Dies Natalis 2024: Closing speech rector Rik Van de Walle

(22-03-2024) Read or watch rector Rik Van de Walle's closing speech, delivered at the 2024 Dies Natalis celebration.

Dear guests,
Dear colleagues, dear students,
Dear friends of Ghent University,

Every year, I look forward to this day, our Dies Natalis.

And particularly to this specific moment, when I can join you all in welcoming our new honorary doctors to our university community.

Honorary doctors

Dear Ish, Ülo, Paul, Bert, Minh-ha, Thomas and Paul

On behalf of all UGent’ers, I thank you for coming here today to celebrate our Dies Natalis with us and to receive an honorary doctorate from Ghent University. We are extremely proud of you.

You push the boundaries in research and social engagement. Keep doing so.

You are much-needed critical voices in crucial social debates. Keep being that.

You play a leading role in innovation and actively contribute to building our social environment and our world. Keep doing that too.

I look forward to the opportunity of exchanging more views with you after the sitting. But first I want to talk about a form of innovation that is ubiquitous today - in our teaching, our research, our policymaking and management. And in our daily lives. I want to talk about a technology that everyone is talking about these days. Newspapers and news sites are full of it. Ministers and minister-presidents talk about it. Because it should be talked about.

What is it I want to talk about?

I want to talk about AI. About artificial intelligence

Many speeches about AI start with a piece written by AI, as proof of what artificial intelligence can do. So, a short announcement before I start: I wrote this closing speech myself. If there is a passage in it that you find wanting, I will not be able to hide behind the imperfections of some algorithm. If it is indeed wanting, it will be due to the limitations of my brain.

Talking of brains. Ghent University is full of them.

Our colleague Lieven DE MAREZ and his team recently established it unequivocally in their research into digital trends in Flanders, AI is here to stay. More and more people are giving this technology a place in their lives. And at a pace that has never been seen before.

At Ghent University too, AI is going to play a role or, better said, it is already. In all our activities. And, without any doubt, artificial intelligence will have an impact - in our educational activities, our research and in our business operations.

Many of you will have ‘played’ with tools like ChatGPT. A number of you will already have passed that phase and are simply working with these tools. Some even work with them every day. Yet, until recently, we had not even heard of ChatGPT. That is how fast it is going.


We experience tools like ChatGPT as powerful and easily accessible. Using them feels natural. I almost said, it feels human. And that, in my opinion, is exactly where the danger lies. We should never stop looking at the mechanics of AI with a critical eye. We must always remember that ChatGPT is indeed a tool. Developed by people, of course. And, undoubtedly, it will be made even better in the future than it already is. More effective, more efficient and with more impact. Nonetheless, even in the future, it is a tool. Not a person.

This leads me to a concern: what tools and algorithms like ChatGPT are, as yet, sorely lacking is humanity.

This is not just an observation but a real concern, because I believe in the intrinsic value, yes, even in the intrinsic added value of human contact. I believe that human contact matters and that it will continue to be what makes the difference. I believe that humanity is an aspect that no algorithm has to offer.

That last sentence – "I believe that humanity is an aspect that no algorithm has to offer" – is ambiguous. Would ChatGPT be capable of thinking up that kind of ambiguity, I wonder.

Humanity is what I believe in. What I aim for. And what I think we should all prioritise.

About technology

But I also believe in technology. I believe that AI will contribute to our prosperity and our wellbeing. At universities like ours, too, where human contact matters. But that contribution to prosperity and wellbeing will not happen by itself. I therefore appeal to all of you, let us think about what AI can and cannot do for us. Let us dare to put limits. Including where AI is concerned.

Whether you are an AI developer, a researcher, a student or quite simply a future user of AI, my question is directed at all of you: how profoundly do we want to allow artificial intelligence to permeate our activities, our lives, our being? What is the limit where we say, "¡No pasarán! Stop!"? What are we prepared to surrender to algorithms and those who manage them? I believe that these are crucial questions. I call on all of you to think about them. As a society, as a university, and as individuals in all our different roles.

What is Ghent University doing?

A lot of teaching staff tell us that they have questions about how they should or could deal with AI in their teaching activities. With regard to assessments, for example, there is the simple but at the same time complicated question of who or what we are assessing, the student or the chatbot?

To their credit, students also have questions. What use of AI is justifiable? For example, but not exclusively, in the context of a master’s dissertation? What is not acceptable? How can students still distinguish themselves? These are very valid questions and concerns.

Do I have a ready answer to these questions? No, I do not. But I do know that universities are capable of a lot. And I also know that Ghent University is capable of a lot.

At Ghent University we started working on these questions about AI a while ago. Among other things, we concluded that it is impossible to institute a ban on generative AI, let alone to enforce it. To a greater or lesser extent, students have access to AI tools, and they use them. The world of work also increasingly uses AI, and more and more emphatically expects our graduates to be able to deal with it responsibly. As I have said, AI is here to stay. There is little point in pretending otherwise. Which, by the way, is not to insinuate that I would prefer it to be different. AI is here to stay. And that is good.

That is why, starting from next academic year, Ghent University will allow responsible use of AI tools in master’s dissertations. The use of generative AI will even be encouraged in some teaching assignments, such as some writing tasks. We will teach our students how to use AI responsibly, and where necessary we will adjust student assessments.

"And what about research?" I hear you thinking.

We are also giving plenty of thought to the role AI plays and will play in academic research.

Let me quote from the 2023-2024 Regulations on Education and Examinations for Doctorates:

"The thesis is a textual document that demonstrates the ability to create academic knowledge in a particular discipline (including the arts) or across disciplines on the basis of independent academic research."

In light of that crucial passage in the Regulations on Education and Examinations for Doctorates, we must dare to ask fundamental questions when it comes to the use of artificial intelligence, questions that touch on what we have considered for many years to be essential characteristics of a doctoral thesis. Who will write academic papers in the future? Who will carry out the research? What is academic knowledge actually? Do we value knowledge creation regardless of how it is achieved? What is independent academic research? What does a doctoral degree stand for?

Once again, I call on all of you to think about these questions with an open mind and to actively contribute to answering them. They not only go to the heart of what achieving a doctorate is, they go to the heart of what universities stand for.

It is clear to me that using artificial intelligence for research can have multiple benefits, provided that researchers are sufficiently aware of the limitations and potential problems in using AI tools, and then take them into account.

There are fascinating times ahead, that is clear. Let us not fear them. Let us see not only threats, but also opportunities. For there are opportunities, I am convinced.

International perspective

Is Ghent University the only academic institution facing existential questions about its core tasks? Of course it is not!

Most of you know that I travel a lot. I do so not only because I like to but also, primarily, because I think it is important. A university like ours, which aims to be one of the best in Europe and the world, one which stands for pluralism, where students and staff are welcome, regardless of their philosophical, political, cultural or social background, and regardless of their nationality, a university that aims to excel, such a university must focus on the world and strive for international cooperation. During each of my trips it strikes me, a lot of UGent'ers do just that. As researchers, teachers, employees of our university. And they do it successfully.

Travelling means meeting people. So I meet a lot of foreign colleagues. Not only rectors, vice-rectors, chancellors and vice-chancellors, but all those who belong to the broader university community - researchers, teaching staff, support staff, alumni and students. Wherever and whenever I meet them, there is always one recurring topic of conversation these days, how do we as a society deal with artificial intelligence? "And how does Ghent University deal with artificial intelligence, Rector?"

Not a single university knows the most appropriate answer to the questions I mentioned earlier. Everyone is searching, everyone is wrestling with the answers. I said that, as of next academic year, Ghent University would start working on an innovative policy on generative AI, whereby we will encourage responsible use of it. I am proud of that, although – and I stress this again – I am well aware that many questions have not yet been answered.

We will share our expertise and our experience with other universities, at home and abroad. I am convinced that far-reaching interuniversity and international cooperation will be necessary if we really want to fully tackle the challenges and grasp the opportunities that AI brings in terms of high-quality university education, research and social engagement.

Flanders Technology and Innovation (FTI)

Dear friends, I cannot talk today about how AI will have a place in our lives, our work and our studies, without explicitly referring, at least once, to the technology festival Flanders Technology & Innovation, FTI for short.

During the past week, the city of Ghent and the region round Ghent, including Ghent University and all the other knowledge institutions based here, demonstrated that together we form a dynamic ecosystem for technological creativity and innovation. A lot of players active in the field of technology and innovation, in the broadest possible sense, showed what they are capable of doing.

I do not hesitate to say that many UGent'ers have played a very important role in that. Not only technologists, but a diverse group of UGent'ers who are active in all the different disciplines. They deserve a sincere thank you. Let me explicitly say so here.

Finally: inclusion

A final reflection I would like to share is a reflection on a topic that in my opinion is not addressed often enough, one that ties in with what I said about humanity: namely inclusion.

How do we ensure that all students, all teachers, all employees of our university are on board now that the AI train is rapidly gathering speed? We must avoid a situation where having or not having access to new technologies and tools creates new gaps between people. Nor should we create such gaps between students or our employees.

Inclusion in general and digital inclusion, in particular, matter.
I do not want a world that excludes people.
Nor do I want digital exclusion. 

If we value humanity,
we must ensure, in our thinking and in our actions,
that everyone is included
and no one is left behind.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you. 

I have asked many questions and shared many concerns.
But I have also aimed to express my faith in the future. 

We will build the future together.
It will be good.


I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your presence
and for your kind attention.


Rik Van de Walle
Rector Ghent University

Aula Academica
Friday, 22 March 2024

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