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Passionate debate on university’s fossil fuel ties

Should Leiden University cut its ties with the fossil fuel industry forthwith? This was the main question on Wednesday 27 September in a two-hour debate between students and academic and non-academic staff. The answer was clearer for some than for others.

Annetje Ottow and Hester Bijl: ‘We want to hear your thoughts and protests.’

Fervent applause is the opening salvo of this rather loaded debate, in response to moderator Roderik van Grieken’s remark that the turnout is ‘more than double what I’ve seen at other universities.’ The lecture hall in the Gorlaeus building is almost full, with more than 600 students, researchers and staff, with students forming the majority. They are discussing a very hot potato: collaboration between the university and the fossil fuel industry.

Listen closely

Before the debate begins, Hester Bijl (Rector Magnificus) and Annetje Ottow (President of the Executive Board) come forward. They have come to listen, Ottow is keen to emphasise. ‘We need all of you, our community, for input. And we will listen closely to your thoughts and protests.’

Hester Bijl explains that breaking ties with the fossil fuel industry is a complex matter. ‘Much of our collaboration with the fossil industry is about sustainability. And academic freedom is crucial for our university. It’s important that we protect our researchers from parties who would like to tell them what they can and cannot do.’

Presenting the climate petition, signed by over 1,200 academics, students and alumni

Standing ovation

Some of these researchers have clear opinions about fossil fuel collaborations. Thomas Fossen, Anne Urai, Geert-Jan Kroes, Ann Marie Wilson and Andrew Littlejohn are given a standing ovation that lasts for minutes on end as they come forward to hand over a petition to the Executive Board. The petition signed by more than 1,200 researchers, students and alumni calls on the university to take a firmer stance in the climate crisis. One of the ways to do so is to break its ties with the fossil fuel industry, they say.

Electrochemist Marc Koper sums up the advantages of fossil fuel collaboration

‘We are pawns’

Then it's time for the debate, which is fuelled by three different voices from the university.  Student In-Sook Pinxteren is from End Fossil and was one of those who took to the stage unannounced on the last Dies Natalis to call attention to the climate crisis. ‘It’s sad we had to take such disruptive action to draw people’s attention to the subject’, she says. ‘The university has delivered on the promise of transparency and a debate. But we also need action and now.’

In his quest for sustainable fuels, Marc Koper, a professor of electrochemistry, can see benefits from working with the fossil fuel industry. ‘In direct collaboration, for instance working on the production of ethylene without using fossil resources. But also in larger collaborations with all the universities, the government and companies to put together a growth fund for much larger projects. And thirdly, we train the electrochemists, the people needed in the chemical industry to make the energy transition happen.’

Rather than a halt to all collaboration with the fossil fuel industry, Gerrit Schaafsma, a philosopher at LUC Leiden, calls for a halt to fossil fuel funding. ‘We’re pawns. Our academic freedom is being abused.’

An Urban Studies student begins with strong criticism, ‘It’s very sad that cutting ties is being framed as a restriction of academic freedom.’

Strong criticism

The debate focuses on three themes, each introduced by university historian Pieter Slaman. The first, academic freedom, is encapsulated in the statement, ‘Legal frameworks should be the only restriction on academic freedom’. The majority of the room disagrees. They attack the form and content of the statement. An Urban Studies student begins with strong criticism, ‘I think it’s very sad that cutting ties is being framed as a restriction of academic freedom. It’s about restricting where the money’s coming from.’

A LUC lecturer agrees, ‘I disagree with the statement because it’s badly formulated. We need to talk about true academic freedom, not bought and paid for.’

‘We don’t have to wait for anyone to determine our own academic freedom’, a researcher says somewhat later. ‘I’m a medical doctor and study lung cancer. Cutting ties with the tobacco industry several decades ago made our research so much better Let’s not wait for a legal framework to cut ties here.’

Party conference

‘It’s turning into a party conference’ says moderator Van Grieken. ‘Are there people with different views?’

There are. ‘Some of the research done in collaboration with the fossil industry is on very fundamental topics’, says a student. ‘These projects cannot be controlled; the results are measurements. For this type of research, I see no problem in collaboration.’

‘Cutting ties will only add to our problems’

The second theme is about forms of collaboration: should we work unconditionally or conditionally with the fossil fuel industry − or not at all?

A student notes that the second option is unrealistic. ‘Do we have the power to impose restrictions on the fossil industry? We don’t. But we do have the power to cut ties. We should also cut ties because as a university, we want to contribute to a clean energy transition, whereas the fossil industry does not.’ 

But a bit later a physics researcher counters, ‘Solutions such as solar and wind energy are here thanks to researchers like Mark, who seek collaboration. You have to think about a new economy with all parties involved. Cutting ties will only add to our problems.’

A student adds a bit later, ‘The second option seems reasonable. But we need to define strict conditions.’

Then someone else jumps up: ‘This is turning into a one-sided debate! If we want to bring innovations and inventions into people’s homes, it is essential that we collaborate with companies. If we cut ties, no significant research will be done in The Netherlands, and our role in a sustainable future is gone.’

At the end of the block, 60% of the voters choose not to collaborate with the fossil fuel industry.

‘Let’s cut all ties. It’s going to be hard. But it will actually be easier now than it will ever be.’


The last topic is in the form of a question: ‘Which conditions are important for collaborations with fossil fuel companies?’ An online tool generates a word cloud of audience answers on the screen. In large words in the middle is, BOYCOTT THE QUESTION.

‘We don’t want to collaborate, most of us just said that’, a student calls. ‘Let’s cut all ties. It’s going to be hard. But it will actually be easier now than it will ever be.’ 

Another student makes an interesting comparison. ‘If I had a boyfriend who’s not doing the things we agreed on in our relationship, I would be very much done with that person. I propose that we demand that companies demonstrate in a collaboration that we have shared goals, such as a clean planet and equal human rights. I also propose the university shields researchers, making sure that they can freely use the money received from companies.’

Two hours fly by when you are debating the world’s problems. People have listened respectfully and offered impassioned speakers plenty of praise and applause. Gerrit Schaafsma sums up how he feels, ‘There’s a divisive feeling in the room, with the majority wanting to cut ties and with people doubting if that’s wise. But it doesn’t need to be that way. Sustainability is our common goal. Let’s go out there and find new sources of funding for the research that is being done now.’

Hester Bijl promises to get cracking with the input and to continue to consult all levels of the academic community. The students hope this process will be quick enough because they want action. They end the session with the urgent, powerful, collective chant: Power to the People.

Report: Jan Joost Aten
Photos: Patrice Borger

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