Universiteit Leiden

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'Make room for empathy at the university'

Over recent years Leiden University has taken some significant steps forward in innovation in teaching and learning and in diversity. But there is still a lot to be done. These were the comments by governors, lecturers and scholars during the farewell seminar for Vice-Rector Simone Buitendijk on 27 June.

Buitendijk takes up her new position as Vice-Provost (Education) at Imperial College London on 1 August. This comes after five years as Vice-Rector of Leiden University, during which time she has been strongly committed to working towards a modern and inclusive university. Thanks to her commitment, the university has made significant advances, particularly in the areas of teaching and learning innovation and diversity among students and staff.


Judi Mesman, Scientific Director of the Institute of Education and Child Studies, showed in her speech that Leiden University is now far more closely associated with diversity than previously.

Awareness campaigns in recent years have helped. The portraits of men in the senate chamber were replaced by portraits of only women professors on International Women's Day, for example.  And the Honours Academy of Leiden University recently organised the Schilderswijk University, to give children from this deprived area in The Hague the oportunity to get to know the university.

Innovation in teaching and learning

Buitendijk has also left her mark in the area of innovation in teaching and learning.  'Leiden University has taken a pioneering role in recent years, particularly in the field of the digitisation of teaching,' commented Gideon Shimshon, Director of the Centre for Innovation. ‘With our Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) and Small Private Online Courses (SPOCs), we have reached students from all over the world. Some 500,000 people have followed one or more online courses via internet in the last few years. The advantage is that all these students have had the opportunity to get to know Leiden University at the same time.'  

Inclusive and contemporary

Even though important steps forward have been taken in the past five years, there is still a lot do if the university wants to become and remain an inclusive and contemporary institution. The number of women professors (currently 23 per cent) is an area that needs attention. And because the job market is constantly changing, more emphasis needs to be paid to helping young people develop future-proof skills and talents. 'Talent is a field full of different flowers, all of which need a different soil to be able to blossom,' is how Willemien den Ouden, former Dean of the Honours Academy expressed it.

‘Empathetic university’

The symposium was brought to a close by Buitendijk herself. In her farewell speech she called on colleagues to carry on along the present lines, to work together to develop an 'empathetic university'.  Buitendijk: ‘One good example of this is the diversity officer who has been driving diversity initiatives since 2014.' This role and other projects should ensure that university is oriented towards the outside world. Buitendijk: ‘If we don't do that, we are creating differences and distance, and that's the biggest obstacle to building a safe and honest world for everyone. Make room for empathy; it's the best route to bridging differences and combating inequality.' 

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