Heated Debate After Students Stage Who’s in Town Disruption at KLM Talk

By Tamar Bot

— On Tuesday, October 27th, a group of students interrupted a Who’s in Town lecture that was given by Gert Wim Ter Haar, social media hub manager at KLM. The students read out stories of refugees that were deported, part of which they blame on KLM, as the Dutch flag carrier provided the transportation. KLM is also one of the companies sponsoring the AUC scholarship fund (ASF).

The topic of the lecture was KLM’s digital marketing strategy, customer service and brand reputation, which the company considers some of their core values. The talk was held in AUC’s common room and convened by third year social science major Aqsa Hussain, who was asked to organize the lecture by AUC. “They wanted to have more involvement with scholarship fund sponsors within the AUC community,” she said.

About 20 minutes into the lecture, a group of students began a planned disruption through a mic-check. The disruption, which was recorded and shared online, was largely initiated by members of the University of Colour, a group of students from several Dutch universities who aim to decolonize and diversify them. However, the event was not officially organized under their name. “The idea was from a University of Colour member, but we had members from De Nieuwe Universiteit there as well, as well as just normal AUC students who are not necessarily affiliated with any of these groups,” said a third year AUC student and University of Colour member who wished to remain anonymous.

The disruption had multiple purposes, according to said student. First of all, the group wanted to put the issue on the agenda for attending students who might have been unaware; secondly, they intended to bring home a message. “We wanted to take a moral stand and say: this is wrong,” the student said. In addition, they aimed to announce a lecture that they themselves organized on the topic of how and why they hold KLM responsible for the deportations and what our duties as students and citizens are.

This final point on the activists’ agenda was never fulfilled, however, as Ter Haar interrupted the mic-check and ended the lecture. He said he felt the students were “trying to make a statement towards [sic] somebody who has nothing to do with this specific matter”. He refused to comment on the topic and, after consulting with the organizers, continued his lecture in a classroom.

Both KLM’s press office and Ter Haar refused to further comment on the disruption when contacted by The Herring.

According to Hussain, Ter Haar expressed that he felt uncomfortable continuing his talk in the common room, upon which she offered to arrange a classroom in which the lecture could be continued. “He finished his talk and there was an extensive question and answer session,” Hussain said. According to her, about 20 students were present.

All attending students except one decided to get up and leave during the disruption. The lack of student support was “shocking”, according to the anonymous student.

Opinions within the student body seem to be divided. According to Hussain, the divide is not on the issue of the deportations itself, but rather on the means by which it was expressed.  “It is such an important issue, but the manner in which it was presented completely alienated everyone from actually caring about it. It could have been done in a much more inclusive manner,” she said.

Several students who engaged in an extensive Facebook discussion seem to agree with this and have suggested that the protesting students should have organized a lecture of their own, or contacted the board of directors of KLM.

However, many others involved in the discussion deemed this unrealistic, and, according to the University of Colour member, this partly undermines the point of the disruption. “It is not as if people who are not on the board of directors are not supposed to take responsibility,” the student said.

What does follow from the disruption and the Facebook discussion that emerged from it, is a critical debate about the position of AUC and its students with regards to issues such as these. Together with two other students, two alumni and two staff members, Hussain is part of a committee drafting guidelines for ethical recruitment of sponsors for the scholarship fund.

The University of Colour is also responding with a Who’s in Town lecture of their own during which multiple speakers will talk about KLM’s role in the deportations and what this implies for our moral responsibility. The event will be held in AUC’s common room at 18:00 on December 3rd.

While this piece was being edited, the University of Colour released an official response to the controversy surrounding the disruption. The full text can be found at their official website. The Herring will publish a separate opinion piece on the subject over the coming days.

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