On secret plans and the love of dachshunds

Anniversary book in sixteen pieces


MAASTRICHT. That Maastricht has a university at all, let alone one with a fairly solid reputation, is often said to be a miracle. For much of its history the Rijksuniversiteit Limburg (RL) (later Maastricht University, UM) was fighting an uphill battle, as the anniversary book given to all employees this week testifies once again.

The battle was fought against officials and politicians from The Hague who would have had no qualms seeing the budding university fail in the 1970s and even the 80s. After all, this would have resulted in considerable cost savings that otherwise had to be eked out through interminable negotiations. There was opposition, too, from other universities, mainly those in the south: Tilburg, Nijmegen, Eindhoven. They were up in arms the moment Maastricht unveiled its plans; either they had long been mulling over similar ideas, or they feared the competition would pose a threat to their existing study programmes. Eindhoven University of Technology was less than pleased with the plan to establish a Science College, Nijmegen was utterly unhappy about the prospect of psychology in Maastricht, and Tilburg, following cutbacks to its own literature department, was rattled by the plans in the field of cultural studies (and it was not alone).

Thus Gerard de Vries, engineer and professor of the philosophy of science, worked in the utmost secrecy on the plan that would ultimately lead to Maastricht’s Arts and Culture programme. De Vries had been brought in from Groningen in 1987 to join the soon-to-be-established Faculty of General Sciences; less a genuine faculty than a collection of disciplines (or ‘basic provisions’, as they were then known), tasked with providing the existing faculties (medicine, health sciences, law and economics) with ‘service education’: philosophy and history, and later also computer science and maths. It was the sort of creative construction the university has always been known for. But De Vries was to come up against a few surprises in Maastricht – and not just the sight of priests and monks still walking the streets in their habits (one didn’t see such a thing in Groningen, and De Vries was not a religious man). What really rubbed him up the wrong way was the declaration by Karl Dittrich, a member of the Executive Board, that he had no idea what business a philosopher could possibly have in Maastricht. Add to this the Board’s notable lack of enthusiasm for the General Sciences faculty; it was the University Council that insisted on it (in those days the Council still had that kind of influence). This was the atmosphere that De Vries stepped into.

All this is described in the new anniversary book, Het Maastrichts experiment, over de uitdagingen van een jonge universiteit 1976-2016 (The Maastricht experiment: On the challenges of a young university, 1976–2016). The book was written by Annemieke Klijn, historian at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences – the faculty eventually established by none other than De Vries.


And so he found himself languishing in a ‘fake’ faculty that, with no students or study programmes of its own, was destined for a short life. Something had to change. An initiative was already underway, supported by a number of young researchers such as Tannelie Blom and Maarten Doorman, to develop a study programme in Arts and Culture (Kunst- & Cultuurwetenschappen) in collaboration with the local academies of fine arts and drama. But De Vries opposed the idea. University and higher vocational education were, to his mind, just too different. Klijn stops short of suggesting that De Vries actively sabotaged the plans, but it is clear he was no eager partner in what was ultimately a doomed initiative.

Instead he concentrated on his own plans, in league with the new university president Loek Vredevoogd. It was Vredevoogd who insisted on the utmost secrecy to avoid stoking the resistance of other universities and later also the education ministry. The latter, after all, would have to give its consent if the plans were to have any chance of getting off the ground. De Vries took this imperative quite literally: he hatched his plans in the privacy of his own home and kept even his own secretary in the dark, not to mention any other staff. In mid-1989 he sprang the proposal that would ultimately lead to the Arts and Culture programme upon his colleagues, who didn’t hesitate to give him a piece of their mind. It was enough to drive one Pieter Mostert, a philosopher and one of the first employees of the new university, to quit his post. Not only were the plans developed in secret (did De Vries not trust his own staff?) and then pushed through without proper discussion, but Mostert also had strong substantive objections. Unlike the earlier Kunst- & Cultuurwetenschappen programme, the proposal had little in the way of art: the conception of culture was too narrow, he felt – and he wasn’t the only one – and had shifted too far in the direction of technology, science and society. In spite of these objections, the proposal was implemented – and it would not be going too far to say the programme continues in this direction today.

And thus Maastricht’s cultural scientists were engaged in a robust conflict around 1990. Unfortunately, Klijn goes into little detail about the debate, the direction of the programme and the ensuing development of the faculty. As regards Mostert, she limits her discussion to his criticism of the ‘autocratic’ behaviour of De Vries.

Debates and conflicts

Things are similarly smoothed over elsewhere in the book, as will be clear to readers already familiar with at least some of the history of the RL/UM. Given the young age of the university, this goes for many employees. In the chapters on the medical faculty, later on health sciences and others, the debates and conflicts are touched upon, but not always enough to truly get a sense of just how intensely they raged at the time, how the affected the atmosphere and what impact they had on the direction of the faculty and university.

The chapter on the social psychiatrist Marius Romme (the book is divided into sixteen chapters, each revolving around a central ‘builder’) is a good example. Klijn mentions the controversy surrounding the awarding of a double doctorate in 1983 – but ultimately it never happened. The fuss had to do with a long-running dispute over the building of a new academic hospital. The powerful medical dean Co Greep was unequivocally in favour, whereas Romme and many others, including students, stuck to the original idea that the Maastricht medical faculty should train ‘different’ doctors, focusing particularly on general practitioners. Clinical practice could, in their view, easily be accommodated at existing hospitals.

For or against a new hospital: it divided the fledgling university, and in this climate two of Romme’s PhD candidates wanted to defend a single thesis which was critical of psychiatric hospital care. It was to be the first dissertation in the social sciences at the RL. The ceremony was arranged and the bitterballen all but ordered when, at the instigation of Greep and the then university rector Coen Hemker, the proceedings were cancelled. A hastily convened committee had established that the thesis was methodologically below par. On the committee were academics such as Hans Philipsen, who, as professor of methods and techniques of social science research in Leiden, was hardly unfamiliar with the field. Then there was UM’s first female professor, the sociologist Riet Drop, who described the thesis in the university’s previous anniversary book from 2001 as “truly crap”. She went on to add that Romme had little knowledge of academic research, and that the same could be said of many professors from those early days.

How does Klijn approach this issue, which even made the national press? She correctly locates the affair in the context of the hospital debate, but the atmosphere, the harshness of the conflict, the indisputable verdict that Romme was way off target – all this is lacking. As a result, the still aggrieved Romme is again given a platform for his claim that the thesis was rejected for political reasons by the ‘hospital lobby’.


In her long and fascinating introduction Klijn presents the book as ‘oral history’, primarily based on interviews. This method allows for a petite histoire, an impression of the prevailing climate, all those random and often personal things that can have such an impact on the course of history. The book includes too few such anecdotes; despite her professed principle, the author relies heavily on traditional written sources. But one nice anecdote deserves mention here. It involves the admirably successful ‘builder’ Louis Boon (psychology, University College, Science Programme, University College Venlo) and his eternal love of dogs, specifically those of the short-legged variety: the dachshund. He often took his pint-sized playmates to the office and was known to let himself be lovingly licked under the bearded chin during meetings. As it happened, he shared this love of dachshunds with the president of a certain national advisory body, whose consent was needed to launch the psychology programme. The plans for this programme had met with vigorous opposition around the country. But this shared love “created a bond”, the author suggests, and swung the pendulum in Boon and the university’s favour.

Commemorative volume

As Klijn is the first to acknowledge in her introduction, the new anniversary book is by no means the definitive history of the university. Is it not time, she asks, to write a genuinely rigorous history? Clearly, the answer must be yes. There are few publications beyond P.J. Knegtmans’s thorough but rather dry work on the founding of the RL, De Medische Faculteit Maastricht. Een nieuwe universiteit in een herstructureringsgebied, 1969-1984. The anniversary book of 2001 was a compilation of contributions by many authors with very different styles. People are more inclined to approach such a project as a sort of commemorative volume, Klijn says. This ought to change. With its 50th anniversary approaching, a relatively healthy financial situation and the economy picking up, the university would do well to start looking for a historian who can tell the whole story from beginning to end.

Naturally, the impetus must come from the Executive Board. Klijn was originally commissioned by the Arts and Heritage Committee; only later did the Board get involved. Further, the Board ought to compel everyone who is asked to cooperate to do so in a timely manner, on pain of losing their Christmas bonus. Klijn’s selection of informants in this book may be open to criticism, but this could in part have been avoided if potential subjects had been willing to provide the required information. “Not everyone was open to a dialogue about the past”, she writes. Now that is a real scandal.




On secret plans and the love of dachshunds
Author: Wammes Bos
Categories: News, Science,
Tags: 40 years,anniversary book

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