‘Ghent University could do to take the lead a little more’

Candidates Rik Van de Walle and Mieke Van Herreweghe are still in the running for rector and vice-rector. Who are they and what would they like to achieve in the next four years?

If you could describe your programme in a few words, what would you say?

Rik Van de Walle: ‘Well, the key concept, I’d say, is civic engagement. We want a university that lights the way for society, but that also involves a relationship where both enrich each other. We want to knock down the ivory towers, should that still be the prevailing notion people hold. In addition, we support the type of leadership that is based on trust - not blind faith, but rather a trust rooted in a sense of shared responsibility.’
Could you be a little more specific?

Kandidaten verkiezingen rector en vicerector: Rik Van de Walle en Mieke Van HerrewegheMieke Van Herreweghe: ‘Let’s take the assessment procedures for teaching staff as an example. Year in, year out, we evaluate the same teaching staff and subjects, even if the results from previous assessments were positive. People feel like they are constantly under surveillance for no good discernible reason, especially since it all seems like a waste of time and energy that would be better spent addressing the real problems. Our attitude is this: put your confidence in the teaching staff who achieved a good assessment, while at the same time keeping weaknesses in mind and working to solve those issues.’

Rik Van de Walle: ‘Currently everyone is also assessed independently, as if we are all in competition with each other. That stands in contrast to how we perceive evaluations from a normative perspective: they ought to encourage teamwork. And it ought to be teamwork of the highest calibre, no less. The way Flanders distributes its resources between the five universities actually makes competitors of us all: a euro gained by one university is seen as a euro lost by another. There’s no reason why we can’t dial down the competition, dial up the cooperation and do that at every level.’
Are the other universities likely to welcome this idea?

Mieke Van Herreweghe: ‘Well, I do think the time is right for it. Competition is a good thing, but only to a point. It’s not supposed to suck the life out of you. There is something inherently wrong, I think, when your research hits a brick wall because you are forever chasing funds. The pendulum has swung too far and I think the rest of world has realised it.’

Rik Van de Walle: ‘As a co-founder of iMinds I was recently involved in the imec merger negotiations. That experience taught me that you can actually develop good partnerships with both other universities and the government. The universities would like to see more cooperation just as much as we would, because we are all in the same boat.’
Where does Ghent University stand in relation to the other universities?

Rik Van de Walle: ‘We are going to have to start thinking about a new funding model for our higher education system in the not too distant future. Ghent University is one of the top two in the country, and I think it should take the lead here. In the past we’ve tended to sit back and wait for KU Leuven to make its proposals before responding. While that works, it still isn’t really a best case scenario. I would really like to see us take the initiative more often. Don’t get me wrong. It’s absolutely not about who emerges from the ring as victor. Rather, it’s more about seeing if we can come together to de-escalate the rat race we’ve all been sucked into.’
What if a professor from Ghent University hit the headlines for falsifying research results, as we saw at a Dutch university a few years ago? How would you deal with it?

Rik Van de Walle: ‘That type of situation calls for calm and composure above all. A rector is still another human being with an opinion; however, you can’t just turn someone into a scapegoat based your personal views, involvement or even experience. Yes, you have a public profile as rector, but the main thing is to empower your staff and departments and to let them deal with their responsibilities and put their experience to good use. At the same time, if mistakes have been made, you have to be firm. It is also important that you don’t impose a new regime on the university community as a whole on the basis of a few isolated cases.’

Mieke Van Herreweghe: ‘Ghent University has a Committee for Scientific Integrity, of which I myself was a member. People sometimes think that committees are there to cover things up. But no. We investigate the issues thoroughly so that we can give well-informed recommendations, case-by-case and without any interference from the top.’
On a personal note: how would you describe each other’s personalities?

Mieke Van Herreweghe: ‘Oh dear... I really need a minute to give that some thought. I have immense respect for Rik. It’s his experience, I would say, that makes him the right man for the job. He is highly intelligent. And he has this ability to listen to people, to get to the bottom of the problem and actually do something about it.’

Rik Van de Walle: ‘Mieke is an extremely kind, committed and warm person, who exudes a sense of calm. I won’t say she complements me in that way, because that would make me seem a little cold (laughs). In all seriousness, though, we have been through a lot together, occasionally involving some quite personal attacks. But a lot of people have asked us to hang on in there, and Mieke has supported and encouraged me throughout. That pretty much sums her up: she’s a true team player.’
Did you know each other prior to this?

Rik Van de Walle en Mieke Van HerrewegheMieke Van Herreweghe: ‘Mostly just from seeing each other at meetings. That means we were familiar with each other’s lines of reasoning, but there wasn’t anything terribly personal involved. However, all that seems to have changed in the past few months (laughs). What’s more we seem to share a similar background as well. My father was blind, but despite this he managed to become a physiotherapist, with lots of support from his secondary school teachers, clergymen who encouraged him to keep studying. Rik’s grandparents grew up in poverty, and they certainly weren’t planning to send his father to university. He wouldn’t have gone had it not been for the intervention of the local priests. Those are the kind of touchstones that make us familiar to one another. In fact, we are both products of the surge in democratisation to offer higher education to all. And we could still all do with a move like that today.’

Rik Van de Walle: ‘Outside of here, just a few streets down, you’ll find a city that is a sea of diversity. But come back to the university and you will mostly see a sea of white faces - and in my faculty, in particular, mostly white males. In other words, the vast majority of our talent is unexploited. On a personal level, it concerns young people who are not given the opportunity to develop their talents. And on a social level, it’s about all those talents that are sorely needed. This issue is very important to me, and I know from experience that it’s just as important to Mieke. It is definitely something that ties us together.’
And finally, on a lighter note. What is your favourite place at Ghent University?

Mieke Van Herreweghe: ‘The Blandijn is where I feel the most at home. I’m a real Blandina (laughs).’

Rik Van de Walle: ‘This will probably sound corny, but I just like being anywhere other Ghent University people are. I’m not really tied to any one faculty or department. I have a pretty long fuse, but it does get lit when people try to put other people in boxes. For instance, it drives me nuts when scientists and technical people are called culturally illiterate, that all they’re capable of is playing with numbers.’
Biography Rik Van de Walle
Candidate for the position of Rector

  • ° Ghent, 21 July 1970
  • Civil engineer in physics and doctoral degree holder in applied sciences: physics
  • Dean of the faculty of Engineering and Architecture
  • Co-founder of iMinds and member of imec’s Board of Directors since the imec-iMinds merger
  • He is married to Brenda Delcloo, and is the father of Bram and Kim, stepfather to Mauro, and is a Plan Sponsor
  • Favourite pastimes: endurance sports, literature and music
Biography Mieke Van Herreweghe
Candidate for the position of Vice-Rector

  • ° Ghent, 10 January 1965
  • Doctoral degree holder in language and literature: Germanic languages; full professor of English language
  • Research director at the faculty of Arts and Philosophy
  • Married to Kris Laureys, and mother of Felien, Leoniek and Aina
  • Flemish sign language interpreter. Co-founder of the Flemish Sign Language Centre
  • Volunteer at the Athena Gymnastics Club