Tuesday 27 September 2022 - This afternoon, new rector Jan Danckaert opened the academic year of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in the impressive setting of the iconic, listed Abattoir market hall in Anderlecht. Under the theme Science as a Public Good, he spoke about the importance of science in a world in transition and crisis. “Research that enables industry and business can also perfectly serve the public good. And vice versa,” he said. The entire VUB community also paid tribute to the much-missed honorary rectors Caroline Pauwels and Paul De Knop.

Read the Opening Address of Jan Danckaert

“The world needs you,” is how Danckaert concluded his opening speech. “It’s not just VUB’s slogan, it’s a cry for help.” With this, not for the first time in his address, he emphasised the need for scientists and research at the service of society.

“Science is a public good,” he said. But before it becomes a truly public good, certain conditions must be met. Science must be open, because by sharing data and research results, we will reach better and more sustainable solutions more quickly. Danckaert called for a change in mentality: “Let’s bet on the non-measurable. There is a tendency to express everything in indexes and figures. There is a danger that we are only guided by what we can measure. As if we can derive the value of the Mona Lisa from the dimensions of the canvas.” 

In doing so, the importance of scale should not be underestimated: “We have to join forces,” Danckaert said. “We are doing a lot, a lot, today. But unfortunately, too often it’s too much with too little. With too few people and resources. Everything we do should always be in proportion to what we can effectively handle.”

Finally, Danckaert also called for the defence of science. “Science is being questioned and conspiracy thinking is on the rise. We have to take responsibility.” He suggests putting much more effort into science communication, to spread the scientific method to the widest possible layers of the population. “Science is not just another opinion,” he warned. Those who believe it is may jump out of a plane without a parachute.

After the rector’s opening speech, it was the turn of Karsten De Clerck, chair of the VUB board. In his speech, he paid tribute to Jan Danckaert’s predecessors. “If anything weighs on us as a VUB community, it is not so much the dark clouds we see gathering above us – because we can and will help dispel those clouds – but the sudden loss of two monuments. The death in early August, in the space of 24 hours, of our honorary professors Paul De Knop and Caroline Pauwels hit our university hard.

“During the memorial for Caroline Pauwels earlier this month, I talked about the three words that spontaneously come to mind when I think of her,” said De Clerck: “Love. Dreams. Inspiration. Caroline was not only exceptional as a rector, she was also incredibly loved. She was a constant source of inspiration for everyone, and she made us dream. She had an inner strength that no one could really define and that remained intact until the end. The power of possibilism. The deep realisation that we can make the world a better place, and we start with our university, because it comes down to us.”

Caroline’s predecessor, Paul De Knop, had already changed VUB just as radically and made it stronger, De Clerck noted. “He had a similar inner strength, reflected in his life motto: optimism is a moral duty. That optimism saved VUB. When Paul became rector in 2008, many saw the university’s future as bleak. The expectation was that the university landscape would be thoroughly redrawn and that there would hardly be room for an independent VUB. Paul immediately moved decisively against this. Like Caroline, he was an inspired bridge builder. In the first place between VUB and ULB, with the Brussels University Alliance. VUB and ULB make work what some in Belgium no longer want to make work: doing great things together, across community borders.”

Finally, the academic opening launched PACT, the (Caroline) Pauwels Academy of Critical Thinking. In a video message, the first curator of PACT, Alicja Gescinska, honoured the inspiration behind the new project. “One of Caroline Pauwels’ greatest talents was to bring people together,” Gescinska said. “She did that by building bridges between the university and society, and equally by bringing academics together.”

With PACT, Caroline wanted to stimulate discussion, debate and dialogue to find solutions together to the problems facing the world and society. “Without focusing only on the problems, but also on the solutions themselves.”

Impressive setting

From Bozar, Jubelpark and the Gare Maritime to six different locations in Brussels during the pandemic: since 2015, the Vrije Universiteit Brussel has organised its academic opening session at a venue off campus. This year, it chose the impressive setting of the iconic, listed Abattoir market hall in the Anderlecht district of Kuregem. On the one hand because there was ample space for all the invited guests. On the other, because as an urban engaged university, this took VUB to another part of Brussels.