Improve the world, start doing something!

Last September, I started the SURF course Public Values. A subject to which the CIOs (ICT directors), directors of the university libraries and my colleagues in student and educational affairs from the educational institutions had been invited.

Beforehand, I had determined for myself that it is part of my responsibilities to create a safe learning and working environment for the target groups my service unit supports, i.e. (mainly) students and teachers. For them, too, there are more and more providers who offer integrated platforms (as academic publihers do for researchers), and thus seem to have an attractive offer for applications for educational innovation, learning materials, the student information system or the digital learning environment. Heret, I think, we have to make good choices with our shared public values in mind.

So what are these, these public values? SURF already has information available on that; the value compass identifies three main areas, namely justice, humanity and autonomy. And there are of course other sources – it reminded me of my involvement with open access a few years ago and the overview we had made of conditions we (might) use in negotiations with academic publishers. Here, a cross-section with common public values would certainly not have been out of place. Some more recent terms or principles for research infrastructure are articulated here. And this is a good example of how we have worked together to arrive at guiding principles for management of research information and data.

Over the past few years, I have tried to live out the VU values “personal, open and responsible”. I have looked at whether I operate sustainably, diversely and entrepreneurially. And have made my modest contribution in small ways (bringing my own cup; not occupying a personal room; putting responsibility where it belongs; eating vegetarian food as much as possible). The next step is to also incorporate these values and drivers as much as possible into the services of Student and Educational Affairs, which we don’t do alone, we do this together with VU colleagues from, for example, the Diversity Office and around Sustainability. In the course on Public Values we should learn how to make an impact as a collective of educational institutions, and in fact you can only achieve real impact together.

Each workshop, there are seven in total, Wladimir Mufty, Public Values programme manager at SURF, kicks off with current affairs or some theory.

As we reach the end of the course, now is the time to look back at what I take away with me, and especially look ahead to what we can do. We agreed not to share too much of what we discussed in the room, so I’ll stay a bit on the surface, and keep it to myself.

“Don’t be too small in your thinking” speaks to me (a quote by José van Dijck from the first workshop). Even if you have to lead by example from your own actions, it really is true that you can make more impact towards suppliers if you act together. It was good that we were also reminded of an article from the Higher Education and Scientific Research Act by Joeri van den Steenhoven (director of Leiden University of Applied Sciences), namely that we have an obligation to transfer knowledge to society. I looked it up and Article 1.3 does indeed say: ‘the promotion of their sense of social responsibility’ for institutions in general and ‘in any case, transfer knowledge for the benefit of society’. Of course I knew this, as a warm advocate of open science and open access, but this is an obligation, i.e., that we need to act on this.

So we talked at length with each other about our crown jewels, which we believe we have an obligation to keep public, and where we must ensure that this public space does not become even smaller. You can think a lot about what then our crown jewels are, and my own definition is that it is what we generate (process and (own) output) as institutions, let’s call it our knowledge and affiliated data.

For me, there are the following take-aways:

  • Make sure you have a choice when it comes to managing or storing your crown jewels. If it is not there in the market, try to support smaller start-ups/organisations or see if you want or can develop an open-source alternative together as educational institutions (this can only be done collectively).
  • Firmly establish your principles, and purchasing conditions. Whether in joint procurement processes or if you do this from within your own institution. And in doing so, make sure you specify the axes of justice / autonomy and humanity with each other to see what you include in those processes. In “Big Tech”, we cannot achieve enough from the Netherlands alone, so work together in larger consortia. In the negotiations on open access, we were allowed to share our contracts, which can also be a way to make bigger steps.
  • Hook up well with international developments from the Netherlands. Very good that Christien Bok is doing this as SURF’s ict and education innovation manager. And also Menno Scheers, former VU colleague and lead architect at SURF, recently shared the document on how the HOSA can relate to ESOC. Very good!
  • Ensure alignment within the institution itself – you need legal, financial, ICT, and content (from library, research or teaching support) expertise. Bring this together, but safeguard the importance of public values here. Even though SURF, and thus the CIOs of the institutions, are rightly close to this, we need to do it together, with “the business”, i.e. education, research and valorisation experts.

‘We cannot play copycat to
vis-à-vis Big Tech, we are
not agile and big enough for that, but
we can stand very firm against
these parties the moment
we start negotiating. We can only do that
if we unite ourselves, either nationally
or international. We have to transcend the
individual institutional interest.
I was already convinced of that, but
after the workshop it was even
obvious to me.’

The above quote is from myself, I had it recorded in the report of the fourth workshop. And to get back to my own (small) action, I will start a mastodon account (unfortunately the Vrije Universiteit is not yet connected to the SURF pilot, I have now applied for that), and share this blog as my first post there. Improve the world, start doing something!

Wilma van Wezenbeek
24 februari 2023

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.