Inaugural Lecture of Luc Soete: New Rector Magnificus of Maastricht University

On 29 June 2012, the outgoing Rector Magnificus of Maastricht University, Professor Gerard Mols, handed over the rectorship to his successor, Professor Luc Soete. The ceremony took place before the entire academic community in Sint Janskerk, the historic red tower at the centre of the city. Professor Soete spoke of the long academic history of Maastricht dating back to the 17th century, and the bright future of ‘Maastricht Univer-City’ in terms of higher rankings and further internationalization. Below is the full text of his lecture.

Rectores Magnifici[1], Rectores Normali from elsewhere in Europe,
Dear Colleagues and other ‘Éminences Grises’,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

The last time I stood here at this pulpit in this historic church of Sint-Jan (Saint-John) was in 1990, on 12 January 1990 to be precise. From up here it looks pretty much the same…

The title of the ‘Dies Natalis’ lecture which I gave from this very same place was ‘The future isn’t what it used to be: a forward looking exploration of internationalisation Anno 1990’, written on the threshold of what appeared a new time. The future isn’t what it used to be seemed to me then an appropriate title because at the beginning of that last decade of the previous century, the future of our Western European world seemed suddenly, after the fall of the wall in Berlin, totally different. Optimism was in the air, and so it was also with me.Gerard Mols hands over to Luc Soete

Now in these scary European times, let me quote from this 1990 lecture: “At amoment that everybody in Europe, sorry Western Europe, is talking about the opening of the borders in 1992, the real borders in Europe, those with barbed wire, watch towers and border guards, are opening three years earlier. The information flyers from the European Community which try to convince people that the borders – whichborders most citizens wonder? – will be opened in 1992, appear perfectly fit for distribution in East-Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania.”

It was at that time also the ‘Dies Natalis’ lecture of the then State University ofLimburg (the RL: ‘Rijksuniversiteit Limburg’): a relatively new, small provincial university with about 5000 students including 23 Belgian and 35 German students. I proposed that the university would continue to expand to become an international Limburg university with two sites, two ‘campi’: one in  Diepenbeek/Hasselt in Belgium and ours here in Maastricht, and subsequently that the university would intensify its Euro-regional cooperation with Aachen and Liège following the example of the Confederation of the ‘Oberrheinischen Universitäten’ in which the five universities of Strasbourg, Mulhouse, Karlsruhe, Freiburg and Basel participated, now known as Eucor. It is neither the place nor the moment to elaborate here on what was and whatwasn’t achieved from all this over these last 22 years.

If I were to give a Dies Natalis lecture here today anno 2012, I would choose, and with a wink to our colleagues in Aachen, the title: ‘Maastricht Univercity’. In English of course, and Univercity written with a c in place of an s.

Maastricht Univer-city. But let me reassure you immediately, I’m not going to do this here.

It is nevertheless striking to see how the long-term future of this historic city is today first and foremost one of a truly university town, by which I do not want to narrow down the university part to the University of Maastricht but also to include the Maastricht University Medical Centre (MUMC+), the Zuyd University of Applied Sciences (Hogeschool Zuyd) and many other national and international knowledge institutions located in Maastricht, including the European Institute of Public Administration, the European Centre for Development Policy Management, the Maastricht School of Management, the United World College and of course my own United Nations University institute UNU-MERIT. Together they form the core of ‘Maastricht Univer-city’.

In these days of financial uncertainty, increasingly empty office spaces and retail outlets in the inner city, a sustainable future of Maastricht can no longer be viewed separately from its international knowledge and higher education institutions and the presence of its large international student and staff population. For Maastricht this is also nothing new. Maybe surprising to many of you, Maastricht has always been a university city. A history refresher[2].

The official Rector transmission as it occurs here today actually has a long history. Here, at this very pulpit of St. Jan’s Church, the Rector of the Illustrious School (the so-called ‘Schola Illustris’) in Maastricht has opened the academic year since 1683. Here too the professors of the School have given their inaugural lectures. In the archives of the Centre Céramique library one can find examples of these speeches.

And just as in the case of the University of Amsterdam, where the ‘Athenaeum Illustre’ located in the Agnietenkapel may be regarded as the foundation of the Universitygoing back to 8 January 1632, the Illustrious School of Maastricht may also be regarded as the precursor of Maastricht University. In Amsterdam though, legal recognition of the Athenaeum Illustrious as an institution of higher education: the University of Amsterdam, was given in 1815.

In Maastricht, King Willem I invited the City Council of Maastricht in 1817 to transform the Illustrious School into a University of Maastricht. Unfortunately, the city decided against it, because of a lack of resources. So eventually, King Willem I proposed to create a university in Liège[3] and not in Maastricht…. But who knows, if Maastricht had created its university back in 1817, the city might well have become lost to the Netherlands following the Belgian Revolution in 1830.

It is therefore in many ways remarkable that I, as a new Belgian Rector of Maastricht University, stand here before you. My only Belgian predecessor seems to be a certain Joost Lips[4], also from the Brussels area, who made it to become Rector Magnificus of Leiden University four times. But for that we have to go back to 1575.

But these were of course other times, maybe not so much with respect to the international background of teachers and students but in terms of the sheer numbers of students and staff involved. The explosion of higher education activities in Maastricht over the past decades, or if you prefer the past centuries, is what characterizes Maastricht Univer-city today. A growth which seems at first sight insatiable and is likely to continue into the future.

To give you a concrete example: for a study which is today subject to a limited student enrolment (a ‘numerus fixus’) such as the Bachelor programme in Business and Economics, we have to date some 3162 students registered for the next academic year, for a total of only 1050 places; for the 200 places available in the University College Maastricht we have more than 700 students requests.

Some 30 years ago, Howard Rothmann Bowen, an American education economist, who gained direct insights from his own experience as president of three different American colleges, formulated the ‘law of Bowen’, an economic higher education law which looks at first sight like all those typical economists’ tautologies: the costs of higher education are determined by available resources[5]. But upon reflection, it becomes a more interesting proposition. For Bowen’s law explains well why American colleges and universities have competed first and foremost on reputation and prestige over the last 30 years since Bowen wrote his law, rather than on the basis of quality and price.

In the US in particular the main ‘competitive’ incentive for universities seems to have been to raise tuition fees as much as possible[6]. Nowadays Bowen’s law appears also as the basis of a more global reputation race in higher education with the widespread national and international rankings of universities acting as a sort of information accelerator. The effect is increasing conformity and imitation behaviour between higher education institutions[7].

Last month, for the first time, unlike the traditional aggregated university rankings such as the Shanghai Jiao Tong University and the Times Higher Education Supplement, a disaggregated ranking of universities was presented for about 250 different (sub-)disciplines, partly in collaboration with UNU-MERIT’s sister organization in Macao, UNU-IIST. Interesting to read. Why? Well because it illustrates neatly that, as could be expected, the US top Ivy League universities and the English Oxford and Cambridge universities – the top universities in the Shanghai and THE rankings – also lead the world in virtually all (sub-)disciplines.

But also, and more interestingly, many European universities rank amongst the world top in various specialized discipline areas. In other words, contrary to the impression of total world domination in research of the US Ivy League and Oxbridge, many European universities appear to have a ‘smart’ specialization research pattern in various areas where they belong at the absolute top of the world. Something whichisn’t picked up in aggregate national or international ranking system of universities.

From this perspective, the apparent lack of world class reputation of European universities, as often argued by European politicians on the basis of the absence of European universities in the world top 50 of aggregate university rankings, maybe even something that should be applauded. It might well have avoided the kind of reputation race that keeps American higher education institutions today in its grip, following Bowen’s law, with a tendency to increase continuously tuition fees (estimates range from 440% over the last 25 years for some of the most prestigiousinstitutions) without any major increase in educational quality or impact. And it might have led European universities to specialize in particular scientific areas, attracting world class researchers, less obsessed with and influenced by the aggregate (inter-)national reputation of their university.

But back to Maastricht: the first official transmission of a Rectorship here in St Jan’schurch took place some 300 years ago, in 1715 to be precise as part of the transmission of the Rectorship of the Schola Illustris of Professor du Rondel to Professor Leverickvelt. Du Rondel was appointed in 1683. A Rectorship was occupied on average 33 years…

This brings me naturally to the exceptional Rectorship of Gerard Mols. Eight years and eight months, most of you have never known anybody else as their Rector Magnificus than Gerard Mols. A Rectorship which by the way is also not over but will last until late August. So this celebration today comes much too early…

Originally I thought that the Executive Board of the University had decided to organize this Rectorship transmission on this Friday 29 June because it was expected that the following Sunday, there would be the final of the UEFA EURO 2012 footballchampionship in Kiev between Germany and the Netherlands. With a German chairman of the Executive Board of the university and two Deans with a German background, there might have been a need for a neutral figure in order to intervene in cases of possible tensions within the institution. And what would be more neutral than a Belgian Rector Magnificus, for sure not an Italian one!

In short, I thought this Rector transmission had been organized as a kind of emergency regulation. On Monday I would then go back to Gerard Mols office on the Minderbroedersberg and hand him over this Rector necklace. But as we have all noticed even in football… the future Isn’t what it used to be! Now I can, once I have left this pulpit, hand over back to Gerard Mols this heavy necklace. I will have been your new Rector Magnificus for a couple of minutes.

[8]Let me use the last minutes left wearing this necklace, to prepare you for the loss of a beloved and respected Rector Magnificus who brought Maastricht University so much over the last eight years and six months. What I have appreciated most in Gerard and in my Rector Magnificus is his ability to put things into perspective, to ‘relativize’ as we say in pidgin English and Dutch. Perhaps because Gerard always stayed with one foot in the real world as substitute judge or as a home gardener and sheep keeper, but it’s something I’ve always admired.

I will never forget how I, sorrowfully, phoned Gerard once and after a conversation of less than two minutes that consisted mainly of Gerard’s booming laugh, looked again completely relaxed towards Maastricht University life. To ‘relativize’: a real art for a Rector Magnificus.

Now that I will take over the baton from Gerard in a couple of months as Rector Magnificus, I realize that my way of putting things in perspective consisted primarily of writing newspaper columns in the local newspaper. Now that I’m not yet Rector Magnificus, let me quote briefly from one of them in which I discussed managing a university. “I think that managing a university can be best compared with managing a zoo. You have a variety of exotic animals in your place – the professors – each with very specific characteristics. Some are rather peaceful, even cute and have a high level of cuddliness. Others are more skittish and prefer to remain in their academic loft. And others are more dangerous, sometimes very dangerous. When visitors – for example, potential donors, colleagues, business leaders, politicians – come over, you should be well aware of the different characteristics of your inhabitants. In case of the last ‘dangerous’ category, which considers visitors first and foremost as prey, you should allow them to show their tricks in a secured environment; in other cases, on the contrary you should encourage physical contact. Managing a zoo is an extremely complex business: your inhabitants have very different needs and preferences: some you can put together in the same garden or building – a department, a faculty – others you better leave alone. Logistics is also very complex: they have often totally different dietary needs and you’ll have to find the right people to escort them – managers, directors – taking care of their needs yet while also not being eaten by them. And the visiting public – your students – will come all the more if you have exotic species. Occasionally you might have some who will have their picture in the local news and that of course attracts more public.”

My inspiration for this piece[9] came undoubtedly from the time I worked at Antwerp University during the 1970’s and passed Antwerp zoo every day in the train. But Maastricht University staff don’t worry, I stopped earlier this year, in preparation for this Rectorship, writing columns in the local newspaper.

Dear Gerard, you are about to leave us to go on a sabbatical, but fortunately you will not leave us completely because even during the sabbatical you will help us in the institution’s forthcoming accreditation and you will be the director of TMFI, The Maastricht Forensic Institute at Maastricht University. Managing a university institute is very different from managing a university; I would argue drawing from my own experience as director of a university institute for now nearly 25 years.

To put it in an equally exotic comparative way to the previous example with respect to the university and the zoo, I would suggest that managing a university research institute might be best compared with sending out a medical team into a disaster area.  

And let me again quote from one of those own newspaper columns: “First quickly select between the severely wounded and half dead, the wounded who are still somewhat mobile but might need crutches and bandages and finally the others. The last category you send immediately back into the battlefield. Give them supplies to the end of the academic year and your job is basically done. Next year they may come back to report. The more you try to manage them, the more you get in their way. With the second group you should neither be too much occupied: the primary need here is encouragement, here and there replace some bandages, providing a crutch or walking sticks or other appropriate instrument – a new laptop, or these days an i-pad and there they go. In fact, you must spend all your time with the first group. Stay and sympathize with them, hold their hands till they say farewell to university life or where possible, resuscitate them.” Dear Gerard, as you can see, and certainly in case of this task, your quality to relativize as Rector Magnificus will come in very handy here. I wish you all the best…

Before descending from this pulpit in this gown with this heavy necklace around the neck, let me thank all members of the Maastricht University community, students as well as the members of the Supervisory Board for the trust and confidence they have placed in me. I look forward to September and the new exciting challenge in my life of becoming your new Rector Magnificus.

Thank you all.”

Luc Soete, 29 June 2012


[1] Inaugural lecture of Professor dr. Luc Soete at Sint-Jan’s church in Maastricht on 29 June 2012 on the occasion of the transmission of the Rectorship of Maastricht University.

[2] With particular thanks to my colleague Professor Emeritus Harry Hillen who passed me most of these facts, See also the book Maastricht Kennisstad; 850 Jaar Onderwijs en Wetenschap in Portretten, published in 2010 and the article of Hillen, H. (2010), Eerste hoogleraar geneeskunde Maastricht: Pelerin, Ned Tijdschr Geneeskd. ;154:A1525

[3] If Bernard Rentier, the Rector of the Université de Liège would be here, I’m sure he would immediately insist that, thanks to the reputation of the medieval schools in Liège, the city had a renowned reputation as the ‘Athens of the North’ going back much further with the Collège which opened in 1496 and the secular Prince-Bishop Velbruck transforming the College of English Jesuits (established in Liège in 1614) into the English Academy which promoted high quality technical education.  The Academia Leodiensis was officially established by Willem I on 25 September 1817.

[4] In those days, one usually ‘Latinized’ first and family names. Joost Lips was the Dutch name of Justus Lipsius.

[5] More precisely: “at any given time, the unit cost of education is determined by the amount of revenues currently available for education relative to enrollment. The statement… expresses the fundamental fact that unit cost is determined by hard dollars of revenue and only indirectly and distantly by considerations of need, technology, efficiency, and market wages and prices.” (p. 19), Bowen, H. (1980), The Costs of Higher Education.

[6] Today Bowen’s Law is actually well accepted by many higher education economics. Following Bowen’s law, one may argue that most colleges lack any incentive to keep costs down in order e.g. to keep tuition fees down.  As Bowen put it: “The question of what ought higher education to cost—what is the minimal amount needed to provide services of acceptable quality—does not enter the process except as it is imposed from the outside. The higher educational system itself provides no guidance of a kind that weighs costs and benefits in terms of the public interest. The duty of setting limits thus falls, by default, upon those who provide the money, mostly legislators and students and their families.”

[7] A point made explicitly by the former Rector Magnificus of Twente, now chairperson of the recent ‘Review Commission’ of Dutch universities, Professor Frans van Vught (2008), Mission Diversity and Reputation in Higher Education, Higher Education Policy, 21, 151–174.

[8] These paragraphs in grey were not pronounced because of lack of time.

[9] Translated from Soete, L. (2010), Universitaire managementwijsheden, Dagblad De Limburger, 13 novermber 2010 ( . I owe a particular debt to Paul David reflections and thoughts in writing this piece after one of those great social dinner evenings with him in Maastricht.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *