A very intangible heritage

By Marijn Thijs, Ines Mette, Matthew Richards and Emily Howard

A sausage roll. Clog making. Indonesian rice tables. Student societies. Mid-winter horn blowing. Four of these are recognised as fundamental aspects of Dutch culture, according to the Centre for Dutch Intangible Cultural Heritage, whilst one had to withdraw its application following reports of violence during a secret tradition. It wasn’t the sausage roll.

At the end of August, hundreds of students signed a contract agreeing that any damage to their person or property was their own responsibility – a potentially puzzling clause when joining a society of like-minded individuals for social activities, personal development and networking in a civilised Dutch city. The new members of Vindicat atque Polit, Groningen’s most prestigious student society, also agreed to a potential fine of €25,000 should they talk to the media about, well, anything. For one new member, ‘anything’ turned out to include having his head stood on by an older member, which left him with brain damage.

On reflection, €25,000 seemed a little steep, so The Spoke took the contract to a legal expert from the University of Groningen’s Law Department who agreed to provide advice, on condition of anonymity given that many colleagues and students within the Law Department are or were part of Vindicat. The expert did not believe the contract was enforceable in court because it most likely violates personal autonomy. “I know,” says Fleur Ponne, Vindicat Secretary, when presented with this finding. The society has already announced it will remove the €25,000 gag clause in its contract for the 2017/18 academic year. Ponne also told The Spoke that current and former members are free to talk to the press if they wish.

However, as of now, no member has openly spoken to the media about the society’s internal workings. “Everything that happens stays within our walls,” says Ponne. The gag clause was designed to “keep journalists away,” she explained to The Spoke.

Vindicat is part of the Corps – the nine most prestigious student societies in the Netherlands. Their alumni are quite well known. “Prince Pils” aka Willem-Alexander, the current King of the Netherlands, was in Minerva, the Corps society in Leiden. So was Princess Beatrix, the former Queen. And Alexander Pechtold, the leader of the political party D66. Also Morris Tabaksblad, the CEO of Unilever. Sybrand van Haersma Buma, the leader of the Christian Democrats, was in Vindicat. So was Job Cohen, former Labour party leader and former mayor of Amsterdam. Anthony Ruys, the former Chief Executive of Heineken, was in USC in Utrecht.

Whilst investigating the Corps The Spoke faced barriers at every turn, and every email, and every phone call. The legal statutes that Vindicat and Minerva, the Corps society in Leiden, submitted to the Chamber of Commerce refer to internal laws that are unavailable to the public. Additionally, after two weeks of chasing the Royal Family’s Press Office about society involvement, they concluded that the official website of the Royal Family knew more than they did. Other current and former Corps members were also reluctant to speak, and those who did demanded anonymity. Lisa, whose name has been changed on request of anonymity, a member of all-female society UVSV in Utrecht, told The Spoke that she couldn’t speak about the introduction period, commonly referred to as ‘hazing’. “There’s a good reason why that stays secret,” she said.

What this means is that the application for student societies to be considered Intangible Cultural Heritage, a recognition that would celebrate student society traditions as inherently ‘Dutch’, was made when many of these traditions are in fact unknown to the outside world, much like the contents of a sausage roll.

Heritage on hold

Student societies have a 200-year history in the Netherlands, starting with the founding of Vindicat in 1815 to protect and promote the interests of students. Over the course of the next century many more student societies were established in University cities across the Netherlands. The most prestigious of these, including Vindicat, grouped together to form the Corps. As a member, Vindicat’s influence today stretches beyond the University of Groningen. A spokesperson from the Municipality of Groningen acknowledged that Vindicat is a “big player” in the City.

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Then and now: Vindicat’s headquarters in Groningen

Outside of the Corps, there are many other societies, some old, some new, that do not uphold the same habits and traditions. The Landelijke Kamer van Verenigingen (LKvV) is the national representative body for all 48 student societies, and the nine Corps societies also receive additional representation from the Algemene Senaten Vergadering (ASV).

This Dutch cultural heritage is the reason why the LKvV wants to apply for Dutch Cultural Heritage. According to LKvV President Arend Klück, “student society culture is a lively, dynamic culture that promotes social cohesion and is important for the identity of many students in the Netherlands.”

The list of 108 cultural traditions was founded in 2012 following the signing of the UNESCO Convention of the same name and aim. It is designed to acknowledge, represent and protect the best of Dutch cultural traditions. “It’s important to have all kinds of traditions,” says Albert van der Zeijden, Scientific Policy Advisor for the Dutch Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage. “We’re very glad that student societies want to be a part of it.”

It was only after the violent incident involving Vindicat that the Centre took the decision to postpone the LKvV’s application. “Beating up students can never be part of a tradition that is on the inventory,” says van der Zeijden. This triggered an important question for the Centre: “Is it an incident or is it linked to culture?” Although he said that conversations about society introduction periods had featured in the initial application, van der Zeijden did not give The Spoke access to this information. It is unclear what questions were originally asked of the LKvV surrounding the hidden culture of the Corps societies.

“We don’t want to control the societies. That would be wrong,” says University of Groningen (RUG) spokesperson Gernant Deekens. Despite Vindicat only existing because of the RUG, the relationship between the two organisations is, in Deekens’ words, an “informal agreement”. Even though no formal contract is in place, Vindicat Board members, along with other societies, receive annual funding from the RUG and Hanze (the University of Applied Sciences in Groningen) to compensate them for their time away from their studies – for Vindicat this amount is €33,315. When questioned by The Spoke about financially contributing to individuals who oversee activities that have resulted in such a serious incident, the RUG stated that the incident was an “extreme” case.  

The relationship between Leiden University and Minerva is less informal. The University has two formal agreements more than the RUG. So, two formal agreements. One is about how societies and the University work together for the benefit of students, and the other is specifically about what is allowed and what is not allowed during the introduction period. Once again, The Spoke was not given access to these documents. Similarly to Groningen, Leiden does not give money directly to societies but Board members can apply for scholarships.

The view from within

Lisa is a member of UVSV, the Corps society in Utrecht. She thought that joining the society “would be a valuable asset to [her] professional network later on.” She stresses the positive aspects of being a member and also values the hazing process, saying “it separates the wheat from the chaff”. The Spoke is unsure which part of the grain it would rather be. Although Lisa acknowledges that students need to know how to deal with peer pressure, when it comes to violence, she is clear: “we [Corps members] have no intention whatsoever to hurt anyone.” However, she acknowledges that incidents do occasionally happen. “Some fools don’t know how to act.”

Minerva member Emma (whose name has also been changed for anonymity), also emphasises the positives of being in a Corps society. “People join because they feel at home in Minerva,” she says. “I think it [student societies] should be cultural heritage. Most of my foreign friends think it’s very interesting and want to know everything about it. Just like Sinterklaas, it’s a unique thing about the Netherlands.” Just like Sinterklaas, another controversial Dutch tradition on the Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

Both members find the recent media coverage frustrating. According to Lisa, the media “blow everything out of proportion”. Emma agrees with the sentiment. “It’s too bad that the media destroyed the idea that student societies are a good thing,” she says. Such disproportionate media coverage could include a student ending up in hospital with brain damage.

Lisa adds that even the secrecy of internal society traditions “has everything to do with the media.” She believes that the secrecy surrounding the introduction period is valid. “You either want to be a part of it or you don’t,” she says. “It’s not something you decide after knowing what you’re up against.”

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Looking to the future, along with the removal of the gag clause, Vindicat has announced a full review of its internal procedures. On the 28th September, Vindicat, alongside the University of Groningen, Hanze and the Municipality, announced a joint commission to review the introduction period. RUG has said that it wants a “change of thinking” regarding the introduction period and that it could choose to stop funding Vindicat should it be deemed necessary. It has also expressed a desire for Groningen to be the first “hazing free” city. On the 31st October, the commission held a press conference. The Spoke was not invited. Luckily, it didn’t miss anything – the announcement merely reiterated the comments from a month earlier. Meanwhile, the student who suffered brain damage has since spoken to the police but still chooses to remain anonymous and has said nothing to the media.

The LKvV says it supports adaptability within societies. “Immaterial heritage is always dynamic and adapts to the times where needed,” says Klück. According to van der Zeijden “the safeguarding plan may need revision” but the Centre will keep it’s doors open for a future application. He told The Spoke that at some point the two organisations will “meet to discuss the future”. Perhaps over a sausage roll.

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