University starts research into its identity with staff and students: ‘This will not be a referendum’

17 Nov 2021

A little over a year after the split with the bishops, Radboud University is starting a quest for its identity through dialogue sessions with students and staff. ‘Of course, different opinions in the discussions are allowed, but it's not going to be a referendum about the Catholic identity.’

One year after the Dutch bishops revoked the predicate of ‘Catholic’ from Radboud University, the university is starting research into its own identity. All students and staff, alumni and external relations can contribute via dialogue sessions. Annemarie Hinten-Nooijen, director of the Radboud Honours Academy, is heading up the process.

Special university

According to Han van Krieken, Rector Magnificus, two questions need to be addressed in the sessions. ‘What kind of university do we want to be, taking into account our roots and our core values of ‘connected, curious and reflective’? And how do we flesh out our special status and what is its significance?’

And even if it’s no longer allowed to bear the ’Catholic’ predicate, Radboud University is still a special university. That’s because unlike most universities, Radboud University is a foundation, a private organisation. In legal terms, state universities are public in nature because they were founded at some point by the government. And the government appoints the regulators at state universities but not at special universities (Tilburg University is another example). Up till a year ago, new members of the regulatory body of Radboud University were nominated by the Catholic University Foundation and subsequently appointed by the Dutch Conference of Bishops. Since then, appointments have been made by the sitting members of the regulatory body – for one member, on the recommendation of the participatory body. And different rules apply to participation at special universities.

Han van Krieken. Photo: Bert Beelen

It’s possible that during the dialogue sessions, someone will suggest making Radboud University a state university. ‘But is that what we want?’, Han van Krieken wonders. ‘The last rector of Leiden University (Carel Stolker, ed.) once asked me whether I found it difficult having the bishops appointing the members of the regulatory board. My answer was to ask him whether he found it difficult having the government do that in Leiden. It’s perfectly possible that a political party that wants things you don’t will gain a majority. People don’t consider that sort of thing in the Netherlands, but in Hungary, for example, they do.’ There, the Central European University, funded by George Soros, was forced to move to Vienna.

‘A special university must also have a special identity’

The rector continues to support Radboud University’s mission statement in which the special status is recorded. ‘What does it mean? To me, it’s important that we continue to join in considering ways of continuing to interpret this in the new context’, he says. ‘If you’re a special university, you must also have a special identity.’

Narrative identity

At the beginning of 2022, all students and staff of Radboud University will receive an invitation to the dialogue sessions. They will take place in groups of 15 to 25 people, led by moderators from Radboud Reflects. Participants will be sent some texts beforehand, such as the university’s mission statement and a booklet by the university’s historian, Jan Brabers.

‘The Radboud University mission will form the starting point for the discussions’, Annemarie Hinten-Nooien tells us. ‘How do students and staff experience the university’s core values in their study or work? If you can ascertain that, you get a picture of what that identity is.’ Hinten-Nooijen refers to French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, according to whom identity comes from the narrative we tell ourselves and each other, and with which we subsequently identify.

‘You’d have to be mad to want to cut the university’s roots’

But to what extent can you form an identity yourself? Isn’t an identity something that already exists? ‘Everyone feels that the Radboud DNA of contributing to a better society is really important’, says Hinten-Nooijen. ‘It is based on the movement on which we were founded. You’d have to be mad to want to cut roots. But we can, of course, conduct an open discussion about that.’

Walt Disney

However, according to Hinten-Nooijen the idea is not that students and staff get into real arguments with each other. ‘It’s not a referendum for or against the Catholic identity which results in the majority vote winning’, she says. ‘Do not forget that an awful lot of people regret the decision on the part of the bishops to revoke the predicate of Catholic from the university. But different opinions in the discussions are allowed, of course.”

Annemarie Hinten. Foto: Ben Bergmans

Hinten-Nooijen hopes that the role of the new identity will be similar to that of companies with a strong corporate philosophy, such as Apple or Walt Disney. ‘The idea behind that is that as people in an organisation reflect on a mission or core value personally, that they feel more connected to the organisation’, she says. ‘If people see that clearly, they are better able to contribute to what this university stands for which in turn will increase the quality of what we do.’

Following the dialogue sessions, the university’s identity is to be given a prominent role on the university website or in interviews with students and staff. ‘That can be inspiring’, says Hinten-Nooijen. ‘Prestigious American universities such as the University of Notre Dame (a Catholic university in Indiana, ed.) are quite proud of their roots. And we should be too.’

In the end, the Executive Board will decide what the consequences of the dialogue sessions will be for the organisation. The whole process must be completed before the centenary of Radboud University in October 2023.

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