That’s classified

Every day, the editorial staff at the UK wonders: What are we writing about, why are we writing about it, and how are we writing about it? A weekly look behind the scenes.

After having lived here for nearly six years, I feel like I have a slightly better grasp of how Dutch higher education works than the university system in my own country (America). To realise that every change has to be approved of by consensus at virtually every level is to understand Dutch academia.

Most of those proposed changes eventually make their way through the councils of each university faculty. Here is how it is supposed to work: at the monthly faculty council meetings, unless personnel issues (hiring or firing) or business negotiations are being covered, all documents on the agenda are supposed to be available to everyone in the room. That includes journalists.

Traditionally, the UK receives an agenda and the accompanying documents from a secretary from the faculty, either via email or in a large envelop in our mailbox in the Academy Building. Having at least a day or two to pour over the pages is needed to have any hope of understanding what is going on – the discussions are full of abbreviations for all kinds of obscure committees and projects within the department. Without those documents in hand, simply listening to the conversation will not get you very far – it is a language unto itself, whether English or Dutch is actually what is being spoken.

‘Not really interesting’

To give credit where it is due, some faculties provide all of their documents weeks in advance, and some have gone so far as to add our personnel numbers to their faculty’s MyUniversity section so that we can find the documents ourselves, as can every member of the faculty. But over the past year, we have noticed that the envelopes we do receive from certain faculties have been decidedly less full, if they ever arrive at all.

The arts faculty has not provided the UK with its faculty council documents in advance for many months now. The ‘deal’ is that those materials will be available to the freelancer who shows up to the meeting, but there have been several instances of that not being the case. When inquiries are made to obtain the documents, our writers have been told, ‘Oh, it’s not really interesting for you.’ Let us be the judge of that.

One of our science freelancers had to battle to get the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences documents for the meeting this Wednesday. After checking our mailbox on Monday and finding nothing but coupons, she called the faculty secretary to inquire about the lack of documents. Nervously, the staffer on the phone asked if she could check with a colleague first.

Several emails and multiple phone calls later, she has the documents in hand – but not without first being given a lecture about how the UK has ‘distorted’ information covered in previous meetings (i.e. reporting faculty plans before those plans have been officially announced) and the assertion that it is not ‘common practice’ for a reporter to attend the meetings. Our freelancers who have been present at those meetings in recent months would beg to differ.

Public institution

Last week, our news coordinator was covering the University Council. When the meeting reached the topic of PhD education, the dreaded word ‘confidential’ reared its ugly head. One member asked: ‘Why is this topic labelled confidential?’ The ultimate answer: ‘Look over your shoulder’ – in other words: ‘There’s a journalist in the room.’

That is far from the only topic that is declared classified. When it comes to Yantai, it is nearly always confidential. But that also counts for construction plans and real estate acquisitions on campus. This apparent tendency to shroud ever more information in secrecy is certainly not limited to Groningen. Our fellow university newspaper Folia reported that at the University of Applied Sciences in Amsterdam, their university council has formally requested that their Board of Directors not classify any documents for discussion as confidential for the remainder of this academic year. The request was based in part on fears that confidential topics would inevitably be leaked, and in part on wanting to be sure that students and staff were kept informed, and in a timely manner.

At the end of the day, the RUG – as are the majority of other universities in the Netherlands – is a public institution. It is therefore vital to provide insight into the decision-making process – and the financial basis for it – at every level of the university.

As a journalistic medium, it is our duty to attend those meetings, review those documents, get to the bottom of why the faculty is doing what it’s doing, and to share that information with those who could be impacted by it – before it has been decided upon, not after the fact.

Traci White, international editor



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