News - September 2, 2019

Rik Torfs calls for warm, human atmosphere at university

Albert Sikkema

At the Opening of the Academic Year today, guest speaker Rik Torfs, former Rector Magnificus at KU Leuven, will address the need for open dialogue in academia. ‘If society asks for our support, is looking for direction, then we must seek to provide this.’


Torfs is used to holding debates at the university. In Belgium professors must publicly apply for the position of Rector Magnificus, debates are held between the candidates and open elections are held. Torfs, Rector at KU Leuven between 2013 and 2017, has gone through this cycle twice. In addition to Rector, he is a canon lawyer, a prominent media figure in Belgium and former Christian Democrat politician.

The people
In Torfs’ vision it is the people at the university who take central stage and not the managerial principles, as he said two years ago in KU Leuven’s monthly magazine Campuskrant. ‘I don’t expect a lot of good to come from all the different kinds of managerial principles, like “the student as customer”, compliance and stakeholders. You end up with a university that is continuously subject to organisational change. I’m looking to create permanent trust, not permanent change.’

Giving hope
At the time Torfs also stated: ‘I want to see a university that, in addition to all the tasks related to education and research, also plays a bigger role in society. I want our people to make a significant contribution to the social debate, as specialists, but also outside their own specialist area (..) I’m convinced that a university that plays a role in society makes itself more attractive to students and personnel. There is no specialist in “giving hope”, no professor of “human warmth”. But there are many intellectuals who can provide these elements. And the Rector is certainly one of these.’

‘Of course, as an academic you’re already doing a great deal by providing good research and good education, and that’s also our main task as a university. But there’s more to it than this. If society asks for our support, is seeking a direction, if people need hope, then we must look to provide this. And if someone stands out in this social debate, it’s up to the Rector to make sure that he or she receives acknowledgement for this. We need to recognise this “social courage”. If we chart and reward educational achievements and research publications, we must also recognise those who dare to stick their neck out.’

Complexe social issues
Torfs is committed to creating a warm, human atmosphere at the university. In Leuven he set up MindMates and wants to develop this into a network that supports students with complex social issues. He also wants to provide a more welcoming, warm environment for international PhD students. ‘The kind of life they lead here makes them vulnerable to loneliness. It’s these kinds of things, both big and small, that make the difference between a university that is just ordinary and one that is human and warm.’

Opening academisch jaar WUR

Maandag 2 september, 15.30 hours

Orion-building, Wageningen Campus

Executive Board President Louise Fresco will also speak on the theme ‘Dialogue: An academic responsibility’. Rector Arthur Mol will officially open the academic year