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After two years in which the Opening Academic Year has had to take place in an adapted form due to the corona measures, Executive Board president Geert ten Dam was once again able to welcome a full Aula this year. On Monday, 5 September, Ten Dam opened the Academic Year with the question ‘How can universities contribute to a resilient democratic society?’

Ten Dam began by stating that democracy cannot be taken for granted. There is a real danger, she went on to say, that values such as freedom, equality, mutual trust, participation and reliability (of information, for example) will be eroded. That would pose a threat to our democracy and is not a development before which universities should stand idle, said Ten Dam. Universities can play their part by, for example, researching the mechanisms that promote or undermine democracy. By paying more attention to academic citizenship. And also by making themselves heard in the social debate and by offering an academic home to students and scientists from conflict areas. Ten Dam: ‘We must willingly shoulder our responsibility for helping to ensure the proper function and resilience of the democratic system. This is our social mandate; it is in keeping with who we are and what the UvA does.'

The university as an open space

University professor of Artificial Intelligence and Society Claes de Vreese introduced the audience to his views on the role of the university in a democracy. He stated that the UvA is a place where friction should take place, a place where not only certain thoughts are welcome and where open science is important. And De Vreese argued further that this is not only about open science, but also about an open way of thinking and being open to collaboration with various partners. A good example of this, he says, is the new ELSAlab focusing on AI, Media & Democracy: 'A lab where scientists, media partners and social partners will jointly develop and test responsible applications of AI.' Collaboration in the AI, Media & Democracy Lab will create enormous opportunities not only for research, but also for the media sector and civil society to capitalise on AI's huge innovation potential, said De Vreese.

A musical intermezzo was then provided by members of the Student Choir Amsterdam. Accompanied by conductor Boudewijn Jansen, the choir sang the pieces 'Immortal Bach' and 'Mare Nostre'.

Democracy in both broad and narrow senses

'I want to make a distinction between democracy in the narrow sense and in the broad sense,' said professor of Media Studies Mark Deuze as the afternoon continued. ‘Democracy in the narrow sense is a series of institutions, rules of the game and protocols, whereas in the broad sense it is a lifelong process of collectively taking responsibility for making and safeguarding a better world.' Regarding democracy in its narrow sense, problems are arising due to little enthusiasm and much dissatisfaction, said Deuze. But, he argued, if we broaden the definition of democracy, we see a very different picture. ‘In my field – and that of Professor de Vreese – media and communication, there is simultaneously a worldwide revival of political involvement and activism. Democracy as an action practice, in which people stand up for each other and fight for a better world, seems very much alive.’ And this broader sense of democracy is also reflected in many places at the university, said Deuze. ‘What is now striking is that, in recent years, exciting, creative, inspiring and innovative forms of democratic education have emerged all over the university. With this we make it clear that democracy (both in education and research) at our university is something you make (together) - instead of something that happens to you, or as a system to which you have to conform.’

Gossip blogs for science

Dylan Ahern and Jochem Jordaan, also known as the ‘Kiesmannen’, offered the attendees their unique and humorous take on democracy. How can the university stimulate democracy both inside and outside its walls? The Kiesmannen presented the attendees with various options; for example, a ‘gossip. blogs’ for scientists or a TikTok account where researchers explain the most difficult statements in short videos.

The propositions of the Kiesmannen give the university plenty to think about, said Ten Dam as she brought the afternoon to a close.

Read Geert ten Dam's speech

Watch the Opening in the Aula