News - May 30, 2013

For better and for worse

Wageningen UR permeates the very life blood of the town Wageningen. Although the municipality and the university don't always see eye to eye, the overriding feeling is that they need each other. 'Wageningen is really one big campus.'

The Sower, a gift from the people of Wageningen in 1926.
In the course of its 750-year existence, Wageningen has only featured the institution now known as Wageningen UR for a little over a century. But no one living in Wageningen today would find it easy to imagine the town without students and research­ers. 'You can see the importance of Wageningen UR in every aspect of our community', says mayor Geert van Rumund. 'Whether it's culture, student life, the economy, or interest in sustainability - it all thrives on input from people from the university and research institutes.'
The mayor notices it in his own job too. Every year he speaks with all of the student societies, and he's in touch with one of Wageningen UR's directors practically every week. Usually at public ceremonies, consultations, or when welcoming foreign delegations. 'Wageningen would be a very different community without the university', says Van Rumund. 'The town is really one big campus.'
But this close relationship can also generate tensions and clashes of interests. Last year, for example, the local council was quick to flag up its concerns when the WUR presented its plans to provide the campus outside town with student housing and shops. How will the job market in the town centre be affected now the town's main employer is withdrawing to the outskirts of town? The formation of the campus is already starting to influence the town, Wageningers agree. 'The high street is noticeably quieter in the afternoons' says Rien Bor, a student recruiter for the university as well as a member of the local council for the City of Wageningen Party. His workplace shifted at the end of 2011, from Duivendaal in town to the campus. 'I used to have lunch dates at the market, now I go to the Forum or Het Gesprek.' Others point out that many WUR people 'from out of town' have started doing their weekday shopping in Bennekom rather than Wageningen, because it is more easily accessible from the campus by car. This has put the city's accessibility from the campus high on the local council's agenda.
The relationship between the town and the university is currently pretty good, say Bor and his colleague Jo Soolsma. Soolsma sits on the town council for the Socialist Party and works at the Wageningen UR's Facilities and Services department. The good relationship is largely thanks to the current council, claim the two council members, who are both in the opposition. For instance, local authorities are working together with the university to solve the student room shortage. Thanks to a fast-track planning permission process, a new student accommo­dation complex is being built on campus as well as hundreds of new rooms in town. And that, in turn, will benefit the economy and community of Wageningen.
Five years ago the relationship between local autho­rities and the research institute was a lot frostier, say Soolsma and Bor. In one case, the local council was furious when Wageningen UR sold a plot of land for an industrial area to a construction company, while it was still in negotiations with the municipality. The council responded by creating a statutory requirement that, in future, the municipality would have a first option on any land Wage­ningen UR put up for sale.
This right of first refusal didn't actually have much impact in practice, as the municipality doesn't have the money to buy up expensive land for development projects. So a couple of years later, Wageningen UR again sold a plot of land to a property development company to build the new Kortenoord neighbourhood. Such moments force the local council to confront the stark reality that its 80 million euro budget is eight times smaller than that of Wageningen UR.
Movie W
Another issue that soured relations was that the munici­pality's suspicions about the university's intentions, says Peter Veldman. Veldman, a consumer science student, has represented D66 on the local council for the last 3 years. 'At the time the council spent a lot of time talking about the university but not with the university. When I contacted a Wageningen UR representative, it turned out that the university's long term vision was not what the councillors thought it was.'    
Veldman is therefore happy that the current council strives to maintain transparency and consult Wageningen UR more frequently. Another positive is that WUR representative Simon Vink now attends every council meeting, sitting in the public gallery in order to get an idea of the current issues in the municipality. Consulting each other regularly leads to a decrease in suspicion and improves relations between local authorities and the university, observes Veldman. 'You need each other.' This proved to be the case last year, when the continued existence of the cinema Movie W came under threat. This ignited a debate over to what extent the university should be responsible for services and facilities in town. Wageningen UR decided to stop funding the cinema, eventually prompting the municipality to step in and provide assistance. After a considerable lobbying effort on the part of the cinema, the university eventually agreed to provide a modest contribution. 'Wageningen UR is down­sizing its cultural activities,' says Soolsma. 'It has fantastic sports facilities but it's pushing away cultural activities. The tricky thing is: the municipality is also having to cut its cultural budget.'
Food Valley
A major area in which the municipality and Wageningen UR cooperate is in efforts to strengthen the knowledge economy, under the auspices of Food Valley. But here too the international knowledge organization and the local authorities have a distinctly different perspective on things. The local council sees itself as the heart and soul of Food Valley, but the Food Experience Centre (the egg) is going to be located in Ede, with Wageningen UR's blessing. The mayor of Ede, Van der Knaap, also wants to bring the Food Valley headquarters to his town. 'Ede is taking over the project', concludes Soolsma.
This feeds into an old sentiment amongst local authorities about 'those arrogant folk at the university who think they can call all the shots'. 'I recognize that sentiment', says the mayor, 'but that doesn't do justice to Wageningen UR's attitude. We may disagree over some particulars, but we both want a flourishing town with good services and facilities. Of course I would be dis­appointed if the university abandoned the Aula in town, and I think it's important for Wageningen to remain a centre of student life. But at the same time I think the campus is fantastic and I'm proud of the way the university has grown.'