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How do you manage a university that has no clear owner?

Universities are there for future generations; how can we make sure we pass them on intact? Leiden academics responded to the address given by Cambridge professor Stefan Collini at the opening of the academic year.


Protecting our inheritance

Stefan Collini in debat met Leidse wetenschappers in de Lorentzzaal.
Stefan Collini in debate with Leiden academics in the Lorentz Room

We are not the owners, but the trustees of an intellectual inheritance that we have to be careful to pass on to the coming generations. Leiden academics are in full agreement with Collini on that point. But his message does raise some questions, such as: How can we safeguard this inheritance in the face of such dangers as the free market and financiers who demand ‘useful’ research? Leiden University held a debate on these questions on 1 September in the Kamerlingh Onnes building.

‘Cherish the disciplines’

Collini: 'We moeten onze afzonderlijke disciplines koesteren'
Collini: 'We should cherish our individual disciplines'

Collini, Professor of Intellectual History in Cambridge, was modest in his approach: ‘I don't pretend to have the answers.’ But he did provide some food for thought to challenge current trends. He warned, for example, about the present fashion of clustering together separate disciplines within large institutes, that then receive funding for setting up multidisciplinary projects. In Collini’s opinion, we really should cherish our separate disciplines, because it is our colleagues in our own field who can best assess and fine-tune our work.

Decentralise decision-making

Thomas Fossen
Thomas Fossen

But how can a university best be managed if there is no clear owner? Lecturer in Philosophy Thomas Fossen believes that there should be more democracy in how the university is managed. Fossen is an active member of the New Leiden University, a group of students and staff who advocate a different type of university. Decentralise decision-making, was the idea put forward by Sandra Groeneveld, Professor of Public Sector Management.

Academics as managers

Collini is an advocate of academics as managers; they are the people who know best what is needed to make good research possible. But in Great Britain many managers fail to return to their original field, which means they lose contact with practice. After a couple of years of management tasks, they should return to academia, Collini believes. One of the reasons is that it is also useful for colleagues on the workfloor to hear from somebody who has been in management what goes on in the different echelons of management and what drives stakeholders and politicians.

Speak out in the media

De universiteit moet toegankelijk zijn voor iedereen, studentenaantallen en diploma’s bepalen de financiering. Hoe rijmt dat met het handhaven van een hoog niveau?, vraagt deze promovenda zich af.
The university has to be accessible for everyone; funding is based on student numbers and diplomas. How do we reconcile that with maintaining a high standard, was the question posed by this PhD candidate.

Collini emphasised that his fiery plea for less interference in research does not mean that academics can ignore society and politics. On the contrary: ‘We have to continue to speak out in the media about why our research is important and why it is in danger if those who provide the funding have too much influence.’





Communicate as honestly as possible

Frits Rosendaal
Frits Rosendaal

Frits Rosendaal, Professor of Clinical Epidemiology, joined Collini in calling upon his fellow academics to continue to continue the dialogue with society and to communicate as honestly as possible. ‘Make people proud of their universities and explain what we do and why. That doesn’t mean making exaggerated claims; we shouldn’t say, for example, that in a couple of years we will be able to cure cancer.’

More diversity

Yra van Dijk
Yra van Dijk

Society should be much better represented within the university, was the comment from Yra van Dijk, Professor of Modern Dutch Literature. We need more diversity, and that includes more women PhD candidates and professors – in hard numbers. It also applies to how we show ourselves to the outside world; we should make sure there are more female academics in our public appearances.

An evaluation system 'gone mad'

Several participants, such as Professor Paul Wouters, were critical of the evaluation system, that seems to have ‘gone mad’. Academic success is all too often measured purely on the number of publications and citations. The accreditation system also came under fire. Vice-Rector Simone Buitendijk believes Leiden University can have a strong role in persuading politicians that these systems need to be changed.

Ask the public for support

In conclusion, the leader of the debate, Casper de Jonge, commented: ‘I hope that this is not the end of the debate, but only the start. We have to engage in the public debate and carry on the discussion with our colleagues within the university. And it’s our duty to ask the public for support. Because the university and all that happens here – whether it’s research or teaching – is well worth defending.’


See also

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