From Repeater to Rector

Carel Stolker on the future, freedom and Leiden’s identity

Marc de Haan Rector Magnificus Carel Stolker and Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, after his Freedom Lecture in the Pieterskerk last week.

“Six thousand first-years just came storming in”, says Carel Stolker, the Rector Magnificus. “We have to make sure that all those students land on their feet.”

The bright colours of COBRA paintings no longer adorn the walls of one of the most charming offices in Leiden; after six years of being Paul van der Heijden’s preference, they have now been replaced by formal portraits of professors – or “my old dead men” as Carel Stolker (1954), the Rector Magnificus, jokingly calls them. The portrait of Rudolph Cleveringa, the professor who spoke out against the dismissal of Jewish university staff at the beginning of the Second World War, has pride of place while behind the desk there is a portrait of William of Orange, the pater patriae, of course, but more relevant here as the founder of the university.
“It’s just a picture that belonged to my father”, the Rector explains, and the “r” in “father” betrays his Leiden background [the Leiden accent is known particularly for its non-rolling “r”, tr.]. “He read Psychology here and was the first psychologist in Leiden. This portrait hung in his student digs.”

You went to Leiden too. What kind of a student were you? Would you have been accepted into an honours college?
“No, no chance, which immediately reveals my mixed feelings about pre-entry selection. I had to repeat a year at school and so I was called up for military service. I passed my first year of Law effortlessly and then after that I was a lorry driver for eighteen months – just driving around with troops in the back. It took me five years to complete my course, including my time in military service and six months as a student-assistant so I didn’t do badly really.

A repeater who makes it to Rector. What does that say about selection?
“That you should be wary of trimming off too much. Of course, if you only accept people with a score of eight [out of ten] or higher, the chances of dropouts are smaller. But then you lose people like me.”

But how does this nuance you are giving to the issue relate to the increasingly stringent entrance requirements? Leiden is the only broad-based university in the Netherlands to introduce the two-year binding study advice (BSA).
“You have two options: you can introduce a pre-entry selection like university colleges do and you won’t have any trouble, or you can welcome everyone but give the tree a good shake in the first year to see who is suitable and who isn’t. Look, Harvard has a simple procedure: you select only the people with the highest marks and you test their motivation. But we chose not to do that in the Netherlands. However, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t provide any structure for students or that you shouldn’t try to reduce the dropout rate.
“The two-year BSA is an experiment that corresponds with my experiences as a dean at the Law Faculty. Once they had their binding study advice after their first year, the second-years’ sense of freedom was too much. Suddenly they would only manage to get ten credits a year.”

Is there any room for the traditional student fraternities in this new study model? Will they have to evolve with the new model?
“They are evolving already. We’ve been discussing study performance with students for ages and when we introduced the four-year term at the Law Faculty (in which credits are valid for four years, ed.), no one voted against it. We have always invited student parties and fraternities to join in this discussion. I was asked to speak at Quintus for the ragging of 150 freshers – some coughing and sneezing as if they had TB, but I suppose that’s part of the deal.
“I explained the issue carefully, because they often start out on the wrong foot in this period - the introduction period and their first lectures. Exams follow swiftly and then they fail them. The preses [chairman] stood up and said he agreed with me. “That’s why we invited you”, he explained. The fraternities are working on this issue too: coaching sessions, keeping an eye on students in fraternity houses to make sure they actually get out of bed … No, nobody thinks this model is odd in Leiden anymore.”

“Oh good, someone from Leiden again” was what most people seem to feel about your appointment. How do you interpret this chauvinist response?
“Yes, I noticed that too: ‘Glad they’ve chosen an academic and someone from Leiden’. I think it’s a reaction against growing globalisation and the transience that goes with it. Leiden is one of the most international institutes in Europe: our lecturers and students travel all over the world. Stop me if I’m spouting homespun psychology, but I suspect that people like to have roots in tradition and place. Compare it to Europe: international partnerships are the trend and yet individual regions are on the rise.
“And of course, Leiden’s heritage is special and perhaps people feel better with it in the hands of one of their own rather than an outsider.”

What are your plans for this university? Or are you just going to keep shop?
“Keeping shop, that’s the first task of a governor. It may sound boring, but predictability is very important for academics. You appoint a professor for ten, fifteen years, a PhD student for four years.
“I want decisions to be made on the work floor as far as possible, although it goes against the tendency of accreditation organisations who like to discuss why one dissertation is marked with a six when it should really get a five with the Executive Board. Well, search me. You have to trust the lecturers and professors and allow them the liberty to decide. That how it works in Leiden, and I think it’s the best way.”
“In addition, the performance agreements with the Ministry are important. At the moment we have almost six thousand first-years who just came storming in. Now we have to make sure that all those students land on their feet and we should do that primarily by making small-scale education possible.”

And in the long term?
“During my sabbatical, I made a particular study of the literature on higher education while working on my new book: a mixture of personal opinions and scientific research. And what do you know? In ten years time, there will be about a hundred first-rate universities operating globally in research and student recruitment. At present, we wouldn’t be ranking among those top hundred. The question we need to ask is: what is our position in future rankings? What kind of university do we want to be? We are going think about it for a year and formulate a policy on that.”

Your book will be out next year. What else did you notice when you compared international universities?
“I examined the mission statements of forty of the universities partnered with Leiden. Why do they exist? Well it’s all ‘cutting-edge research, superb education, top rankings’ from beginning to end… come one, don’t make me sick… But when I dug deeper, I discovered surprisingly little about things like their attitude towards society or their responsibilities towards students, parents, the town.”

In that respect, what makes Leiden different?
“In Leiden, we feel strongly about academic freedom and I value that dearly. Once every three weeks, I have lunch with ten professors and I’m always interested to hear from people from out of town. They all confirm the image of Leiden as an academic town where you are allowed the greatest possible freedom in your research and education.
“Obviously, we must take part in top research and obviously, we must set standards for efficiency, but within those limits, we should cherish the motto of our university (‘A stronghold of freedom’, Ed.). I would like to print it on everyone’s forehead. That’s what unites us.”

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