MAASTRICHT. Four honorary doctorates will be awarded at the coming celebration of the university’s founding day. Remarkably, half of them are for social rather than academic merits: Frans Timmermans and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. Another novelty is the fact that students nominated the latter.
With this choice, the new policy on honorary doctorates introduced by rector Luc Soete is given a powerful follow-up. In 2013, it was the DSM senior executive Feike Sijbesma who received an honorary doctorate for something other than a academic merit, for the first time after more than twenty years. All that time, this university had been averse from so-called ‘social’ honorary doctorates. The last along that line was awarded in 1989, to South African anti-apartheid activist reverend Beyers Naudé. His was based on the formula “extremely exceptional merits in general”, which was then a secondary basis for an honorary doctorate. The Executive President at the time, Loek Vredevoogd, witnessed this with gnashing teeth and then tried hard to make social or political honorary doctorates impossible by minimising the reasons of awarding them. This was also to avoid a fiasco such as occurred at Utrecht University. It was there that Winnie Mandela was given an honorary doctorate and not too long afterwards it appeared that she supported a gang of heavies who did not flinch from using extreme violence and even murder. In addition, Winnie did not have much of a link with the world of academe.
But Vredevoogd did not manage to convince everyone at the UM; so a compromise formula was created, which is still in force today: “A person who has, directly or indirectly made an extraordinary contribution to university education and research, in scientific, cultural or social terms.” This made it more difficult but evidently not impossible to honour those who are not scientists. And example was Sijbesma, and now there are member of the European Commission Frans Timmermans and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.
It appears that the role of the Executive Board, and in particular that of the present rector, is decisive. Soete feels strongly about the social embedding and nature of the university; he sees honorary doctorates as a suitable instrument for this purpose.
The influence of UM administrators on honorary doctorates has been greater than ever this year. Soete himself is honorary supervisor of Jimmy Wales, who was put forward by the students from the University Council; this is also new for the UM. The name Frans Timmermans was even dropped at the Faculty of FASoS by Soete, where professor Sophie Vanhoonacker (Administrative Governance) was subsequently approached to be honorary supervisor. Later, this was extended to the Faculty of Law (human rights) and professor Aalt Willem Heringa, both of whom had had something to do with Timmermans in the past.
Timmermans is being honoured, says Vanhoonacker, “because he is one of the few Dutch people who dares to stick his neck out for Europe, and because of his continuous attempts to explain to the citizens why Europe is important”.
Of the students’ candidate Jimmy Wales, it can be said, more so than in the case of Timmermans, that he ‘contributed to education and research’. This is expressed in the reasons that the students themselves supplied: “Jimmy Wales founded a platform that has greatly changed the lives of students. A study environment without this information source is no longer imaginable.”
The students’ candidate will most likely become a tradition, rector Soete explained. He got the idea from Hasselt University, where the student council had recently been allowed to put forward a candidate for an honorary doctorate. Soete: “I introduced the idea here, the students in the University Council named four candidates, of whom Wales was number one.”
In addition to Timmermans and Wales, the scientists Michelle Craske (nominated by the Faculty of Psychology and Neurosciences) en Wolfgang Wahlster (by the Faculty of Humanities & Sciences) will also be awarded an honorary doctorate.
Craske (1959, Tasmania), professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of California, carried out innovative research in the field of exposure treatments, says professor Anita Janssen. These are treatments in which patients with anxiety disorders are exposed with increasing intensity to whatever they are afraid of.
“In the old model, it was a matter of using exposure and waiting until the anxiety ebbed,” says Janssen, professor of Experimental Psychology. “Craske has shown that the nature of the mechanism is much more cognitive and that patients need to be convinced that their convictions are incorrect, for example that spiders do not attack or bite. To emasculate the patient’s assumptions, Craske therefore asks a lot more questions before and during the treatment. It has by now been proven that the therapy works better when carried out this way.”
Wolfgang Wahlster (1953), put forward by the department of Knowledge Engineering, is a professor of Computer Sciences at Saarland University and scientific director of the German research centre for artificial intelligence. He has written many articles and eight books about ‘language technology’ and intelligent user interfaces, the (on-screen) look of software.
Wahlster has a wide range of prizes to his name, including two honorary doctorates (from the universities of Linköping and Darmstadt) and the prestigious German Future Award in 2001.
Wammes Bos en Maurice Timmermans