Veertig jaar in dienst van Europa

Nieuws | de redactie
14 januari 2016 | “As the Dalai Lama put it, ultimately security for myself and for my neighbour are inseparable: ‘Elsewhere is here’.” UM-rector Luc Soete benadrukte op de 40e Dies van zijn universiteit waarom deze zo’n internationaal karakter heeft en baken van Europese integratie ambieert te zijn.

U leest het complete betoog hieronder

“Dear colleague Rectores Magnifici, dear Rectores Magnifici emiriti, dear Commissioner of the King, dear members of our Supervisory Board, dear colleagues, students and staff, ladies and gentlemen,

Let me all warmly welcome you to this academic ceremony to celebrate this university’s fortieth birthday. On January 9th 1976, forty years and two days ago, her Majesty Queen Juliana signed the official document establishing the Rijksuniversiteit Limburg, today called Maastricht University.

The ceremony took actually place in the neighbouring church. In typical “polder” fashion, the Rijksuniversity of Limburg, set up to compensate for the closing of the mines in the Eastern and Western mining region of Southern Limburg became located in Maastricht, a city with a long industrial history in everything… but coal mining.

And as it became officially a Rijks-university, the official signature took place next door in the Catholic Sint-Servaas Cathedral in the presence of Bishop Jo Gijssen – the bishop to remind you who was at the origin of the Pink Saturday movement when on Eastern Saturday, April 14th, 1979, thousands of gay and lesbians (LGBTs) marched through the city of Roermond shouting “Gijssen, flikker op!”.

Healthy ageing in Limburg

But as the “Year of the Mines” is now being over, I will not elaborate further on the location of the Rijksuniversiteit in Limburg, nor on our old “Rijks”-university status which we have since happily left to just Groningen….. Indeed, today Groningen needs full “rijks-support”.

Forty years for a university is a very young age. I’m standing here between colleagues Rectores Magnifici of universities which are in some cases a full decimal point order of magnitude, older.  And as working at a university seems good for healthy ageing, I find myself here also in the company of five of the eight Rectores Magnifici emiriti this university has known: Coen Hemker Rector Magnificus from 1982 till 1985, Vic Boncke Rector Magnificus from 1985 till 1991, Job Cohen (who unfortunately could not be here with us today) Rector Magnificus from 1991 till 1993 and 1995-1997, Hans Philipsen Rector Magnificus from 1993-1995, Arie Kruseman-Nieuwenhuysen Rector Magnificus from 1998-2003, and my predecessor who outperformed them all, Gerard Mols from 2004 till September 2012.

Each one of them contributed in a unique way to the growth and development of this university. We have in preparing for the 40th anniversary exploited fully their memories and remembrances and produced six short video portraits which are available in their full length from our anniversary website on and of which you will now see a short compilation.

As I already said, forty years for a university is a very young age, but forty years in anybody’s working life is a long period. I am myself particularly proud to have been part of this university for the last 30 years. To have seen it grow first hand and develop and adjust itself to the different environments within which it found itself operating.

 A first, “infant institution” phase, apologies for those simple economist’s terms, – the first six years – when the new Rijksuniversity was barely tolerated by The Hague with a primarily local medical function with the “basic philosophy” of the medical faculty being “academically” anchored and subsequently enlarged to include health sciences; a second phase as national newcomer – the period 1982-92 – with the creation of the faculties of law, economics and general sciences and later cultural sciences being set up making the aim of 6000 students reachable; and a third phase, the last 26 years, the period following the EMU summit in Maastricht, when the Rijksuniversity Limburg went international with the attraction of students first from neighbouring borders and later on from farther places in Europe and across the world.

Domestic “funnel”

To remind my Rectores Magnifici colleagues, South Limburg has a foreign border of 220 kilometres and a 6 kilometre domestic “funnel” with the rest of The Netherlands.  So today, we have 16,761 registered (16178 unique) students of which half are foreign, or ignoring borders, of which half are from the surrounding neighbourhood of Maastricht defined here as within a one hundred km radius of Maastricht, i.e. including Eindhoven, den Bosch and Tilburg but not e.g. Nijmegen but including now also Brussels, Antwerp, Louvain, Hasselt, Liège, Namur and Charleroi and on the east Cologne, Bonn, Dusseldorf and Duisburg. 

It was in other words in the logic of both the location: a peripheral border city in The Netherlands closer to Belgium and Germany than to the rest of The Netherlands, and the timing: a phase of strong belief in the advantages of economic and political European integration – the Delors period – that Maastricht University could emerge and rapidly develop. 

Still valid?

The strategic question for a university celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2016 is whether these conditions of the previous Century are still valid today or whether they are now rather part of our history…  Indeed, it is difficult at the beginning of this New Year not to be struck by the sheer speed and all- encompassing nature at which global challenges have been confronting us over the last years. As if time itself is no longer subject to steady, linear change but to exponential, or at least, chaotic change.

And yet when looking closer, none of these global challenges, whether they have to do with the current list of popular global challenges such as migration, climate change or terrorism or with those of last year: pandemics – remember Ebola – Grexit or the TTIP debate are new. They have been with us for years, if not decades and their implications on future development and well-being have been analyzed and studied both in theory and practice by many of us . 

The democratisation of science

So how come that global change seems to impact us much more as if we woke suddenly up last year in a different, practically out of control, less secure more globalized world?  At first sight one would be tempted to say because we as academics do insufficiently play our role in feeding those debates with scientific evidence and arguments and leave the scoring open to opinion makers. And indeed, social media interchanges seem increasingly to take academic truth claims as more or less arbitrary driven rather by personal or institutional interests than factual insights.

The democratisation of science has meant that one is increasingly looking for two minute answers, put in black and white terms, with little room for doubt. Yet the complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity of contemporary knowledge construction often implies that claims will now be contested and will leave room for different interpretations. In short, “knowledge often increases the experience of uncertainty rather than reducing it”.

And uncertainty, coming from an academic is something which it is difficult to sell to the public at large.  It has led many scientists to leave the public field, to prefer to remain cocooned within their own field of knowledge, within the certainty of the ivory tower of excellence recognition. The latter often being the only thing on which reputation and academic career development will be built, with only publications in serious journals written first and foremost for another academic peer audience.

Yet most of the global challenges which draw today media attention are challenges which cross disciplines. I would even presume that for most of us, many of the global challenges are from our own disciplinary perspective, relatively straightforward “problems”, relatively easily solvable.

Glory 20 years ago

Let me give you some personal examples. My personal, most famous moment of international media glory was probably some 20 years ago when a reference was made on the WSJ front page of the outrage of Bill Clinton himself to some crazy European (me) who had suggested that, as Internet would undermine the national capacity of states to levy taxation, one should investigate the possibility of introducing a “bit tax”: a tax on Internet use.

Reminding Faraday’s famous quote at the moment of his invention of electricity: ”Sir, I don’t know what it is good for, but one day it will be taxed”, I argued that the new consumer and business value generated by Internet and digital technologies more broadly would remain by and large outside the scope of national taxation. Nothing came of the idea as Paul De Grauwe will remember, but it remains something which, as a simple economist, I still believe in as part of the currently needed tax shift.

It remains striking to see today how staggering the earnings per employee are of the top five high tech companies (Apple: 1.86 million, Google: 1.15 million, Softbank: 918K, Microsoft: 732K and Amazon: 577K) and how little the digital exchange of goods and services has contributed to government public finances.

Fossil fuels and policy failures

The second example relates to the use of fossil fuels and climate change. Back in the late 80’s, early 90’s with colleagues at MERIT, I would consider the climate change issue as a relatively straightforward economic problem consisting by and large of economic policy failures: a typical market failure related to pricing correctly the negative externalities of fossil fuel use and a public failure with many countries providing large subsidies to fossil fuel users.

Not something one would need to spend decades on to arrive at political COP agreements between states. Again I still remember vividly how I pleaded with Ken Arrow and Jo Ritzen here in Maastricht back in 1992 how a gradual, global increase in fossil fuel prices, could become a relatively easily implementable global policy measure, e.g. by no longer allowing oil and gas prices to fall.

Good for economic stability and good for providing incentives for the development of alternative energy technologies. Again it is striking to see how today with the lowest oil price in 12 years, declining oil prices are undercutting the use and diffusion of alternative sustainable energy technologies and of course not providing any incentives to a less fossil fuel behaviour. Another policy advice which can be thrown in the dustbin.

Complex implmentations

In short, once the complexity of the global implementation of such straightforward policy advice is taken into account, our disciplinary approach in addressing those issues loses much of its appeal, at some stage even representing a rather one-sided caricature of the problem addressed.

Last year I participated in an interesting open brainstorming debate in Cambridge with the Dalai Lama and Lord Rowan Williams, which provided, certainly for a simple economist like myself, a lot of inspiration, particularly in relation to the global nature of the challenges before us. While many conflicts might appear local in first instance, in second close reading they always appear in one way or another interlinked at a more global level. Indeed, as Lord Williams put it: “crises do not read maps”. Solutions can hence not be found in local or national policy settings, and for sure not in isolating or protecting one selves. 

Furthermore, as our societies grow materially richer they seem to become obsessed with fear, through (social) media even become addicted to fear.  Fear which leads to habits, to individual, sometimes even corporate, inaction and to the accumulation of physical wealth beyond what can be reasonably consumed in a life span. In short, the ultimate paradox of individual wealth is best illustrated today by the gated, fenced, secured environment in which one finds one selves locked with everything… but security. As the Dalai Lama put it, ultimately security for myself and for my neighbour are inseparable: “Elsewhere is here”.

Dalai Lama also in HE

One can, I would claim, detect similar trends in our academic world: career fear leading to an addiction to disciplinary recognition, obsession with the search for peer assessment of excellence, performance measures based on well-established norms and habits. Yet most of the global challenges mentioned earlier on ask for much more. “Elsewhere is here” also in research and science.

“Elsewhere” does not in other words refer just to a geographical dimension, but also an intellectual one. To engage creativity from elsewhere in research as a habit braking tool, as the Dies lecture of today from Marc Post will, I’m sure illustrate. 

Let me give you in concluding my talk a rather concrete but again simple – I remain a simple economist! – proposal in how one could further contribute to habit braking creativity in research: having in each of our research labs, departments, research schools or institutes: an “artist in residence” participating fully in the support (or even research) activities within the lab but adding a different perspective. Maastricht University is uniquely placed to introduce such a model with the presence of the Conservatorium, the Jan van Eyck academy and the other arts institutes and programmes of Zuyd.

Ron Heeren, our university professor and Limburg Chair in the field of molecular imaging suggested e.g. to ask such an artist in residence to compose a symphony for cello and… mass-spectrometry whereby the specific sounds of the new LINK instruments in his research lab – the music of science – could be “linked” to the cello. Over the last months discussing this idea with colleagues, I have been struck by the creativity of ideas which emerge when reflecting further on the idea of artist in residence.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me use this opportunity to hopefully creatively challenge a Dies habit and that is the one of the Musical intermezzo. May I invite you to listen and watch a musical video from Playing for Change in which musicians from across the world participate connected through the Internet: a perfect illustration of the global nature of research and science. It should become, I would suggest, our “open science” hymn. 

It starts with a single street performer, Rodger Ridley on Santa Monica, California, the rest you will see.  And for those of you who have seen the video before, I added one twist…




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