Peter-Paul, the Puppet? Student Activists Disrupt Panel with New Rector Magnificus

By Levin Stamm

Collage by Levin Stamm

As his puppet version dances to the beat of the big Shell monster, Peter-Paul Verbeek cannot help but look longingly at his wristwatch; the hour-long interview with UvA committee Room for Discussion must have felt like an eternity to him. 

A crowd of student activists – most of them wearing a pin with a red square and belonging to the “End Fossil Amsterdam” coalition that had occupied the Amsterdamse Academische Club (AAC) two weeks earlier – scrutinised the newly elected Rector Magnificus for UvA’s continuous engagement in research projects financed by oil giant Shell. Their main slogan, “Ethics 101: Shell is bad,” referred to Verbeek’s Ethics professorship.

Shortly after Verbeek had sat down on Room for Discussion’s Chesterfield couches in the hall of the Faculty of Economics and Business, members of the audience repeatedly raised their hands covered with sock puppets mimicking his hairstyle and glasses. Verbeek, who soon noticed the audience’s reactions, first tried to laugh it off as interviewer Elias Marseille told the audience to “raise your hand, or your sock for that matter.” 

During the second round of audience questions, however, the Rector Magnificus grew visibly agitated after an audience question criticised the police eviction of student activists from the AAC.

“They [the Executive Board] called the police on us, knowing fully well the danger [they] put on students of colour,” the audience member said. 

The questioner also accused the Executive Board of greenwashing, stating that the Central Student Council (CSR) had apparently been told that the technologies under development with UvA involvement could potentially also be used for fracking.

Verbeek attempted to strike a conciliatory note, at the same time stating that “some of the researchers are convinced that they could make a change by contributing to a sustainable technology” and that this was the reason why “we should not by definition cut everything that we do with Shell.”

The Rector Magnificus proceeded to explain why the Executive Board had decided to report the AAC occupation to the police, but did not get far. As interviewer Marseille asked a follow-up question, an audience member screamed “What is this puppet show?”

Two members of the coalition then stepped in front of the podium; one of them was wearing a mask that depicted the Shell logo in the form of a skull, the other one covered their face under a portrait of Verbeek. 

A speech dripping with irony followed in the next minute in which they portrayed Verbeek as Shell’s puppet. “You may think that they [Shell] are the bad guys, but they are actually leading the green energy transition,” the Shell monster mimicked Verbeek.

Members of the coalition appeared at the mezzanines of the room, rolling out banners that read “CvB, wat een poppenkast” or “Evict Shell, not students,” among others. Meanwhile, Verbeek’s mood darkened from amusement to annoyance.

The audience, however, was only now getting started. Among them Enzo Rossi, associate professor of Political Theory at the UvA and member of Rethink UvA. Countering Verbeek’s concern that actors from outside the university may infiltrate and that “there is a fear that things may run out of hand,” he stated, “that’s exactly what happens when you have a discussion space that is not managed by senior management. […] People come up with demands for real democratisation.” 

He also criticised that the Executive Board had so far not implemented the democratic changes promised in the aftermaths of the Maagdenhuis occupation in 2015.

Rossi’s criticism remained uncontested. Student activists continued to denounce the Executive Board’s decision to involve the police in the AAC occupation. “I keep losing track of my answers,” Verbeek told the interviewers, upon which they decided to move to the next interview topic.

This also meant that the day’s work was completed for the members of the coalition. As they left the building in protest, half of the seats in the audience remained empty. A visibly shaken Verbeek endured the rest of the interview hour. He then retreated inside the office complex, accompanied by an armada of security guards.

Next to Elias Marseille, AUC first-year Social Science major Koen Blaauw was the second interviewer of the day. 

Blaauw had the chance to quickly talk to the Rector Magnificus after the meeting. “He told me that, similar to the occupation, he does not align with their method. But he thinks it’s good that they were present,” Blaauw told The Herring the following day.

“We are not going to stop disrupting,” an AUC student and UvA Rebellion member had told The Herring after the AAC occupation. Their action during Room for Discussion seems to have just been the beginning.

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