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Behind the scenes: Els van den Berg and Janka Stoker

Rich academic traditions, a forward-looking outlook and strong ties with society: chair of the Anniversary Board Janka Stoker and Anniversary coordinator Els van den Berg discuss this year’s anniversary celebrations at the University of Groningen.

Janka Stoker and Els van den Berg
Janka Stoker and Els van den Berg

400 years at the heart of society

Professor Janka Stoker, chair of the Anniversary Board: ‘This theme pays tribute to our history while also demonstrating that we are very much alive and firmly committed to creating a good future.’ Since it was founded in 1614, the University of Groningen has occupied a prominent position in local society as the university of the North. It goes without saying that the lively anniversary celebrations due to take place between 15 May and 15 June are aimed at everyone, not just those attached to the University. The University hopes to strengthen its ties with society by organizing activities for various groups, including students, alumni and the general public. Anniversary coordinator Els van den Berg: ‘There will be something for everyone: debates and lectures, events and cultural activities, including a spectacular ten-day open air music festival called ‘For Infinity'. The Masquerade, a traditional anniversary event that was last held in 1914, will be an opportunity for townsfolk and students to share some positive vibes.’

Honorary doctorates

The Universitys rich academic history will be highlighted when the honorary doctorates are presented on 13 June. Stoker: ‘The candidates for the ten honorary doctors were proposed by the faculties on account of their outstanding contributions to academia and society. The members of the Coimbra Group will be guests at this ceremony. The Coimbra Group is a network of forty long-established European universities. All the professors will walk in the procession in full regalia: it will be a sight to behold.’ The illustrious Aletta Jacobs, the first female student in the Netherlands, will obviously feature in the anniversary celebrations. On 8 March, the day after the presentation of the prize bearing her name, GOOV Muziektheater held the première of ‘Aletta the Musical’. Stoker: ‘For the first time ever, this year’s prize went to an international woman: Noeleen Heyzer. She is Under-Secretary-General at the UN and has spent her life campaigning for human rights in general and women’s rights in particular.’

Close ties

The anniversary celebrations have already generated a huge amount of interest. Hundreds of students have registered for the Gala on 15 May and enthusiastic staff and students have offered to help with the organization. An impressive list of sponsors has also agreed to help. ‘We’re a low-threshold university and we want to show everyone what we are achieving, together with all those parties that feel strong ties with the University. That’s why we try to latch on to Northern themes: Healthy Ageing, Energy and not forgetting our new priority area, Sustainable Society. Nearly all the anniversary activities are designed to show that we are right at the heart of society and keen to do our bit.’

400 questions

The link with society also shines through in the invitation sent to the public, asking them to submit four hundred questions. The questions can be about anything they like and the answers will take many different forms. Some of the questions will be dealt with in the lectures, debates and experiments that go to make up the anniversary celebrations. Local media, including RTV Noord, the Dagblad van het Noorden and the Leeuwarder Courant, are giving the questioners a chance to meet an academic and ask their question in person. Van den Berg: ‘Children want to know why humans can’t reach 200 years of age, for example, or how long it takes a grain of sand to sink to the bottom of the sea.’ The questions from the public resulted in three research proposals, from which the public was asked to select one. Stoker: ‘It’s wonderful to see how much interest this has generated: more than 8,000 votes were cast. Half of them were for the Care for the Future research project. The great thing about this project is that it combines two topics: Healthy Ageing and Sustainable Society.’ The team of Prof. Ronald Stolk, director of Lifelines, will now have the honour of carrying out this research thanks to the Gift for Infinity, the anniversary gift to which anyone wanting to congratulate the University of Groningen has been asked to make a donation.

Return to Groningen

The anniversary is also a good opportunity to strengthen the ties with alumni. A special alumni weekend offering a whole range of activities has been organized between 13 and 15 June. It includes a communal outdoor lunch, dinner in the Martinikerk and special meetings with individual faculties in the city centre. The alumni will be able to choose from countless events designed to help them reconnect with their former fellow-students and the city of Groningen. The festivities will be offset by a more serious programme, which includes items such as a visit to the For Infinity Exhibition or a performance of ‘Aletta de Musical’.

Sustainable character

Now that the impressive list of activities has been published online, the organizers are looking forward to the start of the festivities. They are particularly pleased with the sustainable nature of the event as a whole. Van den Berg: ‘Many of our alumni have fond memories of the Lauwersloop run. We hope that by staging this run efficiently, we will be able to organize it again in future years. The same applies to the Bommen Boat Race: it would be fantastic if the rowing club could organize this event on 28 August every year.’ But we must not forget the Gift for Infinity, a research project looking into why some people continue to take an active part in society into old age, while others do not. And how improving the way we run volunteer work can play a role. All in all, it’s going to be a party that looks to the future while celebrating a rich academic past.

Last modified:19 March 2020 09.47 a.m.