Interview with VUB professor Jonathan Holslag

“Professors are a bit like hamsters in a bureaucratic treadmill”

— Dit artikel werd vertaald uit het Nederlands. Het originele interview in het Nederlands kan u hier lezen. —

Jonathan Holslag is a regularly talked about persona at the VUB and in social debates. Despite the fact that he, in his own words, is still a little young, it is already time for a break. Even more reason to talk. An interview about his hate-love relationship, but still tight bond, with the VUB. At the same time about freedom of expression, high working pressure, democratization and polarization.

Written by Maud De Vos — Translated by Anna Van Wuijckhuijse
Holslag is a professor of international relations, specialized in China and special advisor of the first vice president of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans. He is also a cofounder of the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies (BICCS) which is linked to the VUB, and apart from being the author of multiple books he is also a well known opinionist. A conversation about the future of the university, himself and our society.

You are often talked about as a researcher, do you try to look for this provocation?

“I’m first and foremost Jonathan Holslag, my life is not limited to the university. I supplement my part of humanity with research activities that lead to papers or books, but I’m also a citizen, father of two daughters and I have a certain concern about the future and developments of our society. When I take a standpoint, I certainly don’t do this as an academic. When, to start with this right away, I want to write a foreword in a book of an extreme right-wing party leader, I don’t do this as a political scientist. First of all I do this because I, as a concerned citizen, get offered the chance to bring my ideas to a group in our society that I don’t get to reach otherwise. It may have only been a foreword, but it was a very critical foreword. My principles are set in stone: I don’t see the VUB as my employer, society is my employer”

So you don’t think that you should always be aware that you speak on behalf of the VUB in some way?

“I’m VUBer for 7.4 hours a day, like is written in the labor regulations. We don’t live in the time of feudalism anymore where a master had our entire fate in their hands. I also don’t think that that is expected. In the past few years, I’ve never had the impression that the rector or our dean has wanted me to draw the line. On the contrary, I think Caroline Pauwels and Joël Branson [dean of faculty ES] supported me tremendously in this. I’m also representative of Frans Timmermans and sometimes, especially critical also towards the European Commission. They don’t summon me to shut me up. I do think that working as a scientist brings certain rules with it that need to be respected. However, as an opinionist I have very different rules, the same goes for when I make reports. That is what makes life so damn interesting.”

Do you struggle with the criticism that you do receive? For example when some colleagues wrote an open letter to you after your foreword in Tom van Grieken’s book?

“I don’t struggle with that at all. The only thing I found difficult about Eric Corijn’s piece was that he made it very personal rather than objective or academic. To me that’s not very polite, you don’t do something like that. But I don’t have any problems with content related critique. That’s the power a university has and I believe that this academic friction leads to the creativity that keeps us sharp. People could be more critical in my point of view, but you need to be able to have a respectful and courteous debate. What I find contradictory, is that people like Eric Corijn, for whom I have a lot of respect, on one hand portray themselves as the pioneers of tolerance and open-mindedness. But on the other hand can be very intolerant in their reactions and actually put relatively little effort into building bridges and understanding where this frustration might come from.

My country, my beautiful country

In the past you talked about a cultural decay in Belgium, why do you think this is the case?

“I don’t necessarily mean that there is an absence of culture. That expression is an argument particularly from the nationalists. People who say: ‘we have to keep everything as local as possible and preferably keep newcomers out to protect what we have’, to this I ask myself: what are we protecting? What is the Flemish or Belgian culture that we try to defend? In which way is it still practiced by ourselves? The same goes for when people talk about defending our freedom, rights and principles. There are very few people who actually stick to these principles. I find these traditions very valuable, but before we identify the threat, we should first try a little harder to keep these morals alive, especially its positive core.  Are we still participating in this that we think we need to preserve? I still think that we, despite all flaws, live in the most beautiful society on Earth. To me, Europe is the prettiest region in the world. Where else do you have freedom and diversity to have the discussions we have here? That might sound a little sentimental and nostalgic, but it is the truth. There’re tons of people who are blindly following the growth in Asia. I’m happy that I can travel, but you only realize when you come back what we have here. It’s a shame that this consciousness is gone for many young people. They take everything for granted.

“I needed to promise my wife: no politics before 40”

Jonathan Holslag

Pressure from all sides

Lately you suggested that, maybe because of larger classes and an increase of anonymity in the aula, the retake-mentality is growing amongst the students and that we are losing our competitiveness.

“The university’s job, in my eyes, is to form the intellectual leadership of tomorrow. That might sound a little pretentious, but in every society you need people who, through their wisdom, knowledge, insights and analytical skills take the leading role in a debate. Does this mean that bakers or farmers are inferior to me? No. They can be an equal part of this elite through the expertise and beauty they produce. Nevertheless, in a society you need a group of intellectual leaders who are, for the most part, formed at a university. At the same time, you are dealing with a society that isn’t always fair. I’m a result of this society. I think I was a typical example of a disadvantaged child. Who am I to say that we shouldn’t democratize? My critique is that democratization is not equal to bringing as many students as possible into a university. Democratization is giving people with a talent, who because of whatever reason are less privileged, a chance to catch up. We don’t do this at all. Amongst other things because the number of students are increasing rapidly and there is less time to reconcile differences. Last week I did more than 100 oral exams and that was actually my first individual contact with the students. After that short evaluation moment, they disappear into the mass again and there’s no support anymore to give some students just a small push to do even better. I think that’s awful. That we as professors, despite the delusion of democratization that we imagine, are creating neither fish nor fowl. I’m willing to tag along with the expansion, but we have to think a lot more critically about how to handle the profit. How we can use this profit to give the potentially very good students more opportunities. Right now, about 30 to 40 percent of the money we get for education goes to logistics and administration. That’s huge, whereas everyone complains about the mediocre service. We have to reduce the size of the the administration such that students can get what they payed for. Just like there are controls for the quality of education, there should also be quality control for the central services. Since 2010 the number of independent academic staff members stayed the same although there were 108 administrative and technical staff members added. You are creating a bureaucracy out of a university. This way, the academic staff is becoming desperate because they’re being bombarded with rules and extra assignments. Professors are a little bit like hamsters in a bureaucratic treadmill and because of this I get very rebellious. I think the way in which we treat professors at Flemish universities is borderline degrading sometimes.”

Do you think that this pressure is also related to the work pressure? Because you don’t only have to teach but also support your students and publish.

“Writing has actually become a weekendjob. Young professors are under a very heavy pressure. There are always five people waiting to take over for every professor. We also have to stop with all of these strict silly rules. I see the committees my young colleagues are a part of, and it’s crazy. That isn’t the core task of their job. Many things are also provided under the pretext of securing the quality, but putting professors under pressure to make the standards lower and lower, is that really securing the quality? Securing quality is setting the bar high enough and making sure that your students can reach this along the way, but it’s obviously not seen this way. Mostly because it’s not always financially rewarding.”

Where do you think this pressure to reduce standards comes from?

“The level in high schools is a lot lower, I also notice this with my own students. If I do a test with my students at the beginning of the year, generally their knowledge is at about 30 percent of what the schoolplans say they should know after their graduation. Besides this we have a very diverse inflow of people at the VUB. We have more students from technical and vocational high schools [both are more focussed on practical work rather than theoretical knowledge, contrary to the the general secondary education in Flanders]. There is also a larger amount of students with Dutch as a foreign language, even though we don’t have extra resources to support these students. Then there is also the financial pressure of course. You don’t get money by failing students and lastly there are more student evaluations, through which the median becomes the norm. Professors are being evaluated by a range of students, including the weaker ones. Like this, you force them to make their course easier. “

Young and taking a break

You have a clear vision about how the VUB should develop, don’t you have the ambition to go higher up and help recreate the university?“I’m 36, I’m still as green as grass. At this age you’re only starting to discover everything. I believe that we destroy people too fast by giving them all sorts of management responsibilities too early on. I want to give myself at least five more years to study, become wiser, to discover and to develop my own analysis of the world. I may be very assertive sometimes, but I still doubt many things. First let people become mature as citizens, researchers, and then let them take on responsibilities. Nothing is more detrimental for a university to transform young people with academic ambitions into leaders that they’re not. To bombard someone at 40 with being coordinator of a program or department is completely out of control. That isn’t supposed to happen, it only cripples people’s creativity. If I see the administration coming towards me I’ll take a stand. I’ll just refuse to be a part of it, even though that might be egoistic.”

“You see people who graduate with the best intentions, to then, in a best case scenario, end up in as a civil servant”

Jonathan Holslag

Isn’t a change in mentality needed at the job market of today? Because you said: ‘too many people are studying at university’, but what are you today without a degree?

“I completely agree with you, a university degree still gives you a better chance to get a job. That is because of an unfortunate development in a couple of job sectors. Everything related to manual labor is completely being degraded. While we’re in need of a return of honor in these fields of work. This doesn’t happen by reducing the amount of people inside craftsmanship. I think that you can create the humanitas through the craftsmanship. I also think that we have to reflect about the bureaucratization of this society, nobody profits from this. Because we’re paralyzing everything though regulations, we’re not advancing anymore. In my eyes, we should rather go into the direction of fewer but more powerful rules. Which causes you to need fewer political leaders. The university is in the end only a part of the reflection of the real society. When I look at the numbers from the VDAB [Flemish job placement and vocational training] for programs like sociology, political science, but also law, they don’t offer very positive job perspectives, let alone anything of a high quality. I think that we’re losing a lot of social capital in this way. You see people who graduate with the best intentions, to then, in a best case scenario, end up in as a civil servant.

Is it true that you’re taking a sabbatical?

“Yes, I’ll be taking a break next academic year. Just because I’m having difficulties with the way we’re tackling our academic education. I’m asking myself more and more if I’m actually making a difference with my commitment. I know myself, and I’m sure I have this reputation, that I’m quite a demanding professor. I think that it’s my job to encourage students to, with some support, learn to analyze and create perspectives themselves instead of learning slides off by hard. I’m not saying at all that I’m leaving the VUB, I think it’s a beautiful university. Nonetheless, it’ll still be a very busy year. A few books are coming up so my research will continue. After that we’ll see. Life is more than just teaching or researching. I do want to highlight that this university has a few strong assets, including the philosophy.  However, we have to take care that our philosophy and the determinism of our rector don’t become a facade for something that doesn’t work very well backstage. For example in our open minded mentality (geuzenmentaliteit), trying to enforce free research and free thinking. Fantastic, but please apply this to your internationalization. To me it’s great to demonstrate in front of the Iranian embassy for a colleague, who has terrible fate, but if you smooth talk with other authoritarian countries at the same time without giving them any reason to stop their propoganda, then I ask myself if you’re not contradicting yourself. We have to do more than just spreading the message that we are free thinkers, open minded and only sing the geuzenlied once a year [a song to show our accepting and critical mentality]. I’m afraid that we’ll get a rude awakening sooner or later. You can already see that the universities are slowly but surely going back from mass teaching and quantity to putting more focus on quality. If we don’t anticipate this change, we won’t be prepared and we’ll have neither the quantity nor the quality. Like this you’ll risk to weaken the VUB’s position even more in the long term. I’d really like to continue four or five years like this, but I might have to take a step further and take some responsibilities. Because of its core principles, there are a few things that I don’t believe the VUB can come clean with, which I find absolutely repulsive. But all in all, and that is also the reason why I haven’t gone to Leuven yet, it’s my pleasure to be here. In any case, I needed to promise my wife: no politics before 40.

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