Monday, June 26, 2006

What the hell are you doing over there?

I get a lot of questions here at ExpatMike Centraal, but this is definitely the most popular. It probably says something that it is my least favorite one to answer, and this entry will definitely lack the amusing bon mots from Dutch society that I use to cover up anxiety about my research.

I have two primary projects here, neither of which is going particularly well. The project that I outlined for the Fulbright committee is an extension of my dissertation research, examining a concept I developed called metapolicy and how it can be used to understand broad trends in higher education governance and policymaking. Getting people to agree to interviews on this topic is nearly impossible, because I'd need to talk to high ranking officials and governance types, and they are either on vacation or too important to talk to someone with few connections and little status. So I'm talking mostly to experts in higher education. I still think I can produce a paper on this topic, but it will have to rely primarily upon document analysis.

My second project, and one that people find more comprehensible, is about how Dutch universities can promote social cohesion, particularly regarding the integration of Muslim students into society. You may have heard about two major assassinations that have taken place in Amsterdam since 2001. The first was the murder of Pim Fortuyn, a right-wing, gay, anti-immigration politician who had recently gained power. (Seriously). He led a political party devoted to eliminating Islamic fundamentalism and its ascendence in Dutch society, but he was actually killed by an animal rights activist, which most people treat as trivial -- he might as well been killed by the Ayatollah.

The second was a filmmaker named Theo Van Gogh, who was knocked off his bike on the way to work (not far from my flat, by the way), and stabbed to death as Van Gogh begged for mercy. The murderer was an Islamic fundamentalist infuriated by Van Gogh's film collaboration with a Dutch politician named Ayaan Hirsi Ali that accused Islam of violence against women. Hirsi Ali, in turn, is being expelled from the country for lying on her immigration application, and will soon arrive in the U.S. to make waves back home.

This has been the major political topic of conversation for years in the Netherlands. So you'd think that universities would have interesting things to say or do about this, because they're educators. There's a major social and political problem in the country, so maybe universities should, you know, educate people about it. Except they don't. Universities here simply do not see this as part of their mission, and faculty and students find the idea that the university could agree on anything as "preposterous." (That's a direct quote from an informant.) The curriculum has barely changed to reflect the changing landscape. Muslim students are not organized to advocate for themselves or for institutional change. (The University of Amsterdam does not even have a Muslim student organization.)

So my thinking needs to change substantially as I move forward. I need to take into account a university culture that values continuing dialogue rather than building consensus or cohesion, and sees its contribution to society coming solely through autonomous faculty members and research centers rather than through the institution as a whole. A lack of policy or university mission does not mean nothing is happening, but rather that it is happening through different means than would be expected in other national contexts.

So that's what I'm doing. Sorry you asked? Thought so. So enjoy this pretty picture of Dam Square, a 10-minute walk from here.


At 9:10 PM, Anonymous Alix said...

Hi Mike,

Found your blog through Linda's and have been enjoying it very much. I grew up in Holland and am now living in the U.S.; my mother's American, my father's Dutch, and so I've always floated inbetween the two cultures.

I thought this post was very interesting, since it points to one of the major differences between Dutch and American culture, which happens also to be one of the main reasons why I decided to stay in the U.S. after I finished college here.

You seem to have excellent insight into the Dutch psyche, judging from your previous blog entries (which, by the way, had me snarfing tea all over my desk with laughter...!); the Dutch university system (and Dutch society as a whole, I would argue) falls into that same well-ordered, let's not rock the boat, just act normally and you'll be acting crazy enough way of life.

I'm not really getting at what I want to say -- I am still looking for the vocabulary to accurately translate what I feel inside my head about the fundamental differences between the Netherlands and the U.S. into actual spoken/written language without taking up way too much of people's time -- but I just wanted to let you know how much I am enjoying your blog, and especially this latest entry. It puts some of what I feel into words, which is great.

All the best,

- Alix

At 4:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Universities are complicated and strange. To begin with, notice that they have two overt goals that do not always mesh well: both education and research. Further, the results of these overt goals are not measurable in direct ways -- research is measured by the acclaim of other researchers, while education... well, I have little idea how to measure the value of an education. So universities have conflicting goals where success is not really measurable -- a recipe for weirdness and complexity.

Anyway, that same weirdness and complexity would seem to be great for a research topic! It's not great for finding simple answers, but it provides endless opportunity for investigation and learning.

By the way, are you really so sure it is unusual for professors to be highly autonomous? I bet that is common actually. So long as they either (a) do okay with published research, or (b) do okay with student evaluations, then what else is the administration going to say to them?

Anyway, good luck with all your work, and thanks for all your posts! As an American living in Switzerland I enjoy reading your blog!

-Lex Spoon

At 8:56 PM, Blogger Mike said...

Thanks so much for your comments... I had no idea that Linda's fame would rub off on me! I'm not sure I deserve much credit for insights, yet, in that I'm kind of just taking surface things that I notice and blowing them out of proportion, because it amuses me.

The university system will probably always remain somewhat of a mystery, and it would be arrogant of me to think that I can figure it all out in three months. I'm trying to get my hands on the fundamental differences simply to avoid writing about things here and coming across as incredibly naive. Like when I said that faculty here are autonomous, when I meant to say that they are even MORE autonomous than in the US, which I hardly thought possible.

Thanks again for reading, it's nice to know that I'm not just writing for myself!

At 5:53 PM, Anonymous James said...


Great to get a peek at your work. Great project idea, especially in addressing the issues of Muslim students & society. Europe in general has a lot of work to do in that regard. Hope you are taking some time to enjoy the summer as well. Take care.


At 10:46 PM, Blogger Char said...

Being a Danish university student, it sounds to me like the Dutch university system is somewhat more of a German (or Central European) university tradition than an Anglo-Saxon. Danish universities are more or less built in the former tradition, Swedish in the latter (in my experience). IMHO these traditions differ quite a lot in how the role of the universities as well as researchers is viewed.

In my perception there also a difference here in how students organize and the degree of organization among students. Are Dutch universities still influenced by '68? When I started university here in Denmark (in 1999), there were still remenants, although as far as I can see they have disappeared much since then.

Both of your projects sound very interesting, keep up the good work!


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