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Blog Ron Bormans: It is war

04 March 2022

In his blog, chair of the board Ron Bormans zooms in on the war in Ukraine and asks the question: in a situation like this, is it still possible, or desirable, to remain neutral (as a university of applied sciences)? The answer is: no.

In the 1980s, we turned against nuclear weapons. We were fed up with the post-war order and the threat it posed. Two worlds - east and west - were literally facing each other with immense destructive power. We felt we were in between those, and feared the coming battlefield. We demonstrated in the streets against that order, against those weapons, while enjoying the safe order of our constitutional state. That privilege is one those brave people in Russia who are taking to the streets in protest against the war do not have.

We also talked to each other in university halls about how the world should move forward. The gloomy undertone continued and became more personal in the café or in discussion groups - often dressed in black and with gloomy music playing in the background: was it responsible to bring children into this world...?  The images of that young woman with her baby sheltering in the Kiev metro reminded me of this.

The personal aspect can never be completely separated from the role you fulfil. The personal aspect also makes the role fulfilment authentic. At the same time, the personal aspect must also be constantly scrutinised so that personal emotionality does not prevail.  On that Thursday morning, 24 February, that was not easy because I had the feeling that with one blow, we were being thrown back to a world order that I was all too happy to say goodbye to in my student days. So we wanted to make a strong statement as a university of applied sciences that would condemn the Russian invasion in disgust. 

That immediately provoked a discussion. We no longer live in a time when issues can be reduced to simple dichotomies. If, as a university of applied sciences, we take a geopolitical stand now, it would constantly put us in a position to take a stand on other conflicts as well. The diversity of our society today would, in a way, require us to make choices in other parts of the world where bloody conflicts are often fought: The Middle East, Asia, Africa... It seemed wiser to reason less based on political considerations or emotions and more based on the founding principles of our university of applied sciences.

Looking at what is happening in Ukraine, this threatens everything the university of applied sciences stands for. The constitutional principles are anchored in our regulations, respectful interactions with one another are at the heart of our mission, and assertions that have been tested on the methodological foundations of reliability and validity are decisive for us. All this is grossly violated just over 2,000 kilometres (the distance between Rotterdam and Kiev is 2,006.5 kilometres, to be precise) from here.

As is often the case, the news comes to us in complex layers. The support Ukraine is receiving is immense and deeply rooted in our society. Refugees are more than welcome. It is distressing to hear reports that a distinction is made based on colour at the Ukrainian border. Racism in times of war, where human solidarity should be the norm.

There are more dimensions. The fact that we have people from Ukraine and Russia studying and working here. The first group feel the fear and pain of their loved ones, the second the discomfort and grief of being associated with an aggressor. So we write in our statement: ‘Remember that wars are rarely if ever started by ordinary people, but it is the leaders who send men and women to war.’ In the same statement, I call for respectful dialogue within our university of applied sciences. Our university of applied sciences’ community is for everyone, and now in particular for colleagues and students of Ukrainian and Russian backgrounds. They are uncertain about their families, do not know whether they will still be able to access their money or are overwhelmed by the fear of being excluded by colleagues or fellow students because of their Russian origins. My message to them: please know that you can always turn to your manager or counsellor for a listening ear or help. 

Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences is not a player in the geopolitical 'game'. However, the university of applied sciences is a community that rests on foundations that are at stake because of what is happening in Europe now. The place where I work is a few hundred metres from the so-called bombing border in Rotterdam. The threat of a (nuclear) war feels like it is creeping closer. And then there is no more room for any kind of neutrality.

I hope I can speak for my university of applied sciences, in the broadest sense of the word, when I say that we condemn the aggression of the Russian regime with the utmost vigour. And that we are going to look at how to break or avoid relations with any Russian institution with ties to this regime. Of course, we will continue to exchange knowledge and discuss democratic values online with colleagues and students in Russia, for example those from our partner universities. We are breaking the bond with institutions, not with people.

All this I say as chair of the board. As a human being, I would add: I find what is happening to Europe shocking and disgusting.