Rector's speech Dies Natalis 2023


Closing speech

Dear guests
Dear colleagues, dear students
Good friends of the University of Ghent
Hello UGent’ers

Today, we awarded seven honorary doctorates. To academics we admire, who inspire us, who are at the top of their fields, who dare to voice their opinions strongly. To people who push boundaries in our society, who are trailblazers in their endeavours, who encourage dialogue, who, as pioneers, tread unexplored paths.

Dear Bernd, Frans, Jaap, Jeffrey, Pieter and Sarah

On behalf of all UGent’ers, I thank you for joining us here today to celebrate our Dies Natalis - the anniversary of our founding - and to receive the honorary degree of the University of Ghent. We are extremely proud of you. From now on, we count you as part of our university community. A warm welcome!

Professor Hany BABU could not be with us today. But he is here in our thoughts. He too now belongs to our university community. And we are extremely proud of the award of his honorary doctorate as well.

Later, we will raise our glasses to all the recipients. But first, I would like to say a few words to you here in our Aula Academica and to all those who are following this session online.

Let me start by looking back, more specifically to my closing speech at last year's Dies Natalis celebration. I remember very well how I worked on the speech until the last moment, weighing up every word and sentence.

I am sure you know what I am talking about.

Unacceptable behaviour, hotline

Spring 2022. The stories of unacceptable behaviour that appeared in the media at the time painted an unflattering picture of universities. Of our university as well. I pleaded then, here, in this auditorium, to stop keeping up appearances. I pleaded for us to dare to face up to the truth; to dare to acknowledge it; dare to express it and then dare to take concrete - sometimes even radical - steps towards a culture of respectful interaction with each other.

We are a year further on now. Has everything been resolved in the meantime? No.
Is there still unacceptable behaviour at the University of Ghent? Yes.

But I do believe we have turned a corner, embarked on a new, different path. Where we dare to question and adapt our own procedures. Where we dare to critically examine our internal hotlines, making the needs of those who want to report unacceptable behaviour a priority. With respect for the rights of all those involved. Including our duty to investigate reports of unacceptable behaviour or abuse of power impartially.

The Flemish Government is currently working on the creation of an external hotline for complaints of unacceptable behaviour in higher education, which will be part of the new Flemish Institute for Human Rights. I have said publicly on several occasions, including to the Flemish Parliament, I support the idea of creating a central hotline for higher education within the Flemish Institute for Human Rights. On condition, of course, that this hotline is easily accessible and complies with confidentiality and privacy regulations, and others.

I therefore call on the Flemish Government to take concrete and swift action on this. It would be better to have a central hotline tomorrow than the day after tomorrow.

Freedoms and multi-perspectivism

Dear guests, dear UGent’ers

Today, we are celebrating scholarship above all. It cannot thrive without freedom of expression, academic freedom and multi-perspectivism. For us, these are not mere theoretical concepts or grand principles that are only useful in policy or other documents. They are part of the core of who and what we are. Moreover, freedom of expression, academic freedom and multi-perspectivism are important to all UGent’ers - whatever their role, rank or standing.

Freedom of speech

Freedom of speech. It applies to everyone. Including academics. Anyone may have any opinion and express it. As far as I am concerned, there should be only exception to freedom of speech: explicit regulation, such as legislation banning racism or incitement to violence.

Who wants to live in a world where our words are censored, our every action controlled, our thoughts curtailed? I don't want that. And neither, I imagine, do you. So let us cherish and defend the right to free speech.

Sometimes, I am asked to stop giving someone or other a platform, by not allowing a colleague to teach, for instance, or by not allowing someone to speak at the University of Ghent. I think that subjecting someone to this sort of de-platforming (or even cancelling) is excessive and, as a rule, inappropriate. We should, on the contrary, make maximum use of speech and dissent, based on arguments and counterarguments. De-platforming can (and should) only be done after violations have been proven and pronounced as such.

As rector, therefore, I shall never deny anyone access to the lectern merely because they express an opinion that is critical, that may come across as offensive, or that is not mine or yours.

Academic freedom

On a day like today, it makes sense to stress the importance of academic freedom alongside freedom of expression. These two forms of freedom are related, but they are clearly different from each other. Academic freedom means that academics may conduct research on any subject, and that they should be given maximum freedom, in their capacity as academics, to communicate about their research and express their opinions about it. Negationism, for example, is prohibited by law in this country, but doing research into the sense of this prohibition, or explicitly questioning it, is allowed.

Academic freedom means that authorities, in particular - including academic authorities - cannot prohibit academics from conducting research into topic x or y, and communicating about it. But when academics speak, their opinions and what they say must pass the academic test. Academics actively test their ideas against other people’s ideas. Ideas must be questioned. Academics pursue not only confirmation of their ideas, but also refutation of them. They tolerate contradiction. Both in the privacy of the academic environment and in public forums. Even when that contradiction is unwelcome. And no matter who contradicts them.

Academic freedom also means that no one can be obliged to do research into topic x or y. This is an aspect of academic freedom whose importance, I feel, is too often underestimated.

So, is academic freedom unlimited? No, just as freedom of speech is not unlimited, neither is academic freedom. Academics should aspire to the basic principles of academic integrity. For academics associated with the University of Ghent, these are the principles set out in the so-called ALLEA Code (All European Academies, the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities).

These basic principles are: reliability, honesty, respect and responsibility.

Reliability, honesty, respect and responsibility: these are concepts that matter at the University of Ghent.

Freedom as a teacher

So, what about what can or cannot be said during classes? Here, too, those who teach at our university should be and are allowed maximum freedom, as long as their teaching is based on academic research, quite simply on an academically sound approach and on multi-perspectivism.

As far as I am concerned, academics may utter the utmost nonsense, on social or other media, and regardless of the degree of academic expertise they have on a given topic. That is part of their freedom of expression, just as it is part of the freedom (and actually even the task) of others to respond to them, if necessary. I will always defend that freedom, with respect to everyone. But university teaching and learning materials are expected to meet academic standards. We owe that to our students, to our mission as academics, to our mission as UGent’ers, and to society as a whole.

The educational vision of the University of Ghent, which explicitly assumes multi-perspectivism, implies that critical sense, perspective switching, openness, pluralism and tolerance towards differing viewpoints are central to our educational practice. The University of Ghent trains its students to be people who can go beyond the obvious, reason outside the box, approach complex problems from a fresh perspective and work in a solution-oriented way. There is no room at the University of Ghent for a doctrinaire approach.

Hope, trust, responsibility

Dear guests
We are nearing the end of this session.

But there is something else we need to talk about.

As many of you are aware, within the next few days, the Board of Governors of our university will set out a number of guidelines concerning the way in which the University of Ghent can carry out its core missions of teaching, research and service in the future, within a financially feasible framework.

We face extraordinary challenges. But I am confident that, together with the whole University of Ghent management, we can meet them.
Provided that we work together.
Provided that no intention processes are used as a means of negotiation or communication.
Provided that words are not wrongly put in people’s mouths or attributed to their pens.
Provided that everyone involved is honest.
Provided that we do not turn it into a debate of 'them' against 'us'. Because that will not benefit anyone.

Targeted focus on the implementation and support of our core missions, teaching, research and service: that is our objective. With faculties and redesigned managements joining hands and recognising each other's added value.

I am convinced that this is possible, even in the big house with many rooms that is the University of Ghent.

But this is not a matter for the University of Ghent alone.

Honourable Members of the Flemish Government
Ministers, Deputy Minister-President, Minister-President
and Members of the Flemish Parliament

I dare to ask you here, in public, and I ask you emphatically, please show some basic intellectual honesty.

Yes, I shall be frank. And yes, you heard me correctly. I am asking you to show some basic intellectual honesty. And to do what you have promised to do.

Honourable members of the Flemish Government

For many years, you have not respected some of the funding mechanisms that have been established by decree. Besides specific cuts and delays in growth paths, the almost
systematic under-indexation of the operating allowance and the skipping of the so-called 'clicks' have a recurrent and cumulative negative effect on the income that is, quite simply, due to the University of Ghent and the other Flemish universities and colleges.

As a result, basic funding per student has declined by 20% over the past 15 years. In other words, if the decree provisions had been applied, the University of Ghent would receive 80 million euros more in annual core funding than it does now. Eighty million euros more, year after year.

This is hallucinatory and unacceptable for a region like ours, where the creation of wealth and wellbeing is largely based on quality higher education. One does not have to be a maths prodigy to see that this situation is unsustainable.

Minister WEYTS and his colleagues in the Flemish government can rest assured that we will continue to hammer this point home. Promoting Flanders as a knowledge region and proudly presenting the results of the Flemish knowledge economy, while at the same time neglecting the breeding ground for that knowledge economy. What sense does that make?

Is it unwillingness, negligence, incompetence, indifference, hypocrisy?

Is it fear of telling the universities and colleges an unwelcome truth, i.e. "Dear universities and colleges, dear staff and students, the Flemish government prefers to spend what it has left in its coffers on something else"? I cannot quite put my finger on it. But it certainly does not testify to good governance.

With this in mind, it is also downright shocking that in the Flemish Parliament, and elsewhere, it is sometimes (and sadly even recently) suggested that the universities are (and I quote) "in any case, sitting on a mountain of EUR 3 billion in investments". "Surely that’s a hefty financial reserve, which is increasing every year." Such is the claim that was recently made in the Flemish Parliament.

Well, this is a false, manifest misrepresentation of the situation. Assuming that such statements are not evidence of incompetence, I think that the way some are (or are not) conducting the debate is downright inappropriate.

Indeed, the funds referred to cannot by any means be regarded as freely available resources or freely available scope for policymaking. The vast majority of these funds are, in line with the universities' social mission, already earmarked for specific purposes such as investments, student facilities, educational innovation and other initiatives with which we realise our core tasks.

So let it be made very clear, dear politicians and policymakers, the University of Ghent does not have ample reserves. Absolutely not, even. Every euro the University of Ghent receives is immediately allocated in line with the university’s purpose and mission. The university does have a limited cash reserve that can be used temporarily for one-off investments. In the meantime, the funds are invested in a sustainable manner.

One does not have to be a genius to understand this, it seems to me.
But one does have to want to understand it.

Dear politicians and policymakers

I and many others with me are no longer willing to let manifest untruths wash over us.
Stop thinking we should be willing to do that.
Take yourselves and us seriously. Present things as they really are.

And above all, apply the funding mechanisms laid down by successive Flemish Governments and Flemish Parliaments correctly and therefore, also, in full.

That is the least we should expect from you,
just as you also expect us to comply with regulations.

In a moment we will close this session with our anthems:
the Flemish, the Belgian and the European.

I thank you warmly for your presence
and for your kind attention.

Rik Van de Walle
Rector University of Ghent

Aula Academica
Friday 24 March 2023