Rectoral speech opening academic year 2018-2019

(21-09-2018) Speech by rector Rik Van de Walle at the Aula Academica on 21 september 2018.

Dear people of Ghent UniversitY,

Today feels special. You are partially responsible for that. Today, we have crossed the city together. There were hundreds of us. We were carrying protest signs and pamphlets. We made a procession. A march, almost, but of the best kind.

You may know that I love positive activism. I said, 'positive' activism, not 'political' activism. I just can't help myself. I applaud activist academics. That is why I greatly enjoyed today's manifestation. I hope you felt the same way. I am sure of one thing: we were seen and heard.

Perhaps you're furrowing your brows scornfully. Or maybe you're exchanging a compassionate glance with your neighbour. Because what am I trying to say here? I want to say this: be a positive activist. That is: put things in motion. Stand up for what you believe in. Express yourself, argue, dare to change the world, to improve it. Push boundaries. Question a lot, if not everything. Create dynamics, change. In words and even more so in deeds. It is one of the reasons why the academic field exists. Our field. Academic work is supposed to be positive activism.

Why, you ask? The answer is simple: because we don't merely study society and the world. We don't just describe it. We do more than just shed light on it in a different way each time. We put it into motion. We help shape the future. We cause change, even when we don't intend it or want to, but often with both intention and desire.

When we are shaping young people in our lessons. When we search and research. When we expose the future of biopharmaceutics. When we ask ourselves what is and isn't allowed in genetics or biotechnology. When we explore the effects of our intestines on our cognitive functions. When we research the social consequences of forced migration and communicate about it, serenely, without sneers or exclamation marks. I consider all of these things positive activism. It is what you do, dear people of Ghent University, it is what I expect of you, and it is what society expects of us.

So a plea, for positive activism. That goes for everyone at Ghent University, whatever their expertise and experience may be. In the library, restaurants, offices, labs, lecture halls, anywhere in our buildings: be a positive activist.

Not to worry. I'm not asking you to storm any barricades. I'm not asking to bring these pamphlets and signs to work every day from now on. I'm not asking you to give them to the politicians and policymakers present here today. I wouldn't dare to (although...). I am also not asking you to start writing critical pieces (though I wouldn't stop you from doing that either).

I do, however, feel comfortable asking you this: join our positive activism.

Let me explain. I want to talk to you about three things today. Were I the one writing a pamphlet, granted by you more than two A5 sheets of paper to do it, this is what I would say. Fear not. It won't be stone tablets with commandments. It won't be 96 statements. And I don't intend to nail them to the archway of the cathedral, like Luther, or to that of our auditorium. I would include three things that are crucial for our university.

Firstly, I would tell you that things should be said even if others don't want to hear them. Then I would emphasise that pluralism and neutrality are two different things. Finally, I would tell you that more publications and more students aren't necessarily what pushes the cause.

1. Things should be said even if others don't want to hear them

I will always insist on this. I am convinced, without a shadow of a doubt, that this can be taken very far. In fact, we should take it as far as possible. We owe it to ourselves. A lot is being said and even more is being written at many universities. At Ghent University, we speak, express, and argue. And yet, two weeks ago, we had to conclude on national television that a certain line can be crossed. To our surprise and regret.

It's not that we didn't know that extreme opinions exist within our university. We do know. It is a good thing. Even more so: it is a necessity.

It is our duty, plain and simple, to offer a stage to extreme opinions as well as moderate ones. Not just to give them a voice, but also to listen to them. To enter into a discussion. Argue against them.

Because where else, if not here, would that be possible? Where else than at our university, a leader with regards to gender, transgenders, gender studies, engagement, sustainability.

So let it be said again: at a university like ours everyone can think of anything, and give his or her opinion. And yet, not everything can be tolerated. Not in a constitutional state. Not even at a university within said constitutional state. Both the former and the latter carry great responsibility. Legally. Ethically. The thoughts are free, completely free even. But incitement to racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, gun use or violence is not possible.

This university is not a court of law. This university is a university. A university with values and a university with rights and duties. One that dares to make decisions when decisions need to be made. It is that responsibility, which our university dares to take, that ensures that thousands of employees and many tens of thousands of students and their parents put their trust in our university every day. Ghent University: an open, tolerant university where we speak about people with respect whatever their background may be.

2. Pluralism is different from neutrality

'Mister rector, why "in god's name" does the procession start at the Sint-Baafs Cathedral this year?' Many of you asked me this question during the past weeks. Well: we didn't do it in God's name, but because we can. It illustrates the nature of pluralism.

Our university is not Catholic, like that of Leuven. Our university is not liberal, like that of Brussels. The universities of Leuven and Brussels are very good universities (just like the universities of Antwerp and Hasselt), but our university is neither Catholic nor liberal. We are pluralistic.

Ghent University encompasses all religions and all beliefs. Under a single roof. That means we can depart from a cathedral this year and from a mosque next year. Our respect for all of those belief systems, philosophies, and communities is crucial. It is what distinguishes us from many other universities. This liberty is what broadens our minds.

So I ask you to spread that respect and liberty, without minimizing your own convictions or views on life.

Incidentally, the opening procession does not have to start exclusively in cathedrals, churches or mosques in the coming academic years. We can also start from, for example, the Vooruit, the NTGent, the Brugsepoort or the Tolhuis.

3. Sometimes less is more

Quantity and quality aren't mutually exclusive by definition. That's a good thing. Meanwhile, we have taken it too far in some respects. We have ended up past the optimal point in those cases. This applies, among other things, to the financing of academic research.

Mieke and I have understood the many signals – true emergency signals at times – from our researchers very well. Publication pressure can be crippling for the welfare of our researchers. This pressure can also be devastating for the research itself: we have to ensure that sufficient opportunities (and therefore sufficient resources) are offered to set up risky, fundamental-scientific research.

Labelling those signals as mere whiny complaints, which happens sometimes, is not something we participate in. We take these signals seriously. The collaboration between the Flemish universities must be stimulated, more than is the case today. More focus on multidisciplinary research is needed. Sometimes less is more.

Our university will be talking about this with the other universities and with the minister. I am pleased to see that the Flemish government recognises what is going well, understands what can be improved, and is prepared to work on it together with us. I hope that the revision of the BOF key later this year can be the first positive result of this constructive dialogue.

We also focus on quality within our own university. The new career models for professors and scientific staff, recently approved by the Board, is based explicitly and emphatically on trust. They will take effect early next year and will give all employees the opportunity to further the development of their strengths. We're doing this to help develop the talents that Ghent University needs as an institution. For education, research, and social engagement. This vision makes our university a pioneer; we have crafted career paths that are appealing and challenging, and especially – to reiterate – based on trust. We are done with fault-finding and endless evaluations.

The number of publications in itself is not the best parameter for measuring the quality of scientific research. The number of students is not the best parameter for measuring the quality of education at a university. I want to break with those obstinate assumptions for once and for all. Our registration numbers are increasing almost every year. This is positive insofar as it means that more and more young people with the necessary talents to obtain a university degree find their way to our university. But I do not consider that to be a must. Young people who have other talents or interests, should not be willingly lured to the university. Their talents and interests must be valued, even if they do not develop at the university.

The thresholds must be low, registration fees affordable. Yes. But at least as important: the best possible course duration, the best possible courses, a diversity of students, and their advancement. This is what we will be working on in the coming years, by means of active learning, among other things.

More publications, more students: these do not necessarily lead to a better world or even a better university. Sometimes less is more. The right publications, the right students in the right place: they have a better chance for the future. The university must succeed in assisting all young people who have the talents to and interests in getting a degree to do just that, regardless of their social background. Young people who lack these talents or interests, should not be tempted or pressured into going to university against better judgement.

My dear audience, I am trying to tell you that sheer quantity is not effective. This goes for publications and student counts alike. I have shown that quantity and quality are not mutually exclusive but that quality always comes first as far as I'm concerned. I have emphasised that Ghent University facilitates discussion, expression, and argumentation. And listening.

Thank you, very much

I have spoken a lot. However, I haven't thanked you yet. I wish to do that, from the bottom of my heart. The past year was the first one for Mieke and me. It flew by.

Dear colleagues, thank you for your commitment and passion. We know that we can be demanding at times. We all see so much potential in our university.

Dear students, thank you for your bravery. For your constructive opinions, also with regards to difficult topics. Remember the academic calendar? We listened to you and we are proud of that.

Dear governors, thank you for your courage and perseverance. We wish our departing governors all the best, and our new governors good luck.

To our Minister, dear Hilde, thank you for your passionate words. For your heart for the academic world and your heart for our university especially. We have gone through a lot together. I hope that we can continue on the same course together.

Dear politicians, policymakers, and citizens, thank you for listening, thank you for the dialogue you keep entering into with us.

Dear people of Ghent University, all of you, thank you for being here and for your benevolent attention.

All that is left for me to do is to officially open the 2018-2019 academic year. I am pleased to do that now.

May it be a year of inspiration, education, and positive activism for all of you.