There are a few pages missing from the thesis From animals to crops for which Jerke de Vries got his PhD last month.
The missing pages are the acknowledgements at the back, which included a couple of lines addressed to God, and a flyleaf in the front with a quotation from Saint Augustine. Content which has been expressly prohibited since the beginning of this academic year. De Vries, who was aware of the new regulations, was given a choice by Dean Johan van Arendonk; block out the texts or the conferral is cancelled. De Vries chose a different route, cutting the offending pages out of his book. ‘I didn’t want to block them out. I am not going to censor myself.’
The De Vries case is the first example of an open clash with the Academic Board about an expression of religious conviction in a thesis. Statements of political and religious convictions are not permitted in theses. In itself, this is not a new policy, explains Van Arendonk. But it has not been very strictly applied to acknowledgements. So in September a letter from the Academic Board was circulated to all professors, pointing out their responsibility as supervisors for a correct acknowledgements section, free of all political or religious views.
In De Vries’s case, the task fell to professors Peter Groot Koerkamp (Farm Technology Group) and Imke de Boer (Animal Production Systems). After much discussion, they agreed to leave the offending passages in the text. According to De Boer, the candidate insisted on leaving these passages intact. Groot Koerkamp admits that he is not happy with the policy on acknowledgements. ‘My personal opinion is that De Vries’s acknowledgements are permissible. What is religious? It is a grey area. If a PhD candidate writes three pages about his horse as if it was God Almighty, that is allowed.’
Besides, Groot Koerkamp thinks the rule is impossible to enforce. ‘You can also beat around the bush in three sentences, making to clear to anyone that you mean God. It surely ought to be possible for people to say what they believe in their acknowledgements? The acknowledgements are not scientific, but a personal part of the thesis.’ De Vries goes one step further. ‘It should actually be advocated that candidates include something about their social, political and religious context in their acknowledgements. After all, that reflects their personal starting point.’
The Academic Board takes a different view, however. Van Arendonk emphasizes that the acknowledgements are an integral part of the thesis, which is published under the auspices of Wageningen University. ‘And statements of a political or religious nature are inappropriate there. In order to draw a clear line, the Academic Board decided to ban all references to religion.’ He regrets the way De Vries tried to force the issue. ‘It is fine if you want to initiate a discussion about the rules. But this is not the right way to do it. You should not raise the issue by breaking the rules. Jerke deliberately courted confrontation. I think that’s a pity.’ De Vries denies having courted confrontation. ‘I stuck to the rules. But this rule is arbitrary. There is a lack of clarity about its interpretation and enforcement. But the more important question is whether we as a university want this rule.’
Edit 4/03/14: In an earlier version of this article 'Academic Board' was incorrectly translated from Dutch as 'PhD-council'. The PhD-council however is a distinct body which opposes the move of the Academici Board limiting the scope of thesis acknowledgements.