How do you organise an opening of the academic year where the audience doesn’t fall asleep? When students proposed organising this year’s programme themselves, Maastricht University president Martin Paul, never a big fan of these sorts of festivities, jumped at the chance. That would liven things up, he figured.
He was right. During the ceremony in the afternoon, a thirteen-strong orchestra accompanied the introduction of every speaker as though they were about to perform a death-defying trapeze act. The morning session, in the Aula of the Minderbroedersberg, showcased a well-oiled presentation and slick videos of the new Strategic Programme 2017–21. Two legal scholars, Mark Kawakami and Catalina Goanta, chatted to one another like something out of an American-style talk show, joined by a ‘digital moderator’ who intervened from time to time via the big screen. The gimmick of the cross-talk between live and virtual presenters literally went over the heads of the audience and thus fell slightly flat. Fortunately, comic relief came in the form of two law students who gave a PechaKucha-style presentation: twenty slides, twenty seconds of commentary per slide. The Scot Ben Thomson stole the show by comparing every animal that was flashed up on screen with family members back home.
The Strategic Programme was touched upon in a number of talks, but otherwise didn’t get much of a look-in. “It was funny, but I did expect something more substantive”, sighed one guest afterwards. “It is an academic opening, right?”
The last part of the session saw the three members of the Executive Board crammed together on a modestly proportioned sofa, each answering a set question. The first question was directed at the new rector Rianne Letschert, who took the opportunity, just as she had during the formal handover of the rectorship few days prior – to draw attention to her main priority: “getting more women and more people from ethnic minorities into leading positions at UM.” “That’s not going to take another ten years”, she added rhetorically.
In the afternoon, during the official opening in the Theater aan het Vrijthof, the first practical consequence of this new diversity at the top was on display: a rector at the head of the cortège, negotiating the descent on the uneven and therefore tricky stairway not with a nonchalant clatter but in concentrated fashion, eyes fixed on the floor. That’s how it goes with stilettos.
The grand entrance by the professors was all drum rolls and fanfare. Gone was the deathly silent funeral procession of previous years, replaced by a deafening, swinging welcome by the orchestra in front of the stage. But when UM president Martin Paul took to the stage, he struck a more sober note. The university now has a solid Strategic Programme that sets out our plans for the future, he said, “and that is far more important than all those slogans that we’re “leading” in this and “leading” in that. Enough of that. And all those rankings too – they’re not so important either.”
The sentiment was echoed in the closing act of the afternoon, when a somewhat shabby ‘Queen Juliana’ – played by the director Ivo van Megen in drag – appeared in a puff of smoke, sang a wistful French aria and even briefly took a seat behind the (original) table where the real queen once signed the founding charter of the Rijksuniversiteit Limburg, the predecessor of UM. Lack of respect? An offence against sovereign dignity? Apparently not – the audience responded with enthusiasm, just as they did to the entire afternoon programme, including the presentation of awards and the speech by the brand new UCM dean Professor Mathieu Segers.
Finally, the official opening of the academic year was heralded by forty students around the hall armed with small bells. As Paul, a German native, put it: “Because if I do it myself it always sounds a bit like Sepp Blatter opening a FIFA event.”