VU assistant professor Younes Saramifar was not reprimanded by VU Amsterdam, is not being ‘warded’ and there is no employee keeping an eye on his lectures, as AD published last week.
“That is not the case at all”, says Rector Magnificus Jeroen Geurts, “And I find it terrible that so many people think so now. We only wanted to signal that we didn’t approve of the trigger warning that Saramifar put on Canvas.”
Saramifar explained to Ad Valvas that he – because some students were uncomfortable with his viewpoints – wrote the trigger warning. That warning pretty much stated that whoever couldn’t handle his viewpoints about Israel and the colonial foundation of Europe is better off not taking his course. But, “In no way are my students obliged to agree with me on these issues, I always encourage a good discussion in class”, Saramifar says.
That part wasn’t clear from the trigger warning, says the rector. “The impression could arise that students were not welcome if they didn’t accept a certain mindset, which is not allowed, as all students are welcome in our educational system. In the lecture hall there should be the freedom to question things. We think it’s important for differing perspectives to be offered. We don’t doubt the good intentions of this professor, we only indicated that the trigger warning was not wise.”
What he initially saw as a “relatively small matter”, blew up when it reached the press through an anonymous leak. Geurts speaks of a “snowball effect of newspaper articles where excerpts of an e-mail of mine were loosely interpreted. I do understand the anger it caused, but the articles were wrong.”
Geurts wrote a mail to someone who reported the trigger warning. “It was someone expressing their concern and I wanted to take that away.” So he wrote, among other things, that Saramifar’s “choice of words and tone doesn’t fit VU Amsterdam’s guiding principles” and that action would be taken “immediately”.
“In the media those words were taken out of context, which caused concerns”, he says now. The mail also included that Geurts lamented that the trigger warning “appeared to resound a political stance”.
“By that I meant that political stances should not be imposed in the lecture hall, that there should be multiperspectivity and room for other opinions”, says the rector.
That professors can be advised by the VU Center for Teaching and Learning about how to deal with controversial issues in the lecture hall is one of Geurts’ hobbyhorses. He mentioning it in the e-mail. AD turned that into Saramifar being ‘guided’ by the CTL and quickly the talk of the town was that he was ‘warded’.
The AD publication gives off the impression that Geurts’ mail was directed at Saramifar, as opposed to the person who reported the trigger warning. It also looks like a VU spokesperson confirms that Saramifar was reprimanded and being watched. The article did not only generate anger towards Saramifar, who immediately received hate mail and threats, but VU Amsterdam is also under fire. In a formal complaint directed at the rector by students and employees, VU Amsterdam is accused of hypocrisy and racism. Assistant professor Niels Debonne accused VU Amsterdam in Parool of opening the door for political retribution against all its professors, and for inappropriate meddling into curricula.
“People are afraid of restricting academic freedom”, says Geurts, “I take that very seriously and will gladly speak about it with various concerned parties, but I can perhaps somewhat reassure them: academic freedom is protected by law and this rector will always fight for it. And there is also room for activism at the university, I spoke of that last week with Ad Valvas. Activism is a part of science, it’s interwoven. Read Bruno Latour. Only guard yourself from blind activism. Let debate arise in the lecture hall, question each other, but offer differing perspectives and also check if you’re not tremendously hurting your students, take a human approach to that. Freedom is never without obligations.”