VUB is working hard on sustainability, equality and well-being. The efforts, results and intentions are presented in the Report to Society. Rector Jan Danckaert sets out the new emphasis: “The context in which we work has changed enormously in two years. As a knowledge institution, we have to be agile in that new world.”
You took over from Caroline Pauwels as rector in 2022. Since then, you’ve established your own policy lines. Are they very different?
Jan Danckaert: “VUB launched three major focus points for our policy under Caroline Pauwels: sustainability, equality and well-being. That foundation will be maintained in the future. In the new policy period, first and foremost, we want to move forward. We launched the transversal policy lines of sustainability, equality and well-being in the form of a temporary project in recent years. By anchoring them in our standard policy, we want to incorporate them into our operation. That will be a big challenge because the context in which we work has changed enormously in the last two years. We live in a world that political scientists call VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Issues such as the climate crisis, the war between Russia and Ukraine, the energy crisis and inflation greatly affect our operation and funding. Although that can’t be an excuse: our goal remains to move forward.”
In addition to the financial aspect, are you also working on substantive changes?
Jan Danckaert: “Our basic vision for sustainability, equality and well-being remains unchanged, but we will be refining some matters. For example, the sustainable and inclusive approach of our teaching is not yet visible enough. Students decide on their study programmes differently from how their parents did: they are often looking for inclusive and sustainable study programmes where they feel at home and through which they can make a difference. As an urban engaged university, we meet both those expectations: we are connected with our region and committed to a better world. And we want to make that known, through improved communication. We also want to refine our research options. At the time of its founding, VUB strived for ‘science for the common good’: research that has a positive impact on society. We want to make that impact more visible, for example, by ascribing clear Sustainable Development Goals to our research projects. We are also preparing for our participation in an international impact ranking to compare our university to others. And we aim to improve the valorisation of our research, for example, by more often choosing interdisciplinary research.”
As you said: the world has become less predictable. Does VUB have an advantage in the area of agility, due to its character and vision?
Jan Danckaert: “Some things, such as social engagement and the pursuit of a sustainable and humanistic society, are really in our DNA. We want to help solve societal problems through independent science. And that vision is more relevant than ever today. We aim to convey our knowledge on a large scale, for example through education and through open science which we use to share our scientific knowledge with society. VUB has always been a forerunner in that respect. In addition, we are influenced by the fact that we work in a metropolitan context. We have our roots in Brussels and are genuinely committed to this city. Because we are really a part of Brussels, we experience new evolutions sooner and more keenly than other Flemish universities. For example, if students are finding it difficult to pay their bills, we notice that a year or two before most other universities. Not only that, but the student population at VUB is very international and diverse, particularly from the point of view of the Flemish higher education landscape. This academic year, we will be welcoming 25% international students. And a considerable number of our first-time students have a non-Flemish background. As a whole, that’s a positive thing: we think it’s fantastic that such a diverse group of students feels at home with us. But it does come with challenges. For example, we make an extra effort to have the diversity in the students continue into our doctoral mandates and our teaching staff. There’s a good reason why VUB positions itself as an urban engaged university: that is quite simply our reality.”
Are values such as well-being and equality extra important for VUB from that point of view?
Jan Danckaert: “In our context, striving for well-being and equality must be self-evident. We live in a diverse world, so we embrace that diversity. We recently signed the EUTOPIA Inclusion Manifesto: by doing so, we connect with universities throughout Europe that are facing similar challenges so that we can search for solutions together. Incidentally, well-being and equality are not only related to skin colour or background. For example, we discovered that we needed to review our policy lines on transgressive behaviour. We set up internal work groups and checked proposals with a focus group with external partners, including youth psychiatrist Peter Adriaenssens and lawyer Christine Mussche. Our new policy is called YANA, which stands for ‘You Are Not Alone’. We want to make it clear that victims of transgressive behaviour will receive better counselling from now on.”
What does VUB look like in 2023? What direction do you want to take?
Jan Danckaert: “In the medium term, I see VUB as the most inclusive, engaged and international university in Flanders. We also want to play a role in Europe and be a point of scientific reference for society. An agile university in an uncertain and fast-changing world: that’s what we have to achieve.”
"A university that also enables us to grow as people"
Valéry-Ann Jacobs, academic coordinator for well-being
“We are becoming more and more aware of the importance of well-being at our university. However, we are only at the very beginning of a cultural change. Through research into this theme and training about the results, we strive together towards a university that also enables us to grow as people; a safe environment where we can develop into healthy world citizens who feel secure in themselves.”