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Dies: in celebration of adventure

Dies: in celebration of adventure

Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes

MAASTRICHT. With the columns and the vaulted ceiling lit up in show-stopping bright purple, you couldn’t help but sense that this Dies Natalis – the celebration of Maastricht University’s 40th anniversary at the St Janskerk on Monday afternoon – was going to be different. Not least because of the liberal use of websites like YouTube.

It was his last big chance for a party. The Dies is traditionally organised by the rector, and Luc Soete (1950) has been on the job for almost four years now. Taken together with UM’s anniversary, it was the ideal opportunity to do something special. If you had to choose one key word for the event, it would be hard to go past adventure.

What started with the purple lighting carried over to the content of the lectures, not to mention the musical interludes. Usually these are provided by smart ensembles playing live ditties, invariably climaxing with Beethoven’s familiar hymn Ode to joy (“All men become brothers”). This time Soete had something else in mind. He mashed together an intriguing collage of street musicians all over the world playing versions of Stand by me and had them beamed from the internet up onto the big screens scattered throughout the church. But this wasn’t the only surprise: popping up in the flesh halfway through the song was a trombonist from the South Netherlands Philharmonic.

And Beethoven? He featured too, in the film of a flash mob that started with a lone bass player on a Catalan square, joined by a cellist, a violinist and eventually an entire orchestra, conductor and all. It was the vocals, though, that really blew the roof off the St Janskerk. Having gone unnoticed among the ranks of the audience and even the professors, all of a sudden the members of the university choir rose from their seats to belt out the anthem.

The theme of adventure, of straying off the beaten path, was also reflected in the lectures by Soete himself and by Mark Post, best known as the inventor of the artificial hamburger (“I’m not though”) and brought in to deliver this year’s Dies lecture. Soete focused on the role of academia in contributing to the public debate and solving global issues in society. We must not allow ourselves to be led by fear, he said: fear among academics of not being acknowledged by their peers; fear of crossing disciplinary borders. In a final flourish, Soete unveiled a new proposal for the university: the introduction of an artist in residence. With the conservatorium and the Jan van Eyck Academy on our doorstep there’s no shortage of artists in Maastricht, he pointed out. “Let’s get them into our laboratories and institutes – they’ll give us a different perspective on science.”

Post, too, called for more adventure in academia. He is no stranger to that path himself, having thrown himself into the development of cultured meat and made a public spectacle of the discovery. The academic world had been less than amused by all the media hype, he said. But true science, he argued, involves living on the edge. Too much research is hypothesis driven, and what falls outside the scope of these hypotheses ends up being neglected. So an open mind and an unbiased approach are crucial: in scientific circles, according to Post, the art of pure observation does not receive the appreciation it deserves. Like Soete, he advocated bringing non-academics into the university. Not to let them decide on the research agenda – that would lead merely to the lowest common denominator – but to give researchers a fresh perspective and the opportunity to throw open their doors to the wider world.

The final, amusing touch to this Dies celebration were the video portraits of former rectors. No one could claim these men lack the gift of the gab, but in English they came across as less than eloquent – whatever happened to subtitles? The interviews were spliced into a recording that recently surfaced of the official signing by Queen Juliana of the university’s founding charter in 1976. The film can be found on the UM website.

Photographs by Jos Nelissen of the founding of the Rijksuniversiteit Limburg, UM’s predecessor, are now on display in an exhibition in the Minderbroedersberg organised by the historian Annemieke Klijn. A book featuring interviews by Klijn with key players in the 40 year history of the university is set to be released in late 2016.

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