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Executive Board column: Come to the debate on our ties with the fossil fuel industry on 27 September

Our students and staff have strong feelings and deep concerns about the ties between Dutch universities and the fossil fuel industry. It’s a thorny issue and as a university we’re keen to chart our course for the future, but we cannot do so alone. I therefore hope to be able to discuss the matter with many of you in our debate on 27 September.

In this column Annetje Ottow, Hester Bijl and Martijn Ridderbos give a peek behind the scenes at the Executive Board of Leiden University. What does their work involve? What makes them enthusiastic? What challenges do they face? Building a healthy and engaged learning community begins with sharing what you are up to. This time it’s Hester Bijl’s turn. 

At the start of this year, during the celebration of our 448th Dies Natalis, I was speaking onstage when two young climate activists suddenly unfurled a banner beside me. Although I had to ask them to leave the stage and discuss the matter at another time, I also greatly admired the courage these students had shown by voicing their concerns then and there. It illustrates how urgent these concerns are – and how important it is that we as a university listen to them and take action.

Open and transparant

We are doing so, among others, by being open and transparent in a list of our research collaborations with the fossil fuel industry. But also by giving airtime to voices of protest, as was the case during the opening of our academic year, which was dedicated to sustainability. In various films students and staff explained how they think the university could do more to make a difference. And the speech by Professor of Environmental Sustainability Jan Willem Erisman highlighted the urgency of the situation. He referred to a big international study of how young people feel about climate change. Three-quarters of them feel anxious about the future, over half think that humanity is doomed and four in ten feel despair.

These figures really hit home. I myself am also incredibly concerned about the climate and biodiversity loss. I think that we as a university should do everything in our power to prevent a climate catastrophe. We are working hard on this, for example by proactively bringing our knowledge to the outside world and championing more sustainability in our teaching. But also by continuing to offer hope, because, as Jan Willem Erisman emphasised: we can still turn the tide.

‘I think it is important that different groups have a say.'

Academic freedom

You might think: people find collaboration with the fossil fuel industry a problem, so stop doing it. But it’s not as easy as that. Because as Rector I would then be saying to our researchers: I forbid you from working with certain organisations. And then you are interfering with academic freedom in research and teaching – and that is a great asset that we need to treat with care.

At the same time this does not mean that we cannot make new agreements about whom we work together with and under which conditions we do so. But we want to chart this course for the future together with our whole community and to do so with care.

Silent majority

That is why we are going to be discussing the matter on Wednesday 27 September in a debate with our students and staff. I would like to invite all of you to come along and hope large numbers of you will do so. I think it is important that different groups have a say: from researchers who are currently doing useful research with fossil fuel partners, for instance into sustainable energy, to students and staff who have very strong opinions about these partnerships. But the ‘silent majority’ whose voices one doesn’t hear should also come along because this issue affects each and every one of us.

Want to have your say? Come to the debate on 27 September. You’re more than welcome to join us.

Share your thoughts or experiences by sending an email to h.bijl@cvb.leidenuniv.nl.

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