Foto José Sanders
Foto José Sanders

About listening - Column José Sanders

In the past month, we, as the Radboud University’s Executive Board , have received many calls to speak out more clearly about, or in favor of, or against, the demands of demonstrating students and staff who support them.

Last Friday, activists came to the Berchmanianum to seek explanation; they chanted slogans loudly for several minutes in the waiting room, then entered the president's room, disrupted his conversation with the vice-president and took over his room until, after consulting his bookcase, eating from a box of chocolate at the table and other activities, they left two hours later.

During the weekend following this event, I thought a lot about the speech acts we perform using language and communication in our various roles. Demonstrators demand that the university condemns the genocide, names partnerships with Israeli universities and cuts ties. The Radboud University’s Executive Board expresses its horror at the violence on October 7 in southern Israel and the ever-worsening violence in the Palestinian territories, clarifies the international partnerships Radboud University has, will contact Israeli universities with which there are partnerships at an institutional level, fixates these connections in their current state and announces a Partnership Advisory Committee. All in all, according to quite a few people the Radboud University’s Executive Board has not entered into the conversation enough, or according to others did so too much. So many speech and communication acts about a terrible conflict in which acts of violence and human rights violations predominate.

I realized that the acts most used in my work at the university have gradually changed with the successive functions, from informing and debating (teaching) via assuming and concluding (research) to inviting and listening (managing). As department chair, dean and ultimately rector, the amount of listening has increased on my part during conversations. Such a conversation often ends with my saying: I have heard what you said, thank you for sharing this. Emotions can be exchanged; often I am happy with, sometimes frustrated with, and sometimes sad with those who come to talk. Sharing such experiences, at least as far as I'm concerned, makes these conversations valuable. Providing direct answers is often not possible, because the information is incomplete due to the lack of other perspectives; or because the topic requires more expertise; or because an answer must be considered for various managerial implications. Decisions and statements take place at other tables because they must become policy first, or must be in accordance with policy.

A universal communicative act in all university functions and roles is, of course, asking. In teaching, knowledge transfer is meaningless without asking students for their input. In research, every theory can be questioned. And in managerial conversations, listening is not possible without asking questions. A questioning attitude seems to me to be the essence of every task and role in the university. Conversations that start and end with demands are therefore very complicated. Listening is possible, but exchanging experiences is difficult if this is a prelude to repeating demands. If these are not met, this leads to distrust: experiences are not really shared, emotions are not genuine. This is how I understand the frequently heard statement “the Radboud University’s Executive Board is not listening”.

Since I feel listening is a core managerial task, this affects me. Sometimes people say: it is nothing personal. But the person who is accused, whose name is called, and whose room is invaded, is in fact addressed personally. What acts are left then? Very loud speech acts mainly evoke silence.

The Radboud University’s Executive Board listens, broadly. It interacts at different tables and makes policy. Demonstrating students and staff have achieved a lot: the university is changing, in fits and starts, as it does in large knowledge organizations with as many opinions as people and as many regulations as wishes.

I hope and trust that ultimately, open conversations will be possible again in which all, with loud and soft voices, from various perspectives, can take and keep their linguistic and communicative role with dignity: in a way that fits our university values, because those values go back a long time and must last a long time. Respect for both the perspective and the person is a core value. Understanding roles is another one. Striving for a better world by contributing relevant, interdisciplinary knowledge is a third one. Disgust for what is happening and hope for improvement should not divide us but could unite us. For this, it is essential that we listen to the polyphony of our community.