Woke culture threatens academic freedom in social sciences at the University of Amsterdam

On 18 January 2023, I published an opinion article in Folia, the newspaper of the University of Amsterdam. I write about the ways in which woke culture is undermining academic freedom at the social sciences departments at the University of Amsterdam. I also announced that I ultimately decided to call for official whistleblower protection to demand independent research on the severe institutional dysfunctions behind it. This triggered a vast campus-wide and also nation-wide discussion on academic freedom. Read the artcle here in English and watch my interview with Follow The Science, in order to get up to speed with current events in Amsterdam. Follow my Twitter for updates.

Woke culture threatens academic freedom in social sciences

Social scientist, UvA lecturer and entrepreneur Laurens Buijs believes that the education and research climate in the social sciences at the UvA can no longer be tolerated under the influence of what he considers a ‘woke culture’ within the department. “I am increasingly being seen like a bad person.”

Diversity policy is on the rise at the UvA. Like an octopus, the policy is nesting itself in the organization through all kinds of committees – at the central, faculty and program level. They are creating awareness about ‘unconscious bias’, countering ‘micro-aggressions’ and ‘decolonizing’ the curriculum. But there is no discussion possible at the UvA about the dark side of this policy.

Trojan horse
The diversity policy in its current form is a Trojan horse, with which radical ‘woke’ ideas are brought into the organization and normalized at lightning speed. While the UvA is increasingly emphasizing a morally elevated position in its communication by referring to its diversity policy, academic freedom is wavering, under pressure from increasing political correctness and dogmatic left-wing ideology, particularly in the social sciences.

I personally experience this myself, as an interdisciplinary social scientist who works on themes such as gender and sexuality, the multicultural society and Covid-19 policies. While I too identify as left-wing and progressive, the work I do and the positions I take based on scientific evidence, are tolerated less and less.

From my expertise on androgyny, for example, I am critical of the phenomenon of ‘non-binary’ and the associated obsession with ‘pronouns’. I see this phenomenon as an empty hype in late modernity, without a scientific basis in biology, psychology and anthropology. There is a solid scientific basis for the validity of categories like masculine women, feminine men, drags and transgender people. But the emancipation of a minority group that exists completely outside the ‘gender binary’ is, in my view, a dangerous and pseudo-scientific delusion.

Bad person
However, the debate on this can hardly be held without me being accused of discrimination. Students and colleagues say that my views violate their ‘safe space’ and see this as a ‘micro-aggression’. Of course I don’t mind if people disagree with me in the academic arena; differences of opinion are fundamental to a healthy academic debate. But I am increasingly being given the feeling that I am a ‘bad person’ who has no right to speak. And that while I take positions about which I have scientific expertise, conduct research and publish.

As a researcher of homophobic violence in Amsterdam, I have seen a worrying over-representation of Moroccan-Dutch boys in the perpetrator group for years. I am now conducting a new study, in which I want to critically examine the role of Islam in homophobic violence. Despite the fact that I have always explicitly distanced myself from right-wing populist politicians who tried to use my research for their Islamophobic agenda, my research is quickly distrusted at the UvA. As a critic of Islam’s homophobic tendencies, I have often been dismissed as a “homonationalist”—someone who would use gay emancipation for a nationalist agenda. This makes it increasingly difficult to find institutional support (supervision and funding) within the UvA for the research I would like to do.

I experienced the pandemic as a new low point in terms of academic freedom at the UvA. Based on my expertise in Science & Technology Studies (STS), I was critical of the mRNA vaccination technology and the QR health pass, and the overall neoliberal surveillance agenda behind the policy plans. A normal debate about this at the UvA turned out to be hardly possible. Anyone who was even slightly critical of the measures was dismissed as ‘anti-science’, ‘conspiracy theorist’ and ‘extreme right’. Solidarity had to be with the vulnerable. There was no room for a discussion about whether the measures were constitutional in the first place. My critical contributions to the Covid-19 policy debate were received so badly at the UvA that I even lost a job at the summer schools after nearly fifteen years of loyal service.

At the UvA, there are firm norms on many themes – usually dictated by the politics of established left-wing parties – that determine the frameworks within which one may think and speak. People who take different positions and use different arguments can quickly be accused of violating social safety or hurting minorities. For example, the UvA’s diversity policy is increasingly leading to an ideological monoculture. But good and healthy scientific knowledge production can only exist by the grace of radical academic freedom and open, pluralistic debate.

I find it irresponsible that the UvA is not thinking about how diversity policy can be reconciled with academic freedom. I have seen the atmosphere change in social sciences in recent years. Not much is left of the colorful group of scientists with an open attitude to the most diverse voices. The debate is narrowing and its boundaries are increasingly defined by dogmatic political ideology that can best be described as ‘woke’. I therefore recently reported to the Executive Board via the Whistleblower Policy and called on them to investigate the worrying developments and come up with an action plan to save academic freedom.

Brave space
The UvA should of course be proud of its efforts to put diversity and inclusion on the agenda. Our university has firmly institutionalized all kinds of traditional norms when it comes to whiteness, masculinity and heteronormativity. It’s important that we look at that and fix it. But a diversity policy that focuses only on hobbyhorses from the left-progressive political agenda is not sustainable, because it paradoxically excludes scholars with other convictions.

Room for diversity therefore also means room for different viewpoints, opinions and political convictions. This not only requires a ‘safe space’, but also a ‘brave space’, in which we always bravely enter into conversations with people who think differently based on arguments, even if their viewpoints shock and hurt us. That is a lesson that the UvA must learn quickly, before there is nothing left of our unique social science tradition, which is characterized by cross-thinkers and dissidents.

Laurens Buijs is a lecturer at Interdisciplinary Social Science (ISW) and has had a company in the field of diversity and inclusion since 2016.

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