Elections: seven crucial questions for the candidates

(12-06-2017) The second cycle of voting is approaching. Campaigning is for the candidates themselves; in the interview in this newsletter we present the candidates with some questions that are on the tip of the tongues of many at Ghent University.

“We’ve got to look more locally,” answers candidate-rector Rik Van de Walle when we ask him about the role of Ghent University in society. “Ghent University must be more active in society,” adds candidate-vice-rector Mieke Van Herreweghe. On the eve of the second voting cycle, we met up with two ambitious professors.

Several months ago, Rik Van de Walle and Mieke Van Herreweghe announced they would be running for election as rector and vice-rector of Ghent University. However, five rounds of voting didn’t result in the required two-thirds majority. In the run-up to the second voting cycle, Rik and Mieke drew up a consensus programme together with their former competition Guido Van Huylenbroeck and Sarah De Saeger.

This consensus programme has caused a great deal of controversy at Ghent University recently. Many people are wondering how much of “Rik and Mieke” are in that programme?

Rik Van de Walle: “All the points from our original programme have been included in the new programme. Certain accents have been added, such as the postdoctoral framework and the governance structure. These expansions have to do with Guido and Sarah’s programme, but also with the many questions that we received along the way from the professional organisations and the assistant academic staff department, for instance, and the answers to which have been included in the new programme. The new programme is twice as long in scope as the programme we used to attract voters in the first cycle. I feel like it’s also become intrinsically better.”

Mieke Van Herreweghe: “Of course the programme has been enriched; that’s the result of the consultations. For example, the focus on sustainability as a policy domain is stronger. We noticed during the first voting cycle that this theme is very prevalent throughout Ghent University. We also feel this is important, but hadn’t emphasised it as strongly in our first programme. Our priorities for the coming years are also much more clearly expressed in the new programme. But you can’t do everything.”

On Friday, 2 June, the Board of Governors decided to allow the Governance working group to investigate the possible expansion of the rectorial team. Specifically, so before the start of the first round of voting, there will be no doubt whether the future rector will have this team or not. Nevertheless, this extension seems to form the basis of the consensus programme.

IRik Van de Wallef the Ghent University community votes for you, then they will also be voting for the expansion of the rectorial team and the specific interpretation that’s been proposed?

Rik Van de Walle: “The demand for extra vice-rectors has always been a part of our policy vision. We have always advocated for a strengthening of the rectorial team in all the explanations to the faculties and the departments, to be done preferably through the addition of extra vice-rectors for thematic policy lines. There are other possibilities, but this is our preferred scenario and is separate from the consensus or the withdrawal of candidates. There is one team candidate in this election: Mieke and me. The Ghent University community votes for us as a team. They are voting for two people, not for the others, who have a programme that came about in consultation with others and that specifically states that the preference is to strengthen the rectorial team.”

“It is also important to know that, if the extra vice-rectors are chosen, it will not be the newly elected rector or vice-rector who will determine which people will be appointed as the new vice-rectors. They can propose candidates, but it will be the Board of Governors that will decide upon the new vice-rectors, which will be done on a person-by-person basis. Every candidate-vice-rector will be individually and intrinsically evaluated by the Board of Governors.”

Suppose that the rectorial team at Ghent University is expanded; what will then be the specific tasks of these extra vice-rectors? And what is the difference between them and the current directors?

Rik Van de Walle: “There are innovative policy lines in our programme that will require quite a lot of energy to implement. Diversity is a good example. They will be major challenges for which you’ll need someone who can embody these. That will be the vice-rectors’ task. They will bring the faculties’ perspective up to the rectorial level, and vice versa. They will play a connecting role.”

“I have all too often seen policy proposals wind up with the Board of Governors, and these don’t get passed on to the faculties nearly enough, which is a shame. We see the vice-rectors as ‘short-term’, holding their positions temporarily, while directors remain for the long-term. The vice-rectors will initiate things, which the directors will ensure that there is a structure in the policy lines. The vice-rectors will also not head the departments; let there be no mistakes about that!”

Rik Van de Walle: “For me, the core of the university’s operations is not the central administration; it’s what’s going on within the faculties. The central administration, including the rector, must be ready to support the activities within the faculties. The facultative perspective must have preference. And I see that this is currently all too often lacking.”

And what about the administrators?

Rik Van de Walle: “The administrators are responsible for the continuity of the entire university’s policies. They are also responsible for integrating our ten departments. Together with the rector, they form a team to start up discussions with other universities, the government, etc. Like discussions on the pending new financing decree for higher education.”

“To me, the rectorial team, the top of the university, consists of the rector, vice-rector(s), the administrators, and the ten directors. We must get away from these ‘partition’ that exist between the departments.”

Suppose that someone from Ghent University wants to exercise their right to vote next week, but hasn’t had the time to go through your entire programme; which programme points should he or she know for certain in order to make a well-thought-out decision?

Mieke Van Herreweghe: “Trust and social involvement have been and remain the leitmotiv running through our programme. This is expressed in various ways. For example, trust is in all forms of the evaluation process, both for students and staff. It is a priority for us to still be able to make a few changes to this. Social involvement is also important, for example in terms of financing.

Mieke Van Herreweghe: "But our involvement in society must also be better; we must do away with this ‘ivory tower’ mentality. The university must be an active part of society.”

Rik Van de Walle: “The university must be a beacon of independent knowledge creation and also has a role to play in commenting on what is going on within society, based on many different perspectives. Conversely, we must respond to major societal challenges. Sustainability is a good example; workable work is another. Diversity is also a kind of social involvement. The people sitting in our classrooms are not a true representation of our society, and that is unacceptable.”

“Our independence is also a kind of social involvement. The university is still one of the few places where free thought is still possible and where young people are taught how important this is. The leaders of tomorrow’s society are today’s students. We play a formative role in this as a university.”

Mieke Van HerrewegheMieke Van Herreweghe: “Diversity is also a priority for us. For example, in the past three years, we have implemented diversity teams in the faculties, but we feel that this still isn’t being sufficiently translated into policy. Where now, for example, there is a strong focus on academic Dutch. Naturally, this is important, but it’s certainly not the only problem. By focusing on this, it becomes stigmatising, and that is precisely what we do not want to do in a diversity policy. Undertaking actions that benefit the entire group is important.”

Rik Van de Walle: “The university’s ambition to bring in people from varied backgrounds seems like we’re aiming too high. The university should go out into the community, to the disadvantaged neighbourhoods, to immigrant neighbourhoods a lot more than it does. We have to look more locally, I think.”

Mieke Van Herreweghe: “You must develop a diversity policy in close collaboration with people who have immigrant backgrounds. I can draw parallels here based on my own research in the deaf community. The ‘NoUs’ principal - nothing about us without us - is important: fully involve the disadvantaged groups when developing your policy. We should be doing this a lot more often.”

Back to the topical matter: the first voting round of the second cycle starts within one week. What’s your forecast for the coming weeks?

Rik Van de Walle: “We’re still in full campaign mode this week. We are going to consult and hold discussions with the Ghent University community. Then it’ll be time for the first round of voting. I really hope that we get a two-thirds majority immediately. The 20th will be a tense day. Once elected, we’re going to move full speed ahead into preparations for 1 October. I think it’s important in this regard that the incumbent rector and vice-rector remain at the helm right through the last day of their mandate, and are recognised as such. I hope that they will remain available after 1 October to continue to represent Ghent University and to work together with the new rectorial team on an ad-hoc basis. I am totally convinced that this must be possible, although Ghent University doesn’t have a tradition of really including former rectors, vice-records, or deans, for instance, in its policies. I really want to change this.”