After the ceremony, during the reception in the lobby of the Vrijthof theatre, Professor Nanne de Vries is still panting. Why was he in such a hurry to present the Dissertation Award, the final item on the agenda of the Dies celebration? “I had to do it fast!” he bursts out. “We were already running late and the government people gave me just a couple of minutes to say my thing, because the princess still had to speak with some students and then be back in the car. Everything to the minute.”
“I was asked to say a word of thanks”, says Jess Bier, the winner of the award, “so I’d prepared a few words. But on stage Nanne said we had to get off as fast as possible. So no speech for me.”
That’s what happens when the university’s anniversary party is attended by a former queen (now princess) and an acting head of state: protocol wins the day. E-tickets and IDs were thoroughly checked on the way in, with the first checkpoint at the entrance to the theatre, the second a few metres further up, and the third and final hurdle down the stairs to the cloakroom.
Once the hall is full – besides the VIP front section, which is reserved for the honoured guests, the cortège of professors and the prize winners – the waiting begins. At quarter past three, the screen above the podium suddenly lights up with images of Princess Beatrix emerging from a large black government car and being greeted by the governor of Limburg and the mayor of Maastricht. Then the screen turns dark again and the audience is left guessing what will happen next. It’s the grand entrance of Beatrix together with the president of Germany, Joachim Gauck. They greet one another, not for the first time; in 2012 she presented him with a special distinction at a Liberation Day event in Breda.
The princess knows the Vrijthof theatre, too, including its treacherous, uneven staircase descending to the hall. Standing at the top with Gauck, she whispers in German: “Careful.” “Yes, yes”, the president replies. Mobile phones light up in the audience; everyone wants a photo of this historic moment.
With the guests finally in their places, the photographers and TV people are given two minutes to snap away before being gently but firmly being directed to the side. Next the cortège of professors descends from the stairs. One reveals as he passes by, laughing, that he learnt from his wife how to avoid a stumble by elegantly lifting his academic dress.
The Dies celebration is to the rector magnificus what the opening of the academic year is to the university president. For rector Rianne Letschert, it is her first Dies in office – and one in a class of its own. But as the audience can see on the big screen, she doesn’t bat an eyelid, greeting all the guests with due respect and at speed. During the preparations, she lived up to the modest reputation for wilfulness she has built up in her six months in office, insisting that rather than making a long speech herself, she would turn the spotlight on students. Specifically, two Syrian refugee students, Sally Haj Khalaf Allah and Hoseb Assadour. They each say a few words, echoing Letschert’s earlier speech. We must not be afraid of the unknown; the world, Europe, this country, this university will only thrive with more diversity. “Talk to one another, rather than about each other”, Haj Khalaf Allah says. Assadour tells the tale of his escape from Syria, recalling his joy when he realised he could see the Mediterranean Sea from the police station (him being illegal) in Greece, for he had made it to the safety of Europe. “I’m not a number, I’m a human being.”
Then it’s over to the UM president Martin Paul, who will present an honorary doctorate to the German president. His president – Paul is himself German and, out of politeness, gives his speech in German. He praises Gauck’s lifelong struggle for freedom and willingness to bear responsibility: Freiheit und Verantwortung. “That’s what we want to teach our students here too.” It will be a recurring theme this afternoon: the world looks none too rosy, many people are anxious, and their fear tends to manifest itself in less-than-pleasant (at least for this sort of audience) political currents. Paul makes mention of this, Letschert did so earlier, and Gauck will refer to it too. But a day like today, Paul says, is about hope. At this, he drapes the cappa around a broadly smiling Gauck and declares him an honorary doctor.
When the ceremony has run almost fifteen minutes overtime, a number of guests hurry outside. Under the watchful eyes of the press and the Maastricht public waiting to catch a glimpse of the departing Princess Beatrix, they station themselves at the entrance to the theatre and light up their cigarettes; the dean of the SBE and the vice rector looking pontifical in their gowns, the head of marketing and communications in civilian clothes. It’s been nice.