Be constructive, demand the impossible!

[Warning: sarcasm] Quite provocative and funny, those ideals of DAG. But one can’t say they are very constructive. Elected managers? Science for the common good? Self-determination for researchers? Sure enough, this joke will be over soon. Luckily for the university board, there are other students that are willing to work with them. University council parties whose attitude is “critical yet constructive”. “Demand nothing that goes too far”, they seem to realize, “be constructive!”.

by Remco van der Meer

Let’s be serious: the word ‘constructive’ is used all over the place in the words and writing of managers and their student allies. In practice it is mostly used to describe proposals that fit within the desired managerial picture, like a comma on a balance or an extension of the opening hours of the library. Does a student have a critical view of university policy with which nothing is wrong according to the managers themselves? “Unconstructive!”. What they mean is: these proposals go against existing structures, you have to work within these and we do not want any kind of alternative. The ultimate political cliché since the eighties, “There is no alternative!”, stubbornly persists in this form.

Constructive in the wrong way

Yelling “unconstructive!” is a managerial Pavlovian reflex that unfairly excludes all profound and fundamental criticism. Precisely when we want an open and inclusive university, where everyone can see eye to eye, we have to have the guts to think further than our commercial and governmental financers feel is necessary. It is disappointing to read how student representatives, in all the councils and committees the university offers them, describe their role as one in which they give ‘critical yet constructive’ advice to this or that manager. Well-intentioned, of course, but it is like saying: I don’t want to criticise policy too thoroughly. Students have so much to achieve, but if they understand ‘being constructive’ in this self-restricting fashion, they won’t achieve much any time soon. It’s a fun way to pass the time: go through random resumes, news articles or party programmes of student representatives and count how many times ‘constructive’ is used in this way.

In this sense, ‘being constructive’ doesn’t warrant any kind of self-congratulation. It mostly means coloring inside the lines without attention for the real problems. Or even worse: not recognising those problems at all. Being proud that you reached agreement without having realized your ideals means elevating the process over the long-term consequences, to paraphrase Ewald Engelen. As if agreement with your opponents is more important than being right.

“Truly being constructive does not start with accepting the practical hurdles of today, but with a vision of what can be reality tomorrow”

If we use the word ‘constructive’ in the self-restricting sense, we can only go along with already existing power structures; if you have to build from what is already there you can never pose questions about the way something is structured or organised. Imagine a proposal coming along in a university council meeting. One with which you as a party disagree. Then the only thing that remains, if you want to be ‘constructive’ in the restricting sense, is proposing small changes. You don’t allow yourself the option of rejection, or proposing a real alternative. That is a shame, because if we truly want to construct a better university, then we have to be willing to point out its flaws too.

Aletta Jacobs was constructive by breaking with all habit at the UG by participating in lectures as a woman. In order to do so, she had to go against everything that academics and managers accepted as desirable. The large group of teachers and researchers that united in Rethink RUG two years ago was constructive by speaking out against the undemocratic policymaking at our university. If these examples teach us anything, it is that if we cannot do proposals that break with the status quo, we cannot be constructive at all. It is no surprise, then, that Parisian students who took to the streets in May ’68 wrote: “Be realistic, demand the impossible!”.

“Aletta Jacobs had to go against everything that academics and managers accepted as desirable”

It is clear that students have to reconquer the word ‘constructive’. To make a start: being constructive is admitting mistakes. It is being honest about the reasons underlying your policy. It means that transparancy is more important than maintaining a spotless reputation. Unconstructive is to pass budget cuts off as improvements, as with the Faculty of Arts. Unconstructive is denying researchers and students any serious say in the organisation of their academic environment. Unconstructive is calling any changes that are not superficial ‘impossible’ or ‘too radical’.

If we want to be constructive, if we want to realise a better university, we need the conditions in which we can do so. That means a democratic university, where the voice of academics and students is seriously heard. Those are the conditions that DAG wants to establish. We would prefer to do so in cooperation with all students, researchers, supporting staff and managers. But a cooperation on equal terms is currently not possible. That is why DAG demands far-reaching democratisation. Even if that is a demand that will not be granted today. The French students were right. Because truly being constructive does not start with with accepting the practical hurdles of today, but with a vision of what can be reality tomorrow.