For rector Jan Danckaert, VUB alumni are crucial in strengthening the connection between the university and society. “Who else can better ensure this than our graduates?” VUB alumni also appear to be in demand in the job market, because they can work independently much faster than others. “That great independence is typical of VUB. We train students to be critical thinkers.” On alumni, careers and VUB’s DNA: a conversation with the rector of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.   

Jan Danckaert already has his suitcase ready in his office. The day after our conversation, he’s off to South Africa to take part in the state visit led by the king. Long journeys are no longer a problem for him. He underwent emergency heart surgery in mid-January, and has been back at work for a month. “Things are improving every week, but there is still a way to go until the summer. Two to three times a week I do cardio rehabilitation at the UZ Brussel and that really helps. Getting enough exercise is also important, which is why I try to walk a lot.” At the New Year event for VUB staff, he had announced his ambitious personal resolution for 2023: to lose a few kilos. The surgery and recovery period mean he’s already achieved his goal: “I’ve lost four to five kilos. So that’s going well too. I try my best to eat healthily and live a healthy lifestyle.”

Inspirational figures

As a university, we watch our alumni and their careers closely. But how did Jan Danckaert’s career play out? Did everything go according to plan, or was chance the determining factor? “What has always played a crucial role with me is inspiring personalities. When I was still studying physics at the University of Antwerp, I came into contact with a VUB professor who taught a course on modern optics in Antwerp. And those classes were incredibly inspiring. It was Roger Van Geen, who had also been rector of VUB. When I heard there was a vacancy in my field at VUB, I approached him. He immediately encouraged me to apply, and lo and behold, that’s how I ended up at VUB. Thanks to Roger Van Geen.”

The second inspiring figure was Irina Veretennicoff. “With Roger Van Geen, she was the supervisor of my doctorate, but in practice, Irina took on that role. She really shaped me as a teacher and as a researcher in applied physics, in fields like electromagnetism, optics, lasers and photonics. So it’s thanks to two inspiring personalities that I became and remained an academic. A third remarkable personality got me involved. That was Caroline Pauwels, who asked me to become vice-rector for Education in 2016. Without her, it wouldn’t have happened. So were these all coincidences? I don’t see it that way. It may not have been planned, but I’ve been guided and inspired by remarkable personalities, including two women. That’s not always been straightforward in academia.”

Nothing to regret

Academics looking back sometimes have regrets. Perhaps because they didn’t take the plunge and go abroad. “I’ve stayed here, but have absolutely no regrets. I worked abroad for two periods, first in France in Grenoble, just after my PhD, and then a second period in Spain. Those experiences helped shape me, because distancing yourself from your local customs allows you to see everything with a broader perspective. Grenoble is a scientific-technological pole in France with a large concentration of interesting laboratories. For my field, the physics of complex systems, the IFISC in Spain is also a leading institution. I met many inspiring scientists there, some of whom have remained friends.” He also met his wife in Spain. “Also not insignificant,” he says, laughing. He emphasises that he is very satisfied with how his career has turned out. “Once I’ve made a choice, I go for it fully, without always looking back and grumbling ‘if only...’. That’s not in my nature.”

VUB graduates are in demand

The VUB likes to show off the values it wants to impart to its students. But can you recognise VUB graduates in professional life? Jan Danckaert makes a strong case for it. “What I notice again and again is that VUB graduates can work independently much faster. Critical thinking leads to a degree of independence and professionalism that is very much valued outside academia. And then I like to refer to the major pillars of our educational vision: we obviously prepare our students for a professional career, but we also ask them to commit to a more sustainable and humanistic world. We honour critical thinking and the principle of free enquiry in our education, and, finally, we want our students to become global citizens. And where better to do that than in a city like Brussels and on our campus with 25% international students? All this makes for independent professionals who are held in high esteem by the professional field outside VUB.”

Deep in our DNA

But then, don’t other universities embrace critical thinking too? According to Jan Danckaert, critical thinking is deeper in the DNA of VUB than it is at other institutions. When it was founded in 1834, then still as ULB, we wanted to conduct research and provide education free from the dogmas of church and state. “Not only is it deep in our DNA, but we’re still actively working on it, for example with our mobilising project The World Needs You, in which we set up actions around the five Ps of the UN’s sustainable development goals: People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace and Partnerships. We had linked a sixth P to this, that of Poincaré – and thus of critical thinking – but now the sixth P refers to Caroline Pauwels, who was a contemporary and unique advocate of free thought.”

Caroline Pauwels Academy of Critical Thinking

On Monday 20 March, the Caroline Pauwels Academy of Critical Thinking was launched in front of a full house at Flagey. The programme included an inspiring lecture by philosopher and VUB fellow Alicja Gescinska on the forgotten ideal of humanitas. It was a moving message about universal connectedness and individual responsibility. “The Caroline Pauwels Academy of Critical Thinking is about both large lectures for a large audience and smaller initiatives that encourage critical thinking. And all our alumni are welcome.”

Connection with society

For Jan Danckaert, the contact with VUB alumni is very important. “We want to be constantly nourished by what’s going on in society, and who can give us a better link with society than our alumni? There are our fellows too, of course, but they include quite a few alumni. Our graduates naturally form a link between the university and society. Not only through their professional activities, but also – I hope so, anyway –  through the commitment they make. I know that many become involved in all kinds of organisations. Beautiful synergies and collaborations with the university can emerge from that.”

Well-known alumni

Some alumni are more in the spotlight than others, like prime minister Alexander De Croo and Flemish minister-president Jan Jambon. “Of course we’re proud of that. There are also party chairs and ministers who are proud alumni or former employees of VUB. It’s good for our reputation. People educated at VUB not only make great careers, but they also make a commitment to a better world through their public positions.”

Jan Danckaert counts on our alumni to propagate science in times of extreme polarisation. “It’s true that science and scientific knowledge are constantly evolving, but they are the best knowledge we have. We could see that during the Covid pandemic. The insights were evolving, but at any given time, policy decisions were based on the scientific knowledge of the moment. Science always exposes itself to criticism, it can be verified or falsified. And in turn that leads to new insights. For example, the falsification of famous experiments in physics led to a landslide and the birth of quantum physics and the theory of relativity. With a foundation of critical thinking and free enquiry, it’s important that our alumni are standard-bearers of science as the best available knowledge we currently have and on which it is best to focus our actions.”


“I’m optimistic by nature, but I also realise that we live in an unstable world, while the knowledge we have about the world has never been greater and is always growing. What worries me is geopolitical instability, with conflict within Europe and a risk of escalation. We need to work on our relationship with the planet and nature and we will have to use our resources differently. And there remains that great inequality on a global scale that leads to migration, which in turn leads to political tensions among us. The world is clearly at a tipping point. But on the other hand: by watching the drama series 1985 about the grim 1980s and the attacks of the Brabant Killers, you realise that polarisation and destabilisation of political structures from within were there then too. And things turned out well after that. So I remain optimistic, but we will have to engage and protect the values of our democracy. A democracy is fragile. It is essential that the younger generations stand up for fundamental rights and freedoms.”

Adapting to change

Meanwhile, there is also the smaller world that demands attention: VUB and its campuses. Earlier this month, a strategic thinking exercise took place. “We need to adapt our internal operations, our structures and our governance, both to ever-increasing digitalisation and to increased diversity. And don’t let that be a story of ‘Englishification’. International students – a quarter of our total – must of course be able to fit in smoothly and be served as well as other students. But at the same time, we highlight the importance of Dutch to students who have a different home language. It’s not either/or. This also applies to the master’s in engineering courses, about which there has been so much talk. At a Flemish university, you must be able to take all master’s courses in Dutch, but according to the rectors – and I concur – this should not necessarily be the case at every university. We have to reach a compromise with [education minister Ben] Weyts here. But I emphasise here too that engineering students largely do their bachelor’s in Dutch. If they then subsequently opt for a master’s degree in English – many Dutch-speaking students do – then they will perfectly match the multilingual engineering profiles that are needed today. And if we can attract foreign talent at the same time with the English-language master’s, that will definitely help to fill the many vacancies.”