natalis (founding day) lecture. VU as a university, just like other spheres in life, should be autonomous, free to practice and reflect on Christian science without interference from the state or the church. Kuypers and four of his colleagues began lecturing theology, law and the arts, located in the Scottish Missionary Church (now the Kleine Komedie theatre). Accredited in 1905, VU expressed its Christian identity through involvement in development projects, and encouragement of reflection on the relationship between science and the inner world of the scientist. In sum, VU was established as a protest against the modernist secularization brought about by state control which defined the trajectory of UvA.

Although this period was clearly crucial to the development of UvA and VU, the student and staff populations were very small, and in the case of VU very homogenous compared to today. A key turning point in this respect came after the second World War, when the US Marshal plan subsidized Dutch transition from an agrarian to an industrial economy. Following the introduction of this new economy, based on an American capitalist model (this is when multinationals like Shell sprang into existence), the Dutch standard of living skyrocketed, and universities experienced an explosive growth in student population. In 1950, 7,100 students were enrolled at UvA, and twenty years later in 1970 the student population count had risen to 25,000. At VU the student population more than tripled to 10,000 students between 1960 and 1970. By this time VU had expanded the number of faculties and had accepted government funding. The university, as a result, opened its doors to students and staff who were not Reformed Christians: in 1950, 80% of students were Reformed Christians, which dropped dramatically to a third of the student population by the end of the 70’s. These massive changes in the student and faculty populations strained the outdated and strongly hierarchical organization of the two universities. As part of calls for democratization at the end of the 1960’s, the first Maagdenhuis occupation took place. Inspired by student protests in France, radical leftwing student movements demanded reform of decision-making structures in which students and staff had little input. In addition, students at VU were occupied with the question of doing ‘normal’ science at a Christian university which was conceptualized at the start as an ‘abnormal’ project. In 1970, the ‘WUB’ law was introduced to democratize decision-making at all levels of higher education. For VU, the outcome of this period was also an acceleration of the change from an elite institution for neo-Calvinist science to a ‘mass university’ which no longer required the integration of science and Christianity.

Fast forward to the 2015 Maagdenhuis appropriation demanding democratization, decentralization as well as decolonization. At VU, discussions are ongoing about, for example, how existing spaces exclude non-Christian spiritual and religious practices and values. An important demand made by diversity-oriented and decolonial groups was that the UvA should designate quiet spaces for prayer, meditation, and introspection. The fact that the UvA was at the time unwilling to even establish such spaces, already present at VU, to preserve the secular ‘neutrality’ of the university speaks volumes about the different ways VU and UvA accept and reject the relevance of the scientists inner life in the academy.

Even though VU was founded as a protest against the core values of the forerunner of UvA, I would say that the changes of late 60’s and early 70’s laid the foundation for the cooperation that the two institutions are working on today. That is why I now think it is incredibly important to address what is apparently to some an impossible meeting of these two traditions. They have shaped academic life in Amsterdam since the late 19th century, and as their trajectories are now culminating in a much closer working relationship they will inevitably have to confront their different ideas about, for example, the value of the inner life of the scientist. If we are conscious about the biases and values the different historical trajectories bring to the table, this may be the perfect opportunity to a develop innovative perspectives on inclusion rooted in Amsterdam’s unique academic environment.

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