Rector and Vice-rector plea for calm: “And then it’s back to work”

(17-05-2021) It was a tough year for everyone. That is also recognised by Rector Rik Van de Walle and Vice-rector Mieke Van Herreweghe, following their recent election for a second mandate.

“That’s why we wish to allow the dust to settle before returning to the task in hand”, they confirm.


Congratulations to both of you on your second mandate. What is your intended focus in the coming years?

Rector Rik Van de Walle: “We’re often asked that question. It’s a difficult one, since we have prioritized not one, but eight different topics, such as targeting a smart blend of educational activities, new types of research funding, recruitment, well-being, ... We’ve found a good balance between these topics and believe the balance itself to be very important. We don’t wish to be extreme in any particular domain. Over the past years we’ve aimed to manage the university both resolutely and harmoniously. This is also what we plan in the coming years.”

The past year was not a simple one. You were forced to make many tough decisions. How did you feel about this?

Rik Van de Walle: “In the past year, it’s true that the focus lay on crisis management. However, we continued to strive for balance. We wereRector Rik Van de Walle mostly successful, but not always. There were many changes in a short space of time, sometimes because that’s what we wanted, but sometimes the changes were enforced. We now wish to stand still for a moment and evaluate the past months, in order to identify what we’d like to continue in the future, and what to get rid of. In doing so, in educational terms, we certainly don’t intend to take general decisions that apply to every programme or course. We don’t wish to lay down the particular percentage of teaching time that must be organised on campus or online. Careful consideration is required. Input from our lecturers and students is crucial. A study will be made of each of the courses to see which types of education are the most appropriate. Therefore, it will not be up to the rector or vice-rector to decide, far from it.”

What has been your biggest obstacle in the past years?

Vice-rector Mieke Van Herreweghe: “Our communication can be a learning process for us at times. A year or two ago there was quite a commotion about the wearing of headscarves in higher education. This turned out to be a hot topic among the students. Yet Ghent University had already established its principle (in Dutch) of permitting religious or faith-based symbols back in 2016. Therefore, we considered this was already known and launched no further communication during the new debate. Indeed, for us this position was nothing new, but something that had already been in place for several years at Ghent University. What we should have realised, however, was the fact that this was not known by everyone. We received many reactions from students asking why Ghent University was not willing to state its views in public. We should have repeated our opinion more quickly in order to clarify our position to new generations of students.”

Rik Van de Walle: “My mind immediately turns to something that is also confirmed by the election result. I have lost contact with regular students to some extent over the past few years. I admit it. Some of their concerns are failing to reach me effectively. This became very clear last year when we communicated the fact it was impossible to hold a graduation ceremony. I believed we had thought up an excellent alternative: a digital farewell. I expected the students to be really happy about it, but that was not the case. Their response was very negative. Then you read the reactions and think to yourself: how did that happen? In the coming years, I wish to focus on having more direct contact with students to prevent something similar happening in the future. Something that went well, on the other hand, were our excellent efforts in caring for students’ mental health and well-being. However, our communication was lacking and we weren’t always successful in putting the students in need in touch with the service on offer. That can probably be improved.”

Of which accomplishment are you most proud?

Vicerector Mieke Van HerrewegheMieke Van Herreweghe: “When planning your policies you must start by considering your fundamental standards and values. From the very beginning we believed that our foundations should lie in a blend of trust and responsibility. Our approach is based on trust in our staff and students. This must also be reflected in your policies. Therefore, for example, we have also adapted several career paths to place the focus on trust, rather than distrust or control. These new career paths are really something to be proud of.”

Rik Van de Walle: “Trust has a lot to do with the way in which you evaluate people and activities. In essence, there are two options. Either you naturally assume that staff will do a good job and you trust them, giving them the responsibility to do their best and having faith in the fact that they will do it. Or you assume distrust, and you ask your staff to keep completing all kinds of forms to show what they have and haven’t accomplished. In the first case, you assume they do a good job, unless there are signs indicating the opposite. In the second case, you actually presume that staff do nothing, unless they can prove that they have done something. In recent years we have focused strongly on the first approach: trust combined with responsibility is at the heart of our policy. We have specifically translated this vision into new career models. We began with professors, then did the same with our administrative and technical staff, and recently we applied it to doctoral students too. Our approach is so innovative that it has become an international reference. They call it ‘The Ghent model’. I think we can say that this is a great achievement, by ourselves and the entire university.”

Mieke Van Herreweghe: “A lot also depends on people’s trust in us, as a management team. Such trust must be generated by extended discussions, encouraging participation and facilitating input. You must create a safe place in which people also have the courage to contradict you. That has always been important to us. We are accessible and also keen to make that clear.” 

Do you have a message for people at Ghent University?

Mieke Van Herreweghe: “The past year has been particularly difficult. We have been forced to adapt our usual working routines, even our normal way of life. We have made many changes in the past years over a relatively short space of time. Rik and I are still keen to tackle a number of things and thus make further changes in the future. However, we believe that it’s important for the dust to settle first. Therefore, we plan to stand still for a short while and give people the opportunity for everything to sink in, but then we intend to get back to the task.”

And for the students?

Rik Van de Walle: "What we actually already knew has become even clearer during the corona crisis: students need social contact. Student loneliness is a problem, even to the extent that it affects their mental health. We must find ways to reach them and help them. On a more general scale, I appeal to the government to invest in the mental health and well-being of young people. That is more important than, say promising laptops that we don’t actually need. Not to mention the soup (laughs)."