News - June 28, 2018

How two wallflowers finally blossomed

Rik Nijland

Agriculture minister Jozias van Aartsen sketched the first outlines of Wageningen University & Research during a dinner in autumn 1995. But far from being euphoric, the mood was rather downcast according to journalists Joost van Kasteren and Martijn de Groot in their book Metamorfose: 1993-2018 (Metamorphosis: 1993-2018).

During the meal, the directors of the Agricultural University and the Agricultural Research Service (DLO) were told they would have to partner up as Wageningen’s future was at stake. The university was attracting ever fewer students and was struggling with ageing accommodation. Utrecht University was already poised to take over degree programmes. The DLO institutes were in trouble too, with rising losses. The two organizations claimed to collaborate already but there was too much mutual distrust. Van Aartsen’s speech that evening accordingly went down like a lead balloon. ‘But of course we also realized the wolves were circling the farm,’ says Kees Karssen, the rector magnificus at the time, in the book.

Van Kasteren and De Groot give a fascinating reconstruction of how the two wallflowers entered into a marriage of convenience, after which student numbers grew again and the two institutions jointly developed into global players. Or as the rather smug subtitle puts it, ‘how Wageningen became a global leader’.

The authors have fulfilled an immense task with their book, distilling a clear-cut story from a mass of data. They consider numerous topics, including the developments in science and education, the failed attempt to embed the applied sciences university Van Hall Larenstein, the resurrection of Resource, changes in research funding and the impact of Wageningen research.

The book is presented as Volume 4 following the three-part history of the Agricultural University that was published in 1993. It has certainly lived up to its promise that Volume 4 would be a more readable, journalistic book. Van Kasteren and De Groot base much of the content on an impressive number of interviews. That makes their account more lively than the previous volumes. Unfortunately there are one or two editorial errors.

The book as a whole would have benefited from more variation — shorter stories as well as the long ones, more accounts of the non-institutional aspects. How did ordinary staff experience all the changes, for example? Anecdotes in separate sections would have made the book more accessible. The chapter by Leo Klep that was added at the end (see inset) is evidence that brief, informative and lively can go together.

‘Metamorfose 1993-2018, hoe Wageningen wereldtop werd’, Martijn de Groot, Joost van Kasteren and Leo Klep, Wageningen Academic Publishers, 32.50 euros. .

Delayed three months

Het boek Metamorfose rolde drie maanden geleden al van de drukpers. De destijds geplande presentatie werd echter afgeblazen omdat een lijst met alle hoogleraren en een algemene inleiding in het boek ontbraken. Dat is nu opgelost met een uitgebreid addendum: De Lange weg naar succes, een bewerkt hoofdstuk van Leo Klep uit het boek Geschiedenis van Wageningen uit 2013. Daarin beschrijft Klep het ontstaan van het landbouwonderwijs in Wageningen en de doorontwikkeling tot de instelling die het nu is.