‘Firing Susanne Täuber dealt a blow to the concept of co-determination at the UG’

The UG board is sad to see so few staff members voting in the university council elections. Firing Susanne Täuber, who was a member of the university council, was a bad move in this regard, says former council member Antoon de Baets. ‘It’s dealt a severe blow to the faith people have in co-determination.’

In the fourteen years I was on the university council, I’ve heard colleagues speak many half truths about the nature of co-determination. One person said that because of the poor turnout during elections, the council wasn’t democratically supported. Another said the council was toothless.

A third suggested the council disrupted administrative dynamics and showed the university in a bad light. A fourth opined that council members were addicted to the power afforded them and were nothing more than vain lap dogs for the board of directors. A fifth said that joining the university council was simply a bad career move.

All these objections to co-determination are somewhat true to one extent or another, but they’re missing the true point, which is that co-determination is an important part of academic freedom.

Anyone who attempts to describe academic freedom without falling asleep will always end up at the same conclusion, which is that it’s about the right of lecturers to teach, to debate, to research, and to publish without any limitations imposed on them from any prescribed doctrines.

Co-determination is an important part of academic freedom

While this is absolutely true, this comprises only half of the authoritative UNESCO definition. According to UNESCO, other matters are included in the definition of academic freedom, to wit: the right of lecturers (and students) to express their opinion on the university, to be safeguarded from institutional censorship, and to participate in professional and representative academic bodies.

The most important aspect of the second half of that definition is co-determination. It allows the co-determination members to be critics, unafraid to let the board know how they feel. Why is co-determination such an important aspect of academic freedom, you ask?

The board of directors embodies the university’s autonomy and protects against outside influences. That is why university autonomy is usually called the ‘collective component of academic freedom’. Normally, the university’s autonomy and the academic freedom its individual staff members enjoy are fast friends, standing together against those outside influences.

But university autonomy and academic freedom also tend to clash, which means the board and staff clash, for instance in cases where staff either gets fired or is passed over for promotion, courses or classes are removed from the curriculum, departments are reorganised or shut down altogether, staff is reallocated, or the university merges with or founds other institutes. These matters are intense and take place everywhere, including Groningen.

By firing council member Susanne Täuber, the board of directors has crossed a line

In these matters where the board and staff don’t agree, academic freedom guarantees that co-determination can represent the staff’s opinions without fear of repercussions. In Groningen, this is even enshrined in the council’s rules and regulations. The article on legal protection states that the university may not because of their position on the council take prejudicial action against council members, including both candidate and former members, that affects their regular position at the university.

There’s even a procedure the board of directors must follow if a council member complains about this happening. As far as I know, this article, a strong but by no means absolute warranty against someone being fired, has never in the history of co-determination been tested. But it is the ultimate weapon that allows a co-determination body to guarantee its place in the university establishment.

Hardly any universities are even familiar with the co-determination aspect of academic freedom. Not even co-determination council or their critics knows of them. Even the articles on academic freedom by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Art and Sciences tend to neglect the aspect of co-determination. What a tragic misunderstanding!

Co-determination embodies the Socratic ideal: bringing us closer to the truth by asking difficult questions

I’ve always considered the interwoven relationship between co-determination and academic freedom as a leading principle, both in the Yantai case and in redundancies. That is also why I didn’t hesitate to sign the petition that protested the firing of associate professor Susanne Täuber. She was a council member, and you don’t fire council members. Period. By doing so anyway, the board of directors has crossed a line.

This decision has severely damaged any faith staff members still had in co-determination. The concept of university autonomy has sidelined academic freedom in this case. I was particularly surprised considering the board of directors has often shown wisdom in its leadership. But there is no wisdom to be found here, nor in a handful of other cases. I also wondered if the court considered the aspect of co-determination in its verdict. I fear that it hasn’t.

My message is clear: don’t touch co-determination. It may be a pain in the butt, sure, but that’s exactly its job. Co-determination embodies the Socratic ideal: bringing us closer to the truth by asking difficult questions. That’s where its value lies. Dear colleagues, if you want to contribute to the academic freedom you’re always talking about, there’s only one thing you must do. Clear up the misunderstanding. Vote, all of you, please vote.


Antoon de Baets is a retired professor by special appointment of history, ethics, and human rights. He was a university council member in the personnel faction for fourteen years.



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