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President Martin Paul: “We collaborate with institutions, not governments”

MAASTRICHT. How should Maastricht University deal with ‘bad’ countries where the regimes in power do not exactly share Western humanitarian values? What should UM’s stance be when it comes to cooperating with institutions in Russia, say, or Saudi Arabia – countries that have increasingly been coming under fire in recent months?

This issue was recently raised in the University Council and continues to remain topical, with the introduction this week of a cooperation agreement under the auspices of the European Union with institutions in Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Bulgaria. The aim of the agreement is to strengthen higher education in those countries; UM is to play a coordinating role.

The university has long worked with the Saudis, for instance in the project to train Saudi medical students in Maastricht and in the form of long-term consulting relationships with various universities. UM has also had close ties for some time with the Russians, including with universities in Moscow and Siberia; indeed, this formed part of the university’s strategic programme over the last five years.

Meanwhile, the relationship between the West and Putin’s Russia in particular has deteriorated dramatically. But, UM president Martin Paul explained to the University Council, “our principle is that we collaborate with institutions and people, not with governments”. The key here is respect for human rights and especially freedom of expression. Paul cited the example, around five years ago, of an institute to be led by UM in Oman where objections were raised in the country against planned courses on human rights. “In the end we decided not to go through with the project.”

When asked, Paul acknowledges the dilemma: support for institutions can be interpreted as support for and legitimisation of a national regime. Nonetheless, he defends the cooperation policy, pointing to his own German background. “We’re now hearing talk of a new Cold War – but I grew up during the real Cold War. I switched from the University of Heidelberg to Berlin in 1992, after the fall of the Wall. There were already close cultural and academic ties between West and East, and we were able to build on that, which was very important.” Paul also recalls conversations he had, with academic authorities both in Russia and (as FHML dean) in Saudi Arabia: “They saw and see the connections with the West as an opportunity to open the door to different voices and different values in their country. Anyone in Russia who watches television sees only propaganda.”

Should the balance threaten to tip towards a legitimising role, project organisers can always consult with the Dutch government, says Paul: “We coordinate our policies with the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Education, Culture & Science.”

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