Closing Speech Dies Natalis 2022 by Rector Rik Van de Walle

(21-03-2022) Rector Rik Van de Walle concluded Dies Natalis 2022 with some clear messages for Ghent University, the Ghent University community, and the wider community.

Full speech

Dear guests

Dear colleagues, dear students

Dear friends of Ghent University


Dies Natalis. After a canceled (in 2020) and a slimmed-down edition (in 2021), we envisioned an edition as we are used to this year: an edition where everyone who wanted to could and should attend.

Frans Timmermans

Frans Timmermans also wanted to be with us. But that was unfortunately not possible. We will officially declare him honorary doctor of Ghent University at a later date. That goes without saying.

The new honorary doctors

Dear Ann, Barney, David, Diane, Kari, Hilde and Paul

You could be there today.

We are happy and grateful that you have accepted the honorary doctorate from our university. We are also proud that we can now count you as part of our university community.

Welcome to Ghent University.

Not just today, but ad vitam aeternam, as it is called.

Soon we will raise a glass to our new honorary doctors. But first I want to share a few more thoughts with you.

There are personal thoughts involved. Although they are quite outspoken and may not please everyone, I will say them anyway. I try to articulate them as best I can. Which, admittedly, turned out not to be easy when writing this text.

Pushing the boundaries vs. crossing boundaries

At Dies Natalis we celebrate science par excellence. The award of an honorary doctorate is essentially the recognition of exceptional scientific or social achievements. We honor people who know how to, and have pushed our boundaries in an exceptional way.

That's what we've done today: honor those who have pushed boundaries.

Not: have crossed boundaries.

Transgressive behavior: unfortunately it happens.

Also in academia.

Also with us at Ghent University.

So let's acknowledge that unequivocally: yes, there are bad apples in our basket too.

Let's recognize that it was not enough, the extent to which we tried to prevent transgressive behavior and abuse of power.

Let's recognize that we have not always acted appropriately when such behavior has occurred.

Let me acknowledge, here and now, that we have sometimes failed in those areas.

Let me, here and now, apologize to all those we have wronged in this way. Unambiguous.

I do that too, and even in particular, in my personal name.

I also knew it wasn't enough. A long time already.

I haven't done enough either.

Certainly, we have taken measures. I don't want to minimize them and I don't think they should be minimized. But all things considered, in recent years we have only taken measures within existing frameworks. Frameworks that we hardly, if at all, questioned. It's not the bad apples. It's up to us, and certainly up to me.

On Dies Natalis, we wear as professors we wear our gown. That gown symbolizes what we stand for. It shows who we are, what we do, what we achieve. We are proud of it. Rightly so.

But from pride to hubris is only a small step.

As a university and as professors in particular, we sometimes tend to think we know better. That we are elevated above the worries and misery of what we call 'the outside world'. We tend to think that when problems arise in our midst, no one can solve them better than ourselves.

When our idyllic image of lofty academics turns out to be wrong, our self-confidence takes a hit and the reactions differ. We hope velvet gloves will suffice. We look away, are ashamed. Being paralyzed by misguided collegiality. Thinking that 'it' belongs to an unchanging academic culture. That the good reputation of the Corps and the reputation of the University and ...

Dear colleagues

Let's. Stop. That.

Let's stop trying to keep up with that pretense.

We once became academics because we wanted to learn and know. Because we wanted to create new knowledge. Because we, each in our discipline, wanted to distinguish appearance from reality, like Wahrheit from Dichtung.

I am convinced that this is still what drives most of us, that this is what inspires young people to become researchers too.

Let us always keep that in mind.

Let not the gown become a leaden cloak, under which we feel compelled to make an appearance, which we think belongs to the academy.

Let's admit that we don't necessarily know better ourselves.

And so, applied to the problem of transgressive behaviour:

Let us recognize and accept that not everyone trusts internal hotlines. Right or wrong, it doesn't matter. If an external contact point outside the university can help us lower the threshold for submitting reports or complaints, we should set it up today rather than tomorrow.

Let us recognize and accept that not everyone has confidence in the independence or impartiality of our disciplinary bodies. Right or wrong, it doesn't matter. If there are doubts about a possible 'us knows us', then we need to remove those doubts. As far as I am concerned, the members of disciplinary boards and committees should be external, who can investigate disciplinary offenses on the merits and, if necessary, issue disciplinary sanctions.

Disciplinary boards and committees that work with knowledge of the facts and make judgments on the basis of facts - à charge et à décharge. Sin ira et studio. Without prejudice or pre-determined conclusions.

A clear distinction must be made between disciplinary procedures and the role of confidential counsellors, confidential contacts and ombudspersons. With an approach that is firm, adequate and proportional. Restorative when possible. Sanctioning when necessary. With respect for all rights of all involved.

If we firmly state that we will not tolerate transgressive behavior at Ghent University, then we must have the courage to fight such behaviour. Not with people's tribunals and lynchings, which we also say very emphatically. With seriousness and commitment. Averse to appearances and not afraid of unwelcome truths. With respect for the people, and with respect for the facts.

In a way that we, as a university, owe ourselves and society.

Let me make a clear commitment:

the Vice-rector and I will personally commit ourselves to this.

Let me also ask a question plain and clear: please help us with that.

Core tasks debate and multi-year budget Ghent University

Dear guests, dear UGent’ers

I just said that on Dies Natalis we celebrate science par excellence.

Just like we celebrate education at the solemn opening of the academic year.

It is no coincidence that those two heydays on the university calendar revolve around education and research. These are the core tasks of a university.

However, those core tasks are under pressure.

The university's funding is no longer geared to all our activities, needs and ambitions. If we want to keep our budget structurally balanced, we have to make choices. Well-considered choices based on our core tasks.

That message and the accompanying proposals from the so-called 'core tasks memorandum' that has been approved by our Board of Governors have caused unrest in recent weeks. Employees wonder how their entity and their assignments relate to those core tasks. What the impact of those proposals will be on their job, on their task performance, on the workload. On their future at Ghent University.

I understand those questions and concerns. They deserve our attention and fair treatment. This can only be done by being open, transparent and honest about the budgetary challenges facing the university - denying them would put a heavy burden on future generations of students and staff. It is only possible by constantly emphasizing that we consciously want to put our core tasks first, and why it should be. And by implementing it with reasoned and well-developed proposals.

When the core tasks memorandum was presented and it was approved by the Board of Governors, I made it clear that all aspects of the memorandum would go through the regular advice and decision-making process, including social dialogue.

In the Personnel Negotiation Committee, where social consultation takes place, I explicitly confirmed this last week and explained how I see the further course of the operationalization of the core tasks memorandum.

We have reached agreement with the social partners on this approach. The fact that the social partners subsequently announced that they would withdraw their strike notice and suspend their actions is a sign of a constructive attitude and the will to bring this exercise to a successful conclusion.

That pleases me.

As rector, I would rather see our red, green and blue colleagues join the procession than stand with their backs turned to it.

I'd rather see you here with all of us in the Aula than at a counter-manifestation.

Our university needs united forces.

Academic freedom in times of war

Dear guests, dear UGent’ers

After we had to drastically change course in March 2020, it is tempting to celebrate the return to some normalcy within society on a day like today, almost exactly two years later. The Empire of Liberty, you know.

But can you speak of 'normality' with any decency when, within a few hours' flight from here, residential areas are bombed, people flee, see their loved ones perish?

A horrific war is raging in Ukraine. A war that here too puts a lot of certainties in jeopardy and puts values ​​to the test.

In response to the lecture that David Julius just gave, I would like to highlight one of those values ​​in particular: the intrinsic value of 'the academy', of the unfettered creation and dissemination of knowledge, of the freedom to research what one wants, how one that you want, and with whom you want it. Within the limits of what is legal and regulatory, but regardless of geographical, political or cultural boundaries.

This academic freedom allows us to search and find, to explore and push boundaries.

This academic freedom provides the foundation for the existence and success of the university.

It is precisely this academic freedom that is now being thrown into the fray.

In the grossest way, when university infrastructure in Ukraine may or may not be 'accidentally' shut down.

In thinly veiled ways, when the Putin regime or its adepts also try to subject universities to a kind of Gleichschaltung.

In a perhaps well-intentioned, but no less unfortunate way, when restrictions on academic cooperation are imposed from above or proclaimed from within our own ranks.

Referring to the principles of the Magna Charta Universitatum - and we probably do that far too little, we refer to this key document that we signed in 1988 with more than 300 other universities and which has since been endorsed by almost a thousand universities in more than 90 countries on all continents - referring to those principles, it is clear to me that the freedom of scientists to choose their academic partners and to set up international cooperation must in principle be absolute, and that that freedom cannot be restricted in any way.

That is why I initially saw no reason to discontinue or suspend cooperation with Russian universities and colleagues following the invasion of Ukraine.

The latter has changed after the publication of an open letter from the Russian Rectors' Conference, in which it endorsed the 'special military operation' in a shocking way. At that time, we decided to suspend all activities within existing institutional collaborations and to stop any new institutional collaborations. At least with Russian universities that endorse this letter, impose sanctions against employees or students who are critical of the regime, or actively restrict the academic freedom of their staff.

However, I see no reason to suspend cooperation with institutions that are not guilty of this and that continue to cherish the freedom of their employees and students. On the contrary: these universities deserve our support, in these times more than ever.

This applies a fortiori to personal contacts with individual academics and students, and to individual students who want to register at Ghent University. Right now it is important to support those colleagues and students who have the courage to resist and continue to subscribe to our shared values. Anyone who abandons them just to make a grand gesture, to send out a press release or to get some place in a newspaper or time in a newscast is playing into the hands of the enemies of academic freedom.

Critics may dismiss my position as naive. As theoretical reflections from sunny Ghent with 'greetings', while it is raining bombs in Mariupol and elsewhere. "How other-worldly can you really be," some will say. Well, I don't think I'm showing any otherworldliness with this.

Anyone familiar with his or her history will know that during the Second World War, the United States, among others, kept in close contact with scientists in Nazi Germany; many academics, authors, artists, ... found a safe haven in the US. Just as in the heat of the Cold War, right through the Iron Curtain, there were contacts back and forth.

I don't see why it should be any different in today's worrying times. We must not close our eyes to what is unacceptable. At the same time, we must not deprive academics of the opportunity to contribute, however small or futile, to peace, recovery and reconstruction.

That is why I believe that academics all over the world, including us, should be able to keep as many lines as possible with their Russian colleagues open.

I end this special Dies Natalis with it:

academic freedom, dear guests, matters.

I once became an academic because I believed she was there.

I became rector to help keep them safe.

Never will I keep the doors of our university closed to people,

purely because of their nationality.

Not yesterday. Not today. And neither will tomorrow.

Not with me. Not with us.

Thank you for your attention and for your presence.

For the warm welcome that our new honorary doctors have received.

The reception is already being set up in the Peristilium.

But first we close here with the hymns:

the Flemish, the Belgian and the European.

I hope that the echoes of the latter, the European hymn, may carry extra far.

Thank you for your kind attention