‘We need more democracy’

Computer science professor Nicolai Petkov calls for more democracy within Dutch universities. 'In this strictly hierarchical, top-down system, the people who are being governed - staff and students - may not determine who governs them.'

Student protests at Dutch universities between 1969 and 1972 led to a change of the law that gave students and staff rights of participation in university governance. These democratization changes of the early 1970s were abolished in 1998 with the introduction of a new law, ironically named Modernisering Universiteitsbestuur – Modernizing University Governance (MUB).

The emblematic occupation of the Maagdenhuis, the governance center of the University of Amsterdam (UvA), in 1969 was ended by police force. Forty-six years later, students occupy a UvA building again. Their ultimatum starts with, ‘Universiteiten worden top-down bestuurd, wat academisch onderwijs en onderzoek ernstig schaadt. De inspraak van studenten en docenten is minimal.’ – ‘Universities are governed top-down, which is extremely damaging to academic education and research. The contribution of students and lecturers is minimal.’ The very first request of the students is, ‘Alle bestuurslagen van de Universiteit van Amsterdam dienen op democratische wijze te worden gekozen.’ – ‘All governance levels of the University of Amsterdam deserve to be chosen in a democratic manner.’

In a previous UK editorial titled ‘The silence of the rabbits’, I pleaded to overhaul the system by which we at the University of Groningen (RUG) select governors at all levels, be they directors of research institutes, deans, the rector or the president of the University.

In the current system, the president and the rector are not elected by staff and students; they are appointed by the Board of Trustees. The faculty deans are not elected either; they are appointed by the board of the university. In turn, the deans appoint the directors of the research institutes. In this strictly hierarchical, top-down system, the people who are being governed – staff and students – may not determine who governs them. This, however, is not a ruling of the current MUB law: it is a flaw in how the law is being applied.


A top-down system has pitfalls. For a boss, there is a personal incentive to appoint a sub-manager who is personally loyal to him and obediently does what the boss wants (in Dutch: ja-knikker – in English, yes-men). This system rewards loyalty that points only upwards in the hierarchy. The sub-manager needs not be loyal to his subordinate staff: he can dump on that staff any decision that comes from above or any other measure that maximizes his own personal convenience. One-way loyalty is damaging to an organization: staff need to trust their direct manager and consider him or her as a reasonable and fair governor who will protect them when necessary. If they see him or her as someone to impose on them unpopular measures just to please the bosses or make their own life easier instead, such a manager will have no support (in Dutch: geen draagvlak) and will therefore be ineffective.

The Roman general Germanicus knew this: he was no democrat by far, yet he would let his soldiers vote when he had to appoint a new centurion. Germanicus recognized that staff knows best who is most capable to be their line manager (in Dutch: leidinggevende). All organization management textbooks teach the same.

There is also the international aspect. We, the RUG, want so passionately to be (seen as) an international university. However, colleagues from all over the world are stunned to hear that we do not elect our governors at any level and that our staff and students’ opinions are not taken into account in such decisions.


As an alternative to the existing practice at the RUG, here is a sketch of the governor selection procedure followed by the elite French business school INSEAD:

(1) There is a publicly known search committee that finds candidates.

(2) The nominated candidates present his or her self, ideas, vision and plans to a general assembly of all staff.

(3) All staff votes for the candidates of their choice and the result is announced publicly.

(4) That voting result and the files of the candidates go to the Board of Trustees that makes the final decision and appoints a new governor.

The above sketched governor selection procedure can be implemented at all levels of our RUG within the current MUB law. No change of the law is needed; we only need goodwill to modify the internal system of how we apply the law.


The UvA building occupation by students is symptomatic of the discontent with the state of university governance. Some problems can be fixed within the limits of the current law and must be taken care of on time before things get out of hand. Building occupations by students and demotivation of staff would put strain on research and education, and damage the performance and image of the university.

Nicolai Petkov is professor of computer science and a elected member of the University Council