Book ‘De Glazen Toren’: ‘The balance isn't quite right anymore’
Writing a book on the recent history of Leiden University in corona times. For educational and policy historian Pieter Slaman (34), this has meant working in the attic of his parents’ house while they looked after his daughter, along with numerous online conversations and very few, if any, visits to the book’s actual subject. Nevertheless, according to Slaman, it has been ‘fantastic to write’. The book will be presented on 8 February during the dies natalis and on the occasion of Carel Stolker's departure. ‘The university's growth has been immense, but it’s all about balance, and this balance isn't quite right anymore. So much has changed over the past few years and I wanted to cover it all in this book.’
Slaman's book is entitled ‘De Glazen Toren’ (The Glass Tower). Along with part four of Willem Otterspeers’ ‘Groepsportret met dame’ about Leiden’s university in the fourth century of its existence, this book forms a complete volume of university history. Slaman was released from other tasks for a year and a half to write this reference work. In the first six months, he assisted Otterspeer with his work, and, in January 2020, was finally able to begin his own research. ‘I got off to a flying start as a result of already having gathered material for Willem's book. After three weeks, our daughter was born and just after that, the coronavirus took hold, so it was an exceptional period. I had to carry on regardless, however, in order to finish my work and am most grateful to the university for allowing me to focus entirely on writing the book.’
'Writing is also about composing; placing the puzzle pieces in a particular order and ensuring that a cohesive whole is created. I see myself as a story-teller and I take great pleasure from this.’
Writing is composing
Slaman equates writing to completing a jigsaw puzzle. ‘This is great fun, of course. First, you gather the information and your sources, then you identify the various puzzle pieces. But writing is also about composing; placing the puzzle pieces in a particular order and ensuring that a cohesive whole is created. I see myself as a story-teller and I take great pleasure from this.’ When he was creating the book, the ‘powers that be’ had no involvement, according to the writer. ‘Carel Stolker read it once I had finished because he wanted to say something about it during the presentation on 8 February. He is delighted with the book despite the sensitive topics that it covers. The presentation is certainly different to how Slaman had imagined. ‘In an almost empty church with a livestream. It all feels like a bit of a damp squib really but that’s just the way it is. I had especially hoped that Carel Stolker would have a huge celebration to mark his departure.’
A note of caution
Slaman admits that there are certainly sensitive areas in the book, and that writing about recent history can be harder than writing about ancient history. ‘You should approach all history cautiously, but there is a marked difference between history where all the various players are long-gone and history where most of the individuals concerned are still with us. Everyone experiences reality in their own way. So, I will never be able to keep everyone happy. I did realise, however, that I had to be even more focused on my coverage of the various sides of the debate. Can I really say that about someone? Everyone has the best intentions but opinions differ. Within the university, you have to deal with a whole range of different interests that are in constant conflict.’
'You have only been using first names, you surely don’t think that we use these to address the chair of the University Board?'
When completing the book, the historian also had to work with the changing manners within the university. ‘Things have become a little less formal over the last 20-25 years. We now use the informal ‘you’ to address one another and use one another’s first names. But, an older source had the following comment for me. He said: ‘You have only been using first names, you surely don’t think that we use these to address the chair of the University Board? I subsequently removed all first names from the manuscript and replaced them with initials in order to reflect the stiff culture of the times’, explains Slaman with a smile.
The book can be used by the incoming University Board as input for the university’s new path. ‘A new strategy has to be come up with, which is why it is of use to see where you’ve come from, so you can figure out where you're going. Very little has been written by historians about recent history and particularly about the performance culture that now exists. I hope that other universities start writing about the same topic so that we can compare accounts and start a discussion.’
Three properties of glass
‘De Glazen Toren’ (The Glass Tower). According to Slaman, this describes the university itself. It is a glass tower that must be brought back into balance. Glass has three properties and, according to the writer, these can all reflect the university. ‘Glass is hard and business-like. The university has been hard and business-like for the past 50 years. There is competition for research funding, students and careers. There are higher demands on the people involved. The idealistic side of the university has been oppressed as a result. A second property of glass is that it can serve as a greenhouse or breeding ground. Tensions can run high due to this competition and then discontentment may brew in the glasshouse. I get the impression that many colleagues would like the system to be set up differently, but very few can offer workable alternatives. It is hard to see where all this will end, but the competition element should certainly be toned down slightly.’
'The tower must regain its balance and the initial steps down this path have certainly been taken. For example, by recognising and valuing and through nationwide discussion on the establishment in general.'
Balance must be restored
Then we have the third property of glass. Its vulnerability. Slaman sees the university as an organisation of balance. ‘The university has various tasks. Education, research, social service provision. You must deliver quality and engage with the masses. A balance must be maintained between all these various facets. But things can also go wrong. If you focus too heavily on one area, things may go awry elsewhere. There are professional groups within which there are definite conflicts. There were certain professors who maintained a reign of terror. There is a very real risk of becoming overworked as more and more is asked of you and you need to work much longer hours than you want to or are able to. The tower must regain its balance and the initial steps down this path have certainly been taken. For example, by recognising and valuing and through nationwide discussion on the establishment in general. I know things will work out in the end. Leiden has traditionally always brought things back to the happy medium. We must find a consensus through dialogue. This is a typical Leiden skill; everything is debated. The management culture that you see at other universities is not so prevalent here. The balance will return.’
Text: Margriet van der Zee
The book is for sale at online stores and through the publisher but also at, for example, Leiden bookstore De Kler via the link below.De Glazen Toren