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‘Don’t take academic freedom for granted’

‘Don’t take academic freedom for granted’ ‘Don’t take academic freedom for granted’ ‘Don’t take academic freedom for granted’ ‘Don’t take academic freedom for granted’

Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes

UM's 43rd anniversary: full of political statements

MAASTRICHT. Whether it was about the approaching Brexit, climate change, the school children demonstrating in Brussels, or the attack on the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest: never has Maastricht University's founding day celebration - the theme this time being Global Challenges - been so full of political statements.

Speaking of politics. Professor Michael Ignatieff, rector and president of the Central European University, and since Friday an honorary doctor of the UM, has found himself in quite a political storm the past few years. Academic freedom in Hungary is under tremendous pressure and CEU was (partly) driven from Budapest to Vienna by the Orban regime. “The attack on CEU was purely political,” says Ignatieff in the St. Jans Church. “The government never claimed that we failed in our education mission. This taught us that academic freedom is very difficult to maintain in regimes of purely arbitrary power.” Every time CEU defended itself, it was reproached for being political. “It is a dilemma: we are not political organisations, our job is not to challenge the government. We will weaken our authority if we do so.” So there was nothing left to do except continue with “a delicate balancing act that is to engage non-political politics defending our freedom, without being sucked into party politics, which would be fatal to our legitimacy.”

He personally feels that universities these days are more vulnerable than ever as a result of “populist anger of both sides of the political spectrum. We are not responsible for example for the huge income inequality, but do get blamed for it. We always thought that universities were a part of the solution, by giving as much access as possible to youths, but the populists consider us as part of the problem.” What can we do? Do as the UM does and try to connect with the region, don't withdraw in an ivory tower, but go out into the world.

Climate change

His fellow honorary doctor, Dr. Amitav Ghosh, an influential Indian writer and intellectual, pointed out “that the era of endless progress that we were once promised, is coming to an end.” Times of crisis are on the way, something that hasn't escaped the attention of thousands of school children in Europe who have taken to the streets the last few weeks, asking their leaders to do something about the climate crisis. Universities can't deny it either. Where global warming was first a subject for the natural and technical sciences, it has now become important to the humanities and arts. Usually the focus of scientific research lies in the future, Ghosh says, while knowledge of the past can be crucial in predicting what will happen. Also where it concerns the political and social impact of climate change. He referred to the minor ice age (late 15th to 18th century), in which only a slight change in temperature had huge consequences: droughts, diseases and wars. “In many ways, this is the future that lies ahead of us.” But there is hope, because which country flourished in this horrific period? Exactly, the Netherlands. “So we can only hope that here in Holland once again you will take the initiative and help lead the world forward.” With the UM at the front.  


President of Maastricht University, Martin Paul, who participated in the seminar Bridges over Brexit that morning and who previously spoke out against the Brexit, emphasised once again that the European knowledge region should know no limits. In a time when it is not always clear to him whether he is watching a debate in the House of Commons or The Walking Dead, British and European universities must make a choice: “Watching the events from the sidelines or taking responsibility to secure our academic principles and protect the academic citizens of Europe: our staff and students.” Together with the University of York, the UM chooses the latter: they are going to work together intensively.

Influence us

The keynote speaker for the afternoon, the Dutch minister of Foreign Trade and Development Aid, Sigrid Kaag, called upon youths to make themselves be heard. “Your input is essential, influence us, and lose no time.” She also harped on that education was of great importance; at the moment large groups of children, especially in war zones, are deprived of it. “Education is a way of escaping poverty,” but often it is also prepares the way for standing up for human rights.  “This has nothing to do with left-wing or right-wing agendas, this is about humanity.” The minister announced that she would appoint a special youth ambassador, who will stand up for youths who have very little perspective in Sahel, the Horn of Africa, the Middle East and North Africa.

No political agenda

Last but not least, rector Rianne Letschert - acting as announcer and backed up by informative, short videos - pointed out that these global challenges required civilians “who are engaged, feel socially responsible” and “who are internationally literate”. Three important issues that she believes tie in with “global citizen education” in which “inclusiveness, sustainability and qualities such as empathy, integrity, curiosity, courage and resilience” are very important. The new, still to be set up, bachelor's programme of Global Studies, in which all six Maastricht faculties (a novelty) will collaborate, wants to deliver graduates who are going to work on solutions for the major problems in the world.

Letschert remarked that some regard such a study programme as a left-wing hobby. Nothing could be further from the truth, she argued last Friday. “I hope you don’t mind my stressing once again: UM has no political agenda. We are a safe haven for all political colours, religions, nationalities and cultures.” But, she continued, UM wants its students to become internationally oriented citizens. “In fact, that’s what we proudly stand for. When universities no longer articulate the values they stand for, as a way of preventing any criticism of political bias, everything becomes flat and grey.” To conclude with: “So yes, we are and will remain a European university with a global outlook, whatever the prevailing public opinion and however ticklish the political underbelly.”





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