It is with great sadness that the VUB community must say goodbye to Honorary Rector Caroline Pauwels. She died on Friday 5 August 2022 at UZ Brussel from cancer of the stomach and oesophagus. She leaves behind two children.
Caroline Pauwels was a visionary and passionate rector, an inspiring and warm personality. At a time when leadership that connects us is needed more than ever, we will miss her terribly.
Breaking down the walls
In 2016, Caroline began her time as rector brandishing a metaphorical sledgehammer. “Break down the walls,” her first academic address forcefully read. To create connections, the proverbial walls must first come down. The walls between the campus and the city, between the university and society, between scientific disciplines, and even between science and art. In the most impressive way, Caroline Pauwels succeeded in tearing down all those walls, building bridges and creating connections in their place. The results are impressive: there is weKONEKT.brussels, with the eye-catching Mindblowers event and off-campus week, there is the annual Difference Day event on World Press Freedom Day, 3 May, there is the POINcaré interdisciplinary think tank, and there was the Theater Aan Zee festival in 2021 in Ostend with Caroline as curator and a large VUB contribution.
Caroline Pauwels thought intensively and deeply about VUB’s position as a pioneering Flemish university in multicultural Brussels, as an urban engaged university with an international orientation and a strong European anchoring through the EUTOPIA network.
With her policy plans as a guide, VUB positioned itself as distinctly humanist, radically diverse, radically democratic and radically sustainable. And yes, radically digital. With the Covid pandemic, that approach became brutally digital. As rector, she proved to be an excellent crisis manager who guided VUB through that oppressive and exhausting time. She did so with her team and with the student representatives, who she believed played a crucial role.
As director of the university hospital affiliated with VUB, she also had an impact on the UZ Brussel through her humanist vision and social commitment.
Possibilism and wonder
For her predecessor, Paul De Knop, who died one day before Caroline Pauwels from the consequences of melanoma, optimism was a moral duty. As rector, Caroline added a new dimension to that optimism: possibilism. The deep awareness that we can make the world a better place, that the world needs us too. She became an important source of inspiration not only for the VUB community, but also for society. Her media appearances, columns and publications have inspired many people. In 2021 she was awarded the prestigious Ark Prize of the Free Word. She is certainly among the most influential Flemish intellectuals and this has undoubtedly boosted the university’s image. Not least because everything she said and did was authentic. Considered and deeply felt. Wonder was crucial to her too. She wrote books for a wide audience, such as Ode aan de Verwondering and – with Jean Paul Van Bendegem and Pat Donnez – Wonderlust. Ronduit: Overpeinzingen van een possibilist was published in 2021 and became a bestseller.
The way she dealt with her illness also left no one unmoved. After her premature and forced resignation as rector in February this year, she remained actively involved with the university. She was particularly concerned with ethical and reflective issues.
Studies and career
Caroline Pauwels (Sint-Niklaas, 23 juni 1964) studied Philosophy at UAntwerp and Communication Sciences at VUB. After graduating, she worked for a short time in 1989 in the cabinet of European Commissioner Karel Van Miert, after which she became a researcher at VUB’s Department of Communication Sciences. She obtained her doctorate in 1995 with research focusing on the European Union’s audiovisual policy. In 1998, she became a professor, and she has numerous influential publications to her name in the field of communication and media.
From 2000 to 2016, she was director of SMIT, a research centre specialising in the study of information and communication technologies, which since 2004 has been part of the iMinds network. Within iMinds, Caroline Pauwels led the Digital Society department, which brings together research groups from Ghent, Leuven and Brussels. She was awarded the Francqui Chair by the University of Ghent in 2014, and between 2012 and 2016 she held the Jean Monnet Chair. In addition, she served on several boards of directors, was a government commissioner at public broadcaster VRT and a member of the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts.
Caroline Pauwels may have lost her personal battle against transience, but she taught us that something will always remain. “It will pass, but the surplus will remain”, as a good friend of hers once said. In her case, that “surplus” is an impressive legacy. For that, the VUB community is extremely grateful to Caroline Pauwels.
Anyone who would like to share memories, anecdotes and mementos of the warm and engaging person that Caroline Pauwels was, and who would like to leave a word of comfort for her children, close family and friends, can do so in the book of condolence. This will be available as of Monday in the Braem Building on the Etterbeek campus, in the entrance hall of the faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy on the Jette campus and right now online via this webpage.
Support the Caroline Pauwels Relief Fund for students
The family asks not to send flowers, but to continue her engagement. Anyone who wants to support students who are struggling financially, materially, socially or psychologically can do so by making a donation to the Caroline Pauwels Relief Fund for students: account number BE51 0013 6779 3562 with the message GIFT FO7. At Caroline's express request, the funeral will be held in a family circle.