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Maiden speech Rector Magnificus Elmer Sterken

Rector Magnifus Elmer Sterken
Rector Magnifus Elmer Sterken

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Universities are extremely successful institutions. Despite the fact that universities are not centres of political power, and despite the rather more serious fact that they are not major profit-generators, they have managed to survive the struggle for existence for centuries. I believe that this enduring success has three main sources.

The first source of success is Academic Freedom. Europe’s oldest university – the University of Bologna – is proud to claim responsibility for the first official wording of this freedom: the Constitutio Habita. The Constitutio Habita is a document that was announced by proclamation in 1158 by Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor. Its aim was to free students and academics from every type of political influence. The document – which we perhaps could even call an Enlightenment document – is from a period that we tend to call the Dark Ages. The document outlines a secure playing field – the university – for a certain type of person. A person with a passion for generating and sharing knowledge.

The second source of the success of universities, as has become abundantly clear, is the fact that this secure playing field is by no means a playground. The community of students and scholars has certainly not disappointed the world with its contributions. These first two sources, ladies and gentlemen, have luckily not yet run dry. Although academic freedom is often under pressure, it has always managed to survive. Academia is still the fount of a fast-running stream of insights and technological breakthroughs in many fields.

The third source of success, however, is endangered. This source concerns the ability of the community of researchers, lecturers and students to convince society of the importance of their work. We can only guess at the reason why. What is true beyond doubt is that the twentieth century saw increasing criticism of academic practice –  a certain distrust of the world of research and innovation has arisen. More important, however, is the way that academic success is being equated with mercenary profit, very much in keeping with our modern way of life. It is still true that there’s no big bucks in academia, although a lot of money does flow towards the universities.
In contrast to the so-called Dark Ages, universities in this enlightened era must fight to be taken seriously. 

Ladies and gentlemen, today in my maiden speech as Rector Magnificus I would like to say that we must do our utmost to show society that we are ambitious – highly ambitious. Although we have no shareholders nor sizeable expected profits to present to them, we can still make abundantly clear that we are not an expensive playground, but rather a playing field for the mind, an institution that generates and disseminates knowledge, an institution that is essential to the future of society and therefore worth every penny invested in it.

The University of Groningen is highly ambitious – it is a comprehensive, general research university that wishes to belong to the worldwide top or at least the subtop in every discipline. This is not an ambition that is easy to realise. The playing field must be prepared carefully for the researchers. The optimal situation is when all the disciplines within the University of Groningen respect one another and at the same time are open to each other. A comprehensive university is a university where links can be made that create synergy that would not occur so easily elsewhere. I myself feel that such links should be organized consciously and energetically – they won’t simply develop of their own accord. The University of Groningen has a classical structure, comprising faculties where the faculty boards bear power and responsibility. This can result in policies being carried out optimally at faculty level without this being reflected at university level. Therefore, coordinating links and cross-fertilization should be considered to be an essential part of university research and teaching.

The University of Groningen has chosen two major interdisciplinary themes: Healthy Ageing and Energy. These two fields of interest will aid the marketing of our degree programmes to the outside world, and the creation of cohesion within and among faculties within the University itself. Interfaculty cooperation is something that needs our constant attention.

  1. I consider teaching ambitions to be the key to any university’s success, so naturally they are the key to the University of Groningen’s success as well. I want these ambitions to be clearly outlined and thus will describe them for you in general terms.
    There is a positive correlation between ambition and performance. The more ambitious the degree programme, the more motivated students and staff will be to collaborate in it. A degree programme’s scale is of course important, yet for both large and small programmes it is crucial that the institution is clear about its ambitions; and these ambitions lie extremely high in the Netherlands.
  2. There must be clarity about what the desired study pace is. The fact that public funding of a university education still far outstrips private financing should strongly encourage students to study at a good pace. This implies that an ambitious university can demand serious study progress from students and may use incentives to bring this about.
  3. Such incentives could include a study advice system, a clear-cut division between the Bachelor’s and Master’s phases, and using course units as the basis for the thesis-writing process. An important aspect incidentally is that study success is negatively correlated to the number of resit opportunities. This means that we need to seriously reconsider our assessment procedures.
  4. The teaching ambitions need to be clearly reflected in the degree programmes. Universities benefit from paying close attention to how teaching is carried out and by showing appreciation of lecturers who are superb teachers. Creating an institute for excellent lecturers could be one of the ways to enhance cross-fertilization between disciplines.
  5. I happen to be strongly convinced that the Anglo-Saxon university organizational model will increasingly become the world standard. This implies that the logical way to divide up a university is into an undergraduate college, a graduate school and various so-called ‘professional schools’. The undergraduate college is where the Bachelor’s degree programmes are taught, while the graduate school provides the regular Master’s degree programmes, the Research Master programmes and the PhD programmes. The ‘professional schools’ teach academic Master’s programmes aimed at certain professions, for example business and journalism.
  6. One overriding aspect is that internationalization of our educational programmes is essential for the University, for Groningen and for the region. The main argument in favour of internationalization is the enrichment of the studying experience thanks to increased diversity. If the University of Groningen fails to achieve a strong position in the international marketplace for academic education, academic quality will suffer. In line with the European character of universities in the age of Frederick Barbarossa, leading universities will have a global outlook in our century. There is an unrelenting global hunt on for talented students and staff by all academic institutions. The best chance to recruit talented students lies in the countries experiencing strong growth  – which implies there will also be funding – that haven’t yet managed to organize their academic education properly, such as the BRIC group and several other economic tigers. In the coming decade, what will become the definitive networks among international universities will be formed, and therefore we need to move quickly. This means that the University of Groningen – now more than ever – will need to operate strategically on the international academic marketplace. It also means we will have to further improve the working conditions for foreign academics and scientists who wish to study and work in Groningen.

As a work organization, too, the University of Groningen will have to radiate boundless ambition. The faculties using the tenure track system to recruit new staff are generally very positive about their experiences. The mutual ambitions and expectations are set out in agreements. The tenure track system is also a way to speed up staff internationalization. The Rosalind Franklin Fellowship programme, which is part of the system, has proved to be extremely successful in attracting top female talent. I would like to further extend this approach. The support staff should also have the opportunity to make their ambitions known and to have these included in their contracts. It’s extremely important to realise exactly what every individual can contribute to the University.

Now that my maiden speech is drawing to a close, I would like to take this opportunity to thank my predecessor Frans Zwarts for his wonderful work for the University of Groningen over the past eight years. During these years Frans has managed to put the University of Groningen on the international map. Secondly, he was able to raise the University’s ambitions in many areas. Third – yet by no means last – he managed to increase cohesion among University staff and students to an amazing extent. Finally, I would like to thank the Supervisory Board of the University of Groningen for the trust they have placed in me by appointing me to this marvellous job for the next four years. Ik heb gezegd.

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.30 p.m.
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