Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes
Opening academic year
Could it have been intended as a service to the female professors and rector? A small gesture to help them navigate the cobblestones in their stilettos? Last Monday afternoon, the Minderbroedersberg was draped for the first time in a long green carpet. Well-intentioned, perhaps, but not particularly effective: now there was no way at all to steer a high heel safely away from the gaps in the paving, and the carpet itself lacked the structural integrity to stop one from sinking into it. Fortunately, no ankles were sprained as the procession made its way to the Jesuit monastery, where the academic year was set to kick off.
The ceremony was held in the big lecture hall, whose stony atmosphere – the average crematorium would be cosier – is no match for the Vrijthof theatre (currently being renovated) or the St Janskerk (too small). And with a disproportionately small podium to boot, it was a matter of making do. For singer Aïcha Cherif, who performed a beautiful number of her own and later gave a scorching rendition of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy accompanied by a two-person band, it was all she could do to avoid plopping her microphone stand down on the toes of the VIPs in the first row.
If the builders get their skates on, next year’s proceedings should be able to take place again in their old surroundings at the Vrijthof. Hopefully with a bigger audience, too. Professors were noticeably thin on the ground this year, and among the rank and file, by no means all those who had registered for the occasion bothered to turn up. Before the ceremony there were more registrations than places; during it there were entire empty rows.
So what else was on the programme? In addition to the keynote speech by the Libyan-Canadian Alaa Murabit (see elsewhere in this issue) there were the usual segments: the student award and the Edmond Hustinx prize for science (see elsewhere), skilfully woven together by rector Rianne Letschert.
If the rector traditionally plays a small role during the opening of the academic year, the main role is reserved for the university president, Martin Paul. Unlike his counterparts around the country, Paul does not go in for political speeches. There were no sharp words about the government’s higher education policy, no urgent calls to the parties trying to form a cabinet, no complaints about waning university funding. Instead he stuck to the official theme of the day: can academics change the world?
A theme that, judging from his and other speeches, was not overly tractable. After all, the simple answer is that they already do, every day. For wasn’t it academics who invented the internet, developed the atomic bomb, introduced antibiotics?
Indeed, Paul had noticeable trouble finding a thread to pull. We’re living in dramatic times, he said. The world has many problems, and thanks to globalisation everybody has to deal with them – so what can the university do? His answer was as simple as it is obvious. What the university always does: provide education and perform research. The traditional, core tasks, in other words. Certain social themes deserve special attention, of course, particularly sustainability. UM is already working hard to this end; Paul devoted the second half of his speech to this topic, and went so far as to suggest it has even become “part of our DNA”. This claim is not so farfetched, providing we take the broadly formulated United Nations sustainability goals as our point of departure. These revolve around health, nutrition, education, gender equality, peace and justice. UM is already active in some of these areas and is, Paul promised, planning to become even more so.
So what can – and should – academics do? This question needs to be understood largely in a practical sense, Paul said: how do we go about tackling things? He turned the spotlight on students and staff who are putting their knowledge into practice and doing undeniably good things. Here the audience was treated to the sight of Chemelot researcher Maikel Beerens and his robot having a chat so nervous and clumsy it was ultimately amusing. Beerens’s company Xilloc is doing genuinely impressive work, producing custom-made titanium 3D implants that can be used, among other things, to give a shattered skull a new exterior. To drive home this point, a patient popped up on video to assure the audience that without this implant, he would be dead by now.
The floodgates were now open: on rolled one video after the other hailing the success of UM researchers and students, followed by clips of the mayor, the Provincial governor and even the director of the Natural History Museum, all wheeled out to stress once again what an indispensable role UM plays in the city and the region.
That’s how the university entered the new academic year last Monday: full of praise for itself.