Caroline Pauwels became rector of VUB in 2016. She succeeded Paul De Knop to become the university’s 11th rector, and, after Els Witte, the second woman to take on the role. Her second term ended early due to illness and she died on 5 August 2022. Through her engaging and unifying nature, she brought prestige and renown to VUB.

Caroline Pauwels

This portrait is partly based on sources from CAVA, the central archives of the secular humanist movement in Flanders and Brussels and of VUB. You can find the material on their website.

A year after the death of Caroline Pauwels: a collection of all her opening speeches

Wonder, possibilism, humanism. The values of the Enlightenment: freedom, equality and connection. And of course art, beauty and a healthy dose of surrealism. Caroline Pauwels (1964-2022) invariably called on these themes to shape VUB as an urban engaged university. This enthusiasm was particularly evident in her speeches at the opening of each academic year, in which she set out her message for the coming year. To mark a year since her death on 5 August 2022, we have collected all those speeches. Anyone who reads them will recognise that Caroline’s words are as relevant as ever and have lost none of their power to mobilise. Alle her speeches are in Dutch.  


Caroline Pauwels was the second woman to hold the position of rector at VUB, after Els Witte. Before taking on this role, she was head of the Department of Communication Sciences and director of the renowned Studies in Media, Innovation and Technology (SMIT) research group. She was re-elected for a second term in 2020. In the spring of 2019, she had been diagnosed with stomach and oesophageal cancer. As a result of this illness, she was forced to end her second term early, in February 2022. She was succeeded by vice-rector Jan Danckaert for the remainder of the academic year. She died on 5 August 2022, a day after the death of her predecessor, Paul De Knop.

In 2016, she began her time as rector with a metaphorical sledgehammer in hand. Break down the walls, she said in her first academic opening speech. To connect, we first have to get rid of the proverbial walls between us. The walls between campus and city, between university and society, between scientific disciplines, between science and art. Caroline broke down all these walls and built bridges in their place. The results were impressive: featuring the Mindblowers event and the off-campus week; the annual Difference Day event on 3 May, World Press Freedom Day; the interdisciplinary POINcaré think tank; the arts festival Theater Aan Zee 2021 in Ostend, which Caroline curated, ensuring significant input from VUB.

The way she coped with her illness left no one unmoved. After being forced to step down as rector in February 2022, she remained actively involved with VUB. She was particularly concerned with ethical issues and the importance of reflection.

Caroline Pauwels Academy of Critical Thinking (PACT)

During her time as rector, Caroline Pauwels set up the POINcaré think tank, from which came the Caroline Pauwels Academy of Critical Thinking, or PACT for short. Its principle is that doubt, uncertainty and advancing insight are not weaknesses. On the contrary, they drive real scientific and social progress. PACT organises lectures for people who want to understand and become free thinkers through dialogue, self-reflection and self-examination. It aims to include the widest possible range of voices, with scholars and thinkers from all continents and cultures. In addition to its lecture programme, there are a variety of activities that contribute to these objectives. You can find the manifesto here. PACT is for everyone who dares to think.

Guided by her policy plans, VUB has positioned itself as distinctly humanist, radically diverse, radically democratic and radically sustainable. Thanks to the pandemic, it also became radically digital. As rector, Caroline proved to be an excellent crisis manager, steering VUB through the difficult Covid period. She achieved this with her team as well as student representatives, whose role she considered to be crucial.

As director of the VUB-affiliated university hospital, she also had an impact on the UZ Brussel with her humanistic vision and social commitment.

Caroline radiated optimism and believed in possibilism. She understood that the world needs us, and that we can make the world a better place. She was an inspiration not only for the entire VUB community but also for wider society. Her many media appearances, columns and publications inspired a huge number of people. In 2021, she received the prestigious Ark Prize of the Free Word. She was among Flanders’ most influential intellectuals, something that has undoubtedly boosted the university’s image. She wrote books for the general public, including Ode aan de Verwondering and – with mathematician Jean Paul Van Bendegem and writer Pat Donnez – Wonderlust. In 2021, the bestseller Ronduit: Overpeinzingen van een possibilist was published.

Speeches opening academic your Caroline Pauwels op Academische (In Dutch)

Bibliografie en CV Caroline Pauwels

Studies and career

Caroline Pauwels (Sint-Niklaas, 23 June 1964) studied philosophy at UAntwerp and communication sciences at VUB. In 1989, she worked for a short while in the cabinet of European Commissioner Karel Van Miert, after which she became a researcher in the Department of Communication Sciences at VUB.

From 2000 to 2016, she was director of SMIT, a VUB research centre specialising in the study of information and communication technologies that has been part of the iMinds network since 2004. Within iMinds, she led the Digital Society department, which unites research groups from Ghent, Leuven and Brussels. She was awarded the domestic Francqui Chair at the University of Ghent in 2014 and between 2012 and 2016 she held the Jean Monnet Chair. She was a member of numerous boards of directors, a government commissioner at Flemish public broadcaster VRT and a member of the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Sciences and Arts.

Prizes and awards

  • In 2020, Caroline Pauwels was the first woman to make the top five ranking in a study into thought leadership in Flanders.
  • In 2020 she received an honorary doctorate from UCLouvain.
  • In 2021 she was awarded the Ereteken van de Vlaamse Gemeenschap by the Flemish government.
  • In 2021 she received the Ark Prize of the Free Word.
  • In 2022 the Academy of Critical Thinking was named after her.

Video - The insights of Caroline Pauwels (In Dutch)

Video - In Memoriam Caroline Pauwels (In Dutch)

Caroline Pauwels | 1964 - 2022