Organisation - September 5, 2012

Should Dijkhuizen be allowed to make a stand?

There are dozens of different ideas in Wageningen about the right setup for farming. Some students and staff think it is not right for the university Chairman to advocate a single viewpoint.

He has certainly created a stir in the debate about intensive livestock farming. There have been heated discussions over the past few days, not just in the national press and on Twitter but also in Wageningen's canteens and corridors. Dijkhuizen's statements even led to a demonstration this afternoon.

But is it appropriate for the head of an academic institution to make a stand on such a contentious subject? Absolutely not, says Jandouwe van der Ploeg, professor of Rural Sociology. 'It irritates me that he is making such incredibly normative statements as the chairman of the university. He should have emphasized the diversity: "People all around the world are debating this issue, and so are we in Wageningen. The worst thing is that you are degrading the concept of a university by taking a stance like this. Aalt is portraying us as an extension of the agro-industry. Whereas a university should be a place with room for different schools of thought."

Student Thomas Slinkert also thinks Dijkhuizen has gone too far. He is a second-year Agro-technology student who lives in a vegetarian house, is not against intensive livestock farming and has shown a lot of interest on Facebook in the discussions. He explains: 'I haven't made up my mind about intensive farming but I don't think it is right for a university to say this is what you should do. It's not up to Dijkhuizen to choose this particular option; you have to leave alternatives open too for the university.'

That may be so, says Hans van Trijp, professor of Marketing. But the end justifies the means. Dijkhuizen has started a debate going. Van Trijp: 'There is no such thing as a Wageningen viewpoint but I think it's good that Dijkhuizen raised the issue as it forces you to look at your assumptions. There is no longer any room for simplistic, one-sided solutions; we have to mobilize everyone's problem-solving potential.'

Edith Lammerts van Bueren, professor by special appointment in Organic Plant Breeding, explains why his stance is not appropriate: scientists are far from reaching a consensus. 'How can the head of a diverse university opt so clearly for one model when we are still studying a range of models? You feel you aren't being taken seriously as a scientist. Wageningen UR shouldn't choose just one model for such a complex problem as how to feed the world. There is no agreement among scientists on what is the best route to take. Anyway, we want to encourage researchers and students to tackle the problem from several different perspectives, and to be creative and innovative.'

Dijkhuizen himself tells us he is advocating diversity. 'For you can't take a one-sided approach to the problem of feeding the world. A highly productive system actually combines many different aspects. That is what I was trying to make clear. I also see that as my task as Chairman of the Board of Wageningen UR. For I've noticed that public opinion is threatening to turn in favour of extensive farming only. And I see that as a dangerous development. Especially if it means we are no longer prepared to support our current system of highly productive farming.'

That is why Dijkhuizen took a conscious decision to speak up: 'All I am doing and trying to achieve is to introduce some facts that I feel are lacking or being misrepresented in the current debate about intensive livestock farming. There is a danger of decisions being taken that are based on incorrect information. I think this is exactly the right task for a university, whether you are an employee, professor or Chairman of the Executive Board.'

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