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University historian Pieter Slaman: ‘I can point to valuable constants and experiments that went too far’

As University historian, Pieter Slaman researches the University’s past, but he’s equally interested in its present. ‘It’s useful to be familiar with issues from the past. Not to be rooted in the past because some developments from history are things you definitely don’t want to repeat.’

Slaman has some big shoes to fill. His predecessor is Willem Otterspeer, who retired in 2016 but is still busy writing books. The two have been covering the University’s history together for some time already. Slaman studied History and European Union Studies in Leiden. As a student he could already be found rooting around in the Academy Building archives. As student assistant he studied the 20th century archives there for Otterspeer’s fourth volume on the history of Leiden University, Groepsportret met Dame. After graduating Slaman conducted his PhD research into the history of student grants and loans in the Netherlands. Last year he published De Glazen Toren, a book about Leiden University in the period from 1970 to 2020. 

Pieter Slaman on the Rapenburg canal
‘The University is a community with a common culture. If we don’t share this, we end up working at cross purposes.’

Congratulations on your new post. What is your task as university historian?

‘It’s important to keep our history alive. The University is a community with a common culture. If we don’t share this, we end up working at cross purposes and our loyalty is soon limited. I can remind us of valuable constants in our history that we can fall back on, like being open to new ideas and to outsiders. We have a way of discussing things that is based on big differences but also on mutual respect and a sense of community. Of course other universities may also have these academic values, but with us there is also the fact that Leiden was a state university until 1998 and is based on religious neutrality. That really is different from VU Amsterdam, for instance, and Katholieke Universiteit Nijmegen [Catholic University of Nijmegen, today’s Radboud University, ed.] We have a strong focus on the public sector and give short shrift to dogma, and that’s how we need to remain. I see that as my role.’

Dr Pieter Slaman (36) has been university historian since 1 January 2022. He works at two faculties: Humanities and Governance and Global Affairs. His appointment is funded in part with a grant from the  LUF’s A.E. Cohen Fund. This named fund supports research into and publications about the history of Leiden University. Adolf Emile Cohen (1913-2004) was Professor of Medieval History and Rector Magnificus of Leiden. If you would like to contribute to our research and teaching, read about the LUF to find out how.

Leiden has always been a fairly traditional university, hasn’t it?

‘With openness I mainly mean being open to ideas. From a social perspective Leiden had a fairly elite reputation for a long time, which meant that middle-class students were less likely to choose to study here. In recent years the University has been trying to attract more diverse groups. In the 1930s we had Hans Flu, a Surinamese professor of tropical medicine, and there were female professors too. They were welcomed to the community at the time. The question is why it took so long for them to have successors.

‘I advise the Executive Board on matters relating to the University’s history, such as academic ceremonies and developing a new strategic plan. It’s useful to be familiar with issues from the past. Not to be rooted in the past because some developments from history are things you definitely don’t want to repeat.’ 

‘It’s not just about today’s community; we are part of a much larger group of people who travel through time together.’

Can you give an example?

‘Todays big issues have their roots in the 20th century. Take the overheated research competition at universities. Leiden itself more or less introduced competitive research funding in the 1970s and it became national policy from the 1980s. This meant we no longer had the power to put on the brakes when that became necessary. The policy often follows the practice. Let’s not constantly point the finger at The Hague but also look at how we ourselves can give shape to the new systems we’d like to have.’ 

For a historian you are surprisingly interested in current affairs.

‘Definitely, I’m concerned about the situation. At the moment an unreasonable amount of time is spent angling for grants. This means that researchers often do their research in their free time after their teaching duties. The University should have more of its own funds. We have to realise that it’s not just about the community of today. To put it more philosophically: we belong to a much larger group of people who travel through time together. What we do now affects where the journey takes us, and we then have to realise where we are coming from.’

To what extent did Leiden respond differently to the occupation? Photo: Cortège at the reopening of the University in September 1945 (National Archive)

Are there Leiden traditions that need updating, like the annual Cleveringa tradition, for instance?

‘I’m definitely in favour of continuing to hold up Rudolph Cleveringa and Ben Telders as an example. They stood up for their Jewish colleagues. We need inspiring people who show that they are good for the community. But we should make sure that we don’t place these heroes on such a high pedestal that people today think that they’d never dare do such a thing. We should show them that resistance can be in small and practical things, but that by no means everyone did resist. There were also staff at the University who took another turn and joined the Dutch National Socialists. And there was the large group in the middle who didn’t clearly state their opposition but just tried to carry on and survive.’  

What are your plans for the coming years?

‘I’m working on two books. Willem and I are writing a book in which we compare the reactions of the Dutch universities to the German occupation. There is an impression that other universities were less courageous and principled than Leiden. Is that true? And I want to write a book about the notion of Civitas Academica: in the post-war period until around 1970 there was an aspiration in Leiden to form a close academic community without partitions such as faculties. What can we learn from this? For today’s university with its 32,000 students and 7,000 staff members, it is important to give better shape to the sense of community. This also makes it easier to conduct the academic debate. And there are enough projects for the longer term, such as the University’s 450th anniversary in 2025 and how to make the Academic Historical Museum collection more accessible.’

And when is it time for a book about the University during the pandemic?

‘I’d like to start on that in about five years’ time. It’s a bit soon yet. We’re still in the middle of it. Last autumn a book with a series of interviews was published, Plots stond het Leidse leven stil, and that’s already a fantastic historical source. It shows how different people’s experiences have been. The circumstances have been the same for everyone, but people have reacted so differently to them. Some people love the lockdowns, whereas others stop functioning completely, and others again are somewhere between the two extremes. These personal differences make the history human, from 1575 to today.’

Text: Linda van Putten
Photos of Pieter Slaman: Monique Shaw

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