Chair of the foundation’s board: ‘This is not a high-conflict divorce’

26 Oct 2020

The influence of the Catholic Church on Radboud University and Radboud university medical center is gone, but little of that will be noticed in practice, according to Wim van der Meeren who last week was appointed Chair of the SKU (Stichting Katholieke Universiteit). ‘The University Chaplaincy, the prayer at PhD defences and the name of the university will remain unchanged.’

It will be a long time before Wim van der Meeren forgets the beginning of his chairmanship of the SKU, the regulatory body of Radboud University and Radboud university medical center. Last Monday, barely three days after the official handover, he received the decree by the bishops informing him that they were withdrawing the designation ‘Catholic’ from the Stichting Katholieke Universiteit.

‘It’s a shame that my chairmanship is starting on such a dramatic note’, says Van der Meeren on the phone. ‘I could have hoped for a more tranquil beginning, but it’s just the way it is.’

Did the decree take you by surprise?

‘No. We have had many consultations with the bishops in recent weeks, and they told us that they would be sending the decree.’

Wim van der Meeren

Why have they done this?

‘In July, the Enterprise Chamber delivered a ruling on the dispute between the SKU and the Conference of Bishops. The judge decided that we should be temporarily allowed to appoint board members without the approval of the Conference of Bishops.

After that, we were keen to consult with the bishops on how they could still appoint one member in each regulatory board. At that point, the bishops announced that they were not prepared to do that anymore and that they had decided to deprive the university of its catholicity. We were absolutely taken aback by that and felt it was a great shame.’

Why does the Board of the Foundation feel this is such a shame?

‘We had proposed that following the administrative decoupling of the university and Radboud university medical center (known as the demerger – ed.), one member would be appointed by the Conference of Bishops. That would have allowed us to continue in the accustomed manner. The bishops felt that this entailed too little influence and therefore decided to withdraw our Catholic designation. But it has little effect on our identity. We remain an institute which originated from the Catholic emancipation movement. As far as we are concerned, nothing will change in the atmosphere here.’

Are you parting as good friends or is it a high-conflict divorce?

‘I wouldn’t like to call it that. We regret the one-sided decision but we respect it, and we will go on to check in the most orderly way possible what it means on various fronts.’

Is the break with the bishops irreparable or might a solution still be found?

‘The difference in insight between the two parties is a fundamental one. I don’t expect anything about that to change. The bishops have a very strict point of view with regard to how catholicity should be perceived, and it’s not one we can agree to.’

Will Radboud University remain a special university or will it become a public university?

‘We know for sure that it will remain a special university. That has nothing to do with the ‘Catholic’ designation by the way; it has to do with the founding of the university and its private character. (Public universities are founded by the government, as opposed to special universities – ed.) We will be a special but neutral university.’

Will anything change in the funding of the university?

‘No, our funding never had anything to do with the church.’

Will staff and students at the university notice anything of this in practice?

‘I think that there is a group of staff members who will think this is a great shame. We hope that nothing will change in practice. The standards and values we hold dear, we will continue to hold dear, also without this designation. And the history, originating from the Catholic emancipation movement, is not going to change.’

‘We hope that nothing will change in practice’

Will the name of the university be changing? Radboud refers to a Catholic saint.

‘The link with Catholic history is wonderful, is it not? I think that Radboud University is a really lovely name. I don’t expect a change of name at all.’

Are there implications for the theology faculty?

‘It’s perfectly possible to have Catholic theology faculties at universities which are not designated Catholic. It’s common practice abroad.’

Will the University Chaplaincy continue to exist?

‘That’s certainly our intention. We will be consulting with the bishops as to how we want to do that.’

And what effect will the split have on the Catholic Documentation Centre and the Titus Brandsma Institute?

‘Those are important institutes and we will be talking with the bishops about them too. There are a number of matters which require ongoing discussion. And we’re keen to take time for that.’

Until recently, you consulted with the through the SKU. How will such consultations take place in the future?

‘We’re not sure yet. It’s something to be discussed.’

Will the prayer at the beginning of PhD graduations be retained?

‘I think so. There’s no reason to suddenly change that.’

‘We will continue discussions with the bishops on a number of matters’

Will the rules for participational bodies be changed at all?

‘Nothing will change in the structure of the participational bodies. We have, however, decided to involve the members of the University Council more in the appointment of members to the regulatory body. Now that the bishops no longer have a say in this, there is more scope for the participational bodies.’

What does this mean for the image of Radboud University?

‘To be honest, not a lot, I hope. Radboud University is an internationally oriented institute. And that won’t change.’

So all things considered, very little will change?

‘I really, really hope so. We regret the decision on the part of the Conference of Bishops but we continue to feel Catholic, even without the designation.’

You might also say that the influence of the Catholic Church on the governance of the university and Radboud university medical center was significant until recently and that influence is now completely gone.’

‘That’s correct.’

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