Back to our essentials:
an open, united and enthusiastic university
I know our University well
I studied here in the Faculty of Law before leaving for five years to practice as a lawyer on a full time basis. I returned, first as a teaching assistant, then as a PhD student, to become a professor and researcher, Dean and then vice-rector. This career path interspersed with research stays and periods teaching abroad strengthened a deep attachment to our University. I know a number of its strengths and weaknesses, I have a sense of its huge potential as well as its weaker points and I have heard the expectations of a very large number staff members whom I have met. I wish to put my expertise, human qualities and intellect at your service to bring about an academic environment that is as challenging as it is exciting.
Our university has undergone a profound transformation
- a considerable increase in the number of students;
- much slower growth in teaching and administrative staff;
- a heavier load of teaching, exam and administration tasks;
- increased specialization in skills;
- a transformation in research and its evaluation;
- financial constraints;
- a race for external funding;
- pressure from international and local competition;
- integration into a globalised world.
This profound transformation manifested itself in the form of radical changes initiated in the mid 1990s, and whose endpoint is still not known. The University has had to cope with a growing regulatory burden, when it was not imposing multiple reforms on itself or when it was not trying to conform with multiple and sometimes contradictory expectations.
The progress achieved in the last 25 years has been impressive
The University has opened up to the world. Had it not done so, it would have remained in a self-satisfied parochial mode. In the meantime, however, the University – which had long operated on the basis of the mission it had given itself – abandoned its institutional model for an organisational model. It no longer gives sufficient consideration to what it is effective : what are the needs of the students, of the teaching staff or of the different faculties to fulfil their missions? It finds its new source of legitimacy in quality management based on standardized norms and international rankings. Add on to that successive waves of administrative upheaval, changing working methods, the impact of climate change and the quest for sustainability, and increasingly tight professional regulatory constraints.
The University has a public service mission
As a legal professional, I cannot prevent myself from drawing a parallel between the profound changes taking place in the university world and in the administration of justice. Justice and universities are two vital pillars in a democracy. These are two institutions whose public service missions contribute to a just and peaceful society. Justice protects us from the law of the jungle and the law of retaliation; universities contribute to the emancipation of individuals. Both are reeling under the thrust of austerity policies, incessant reforms and a dearth of resources. Their missions are devalued.
As with the institution of Justice, the legitimacy and credibility of University are no longer rooted in its mission and independence. The original and founding mission of University has given way to a new objective: competitiveness and survival.
The University is likewise closely linked to the health sector
which is suffering from the same ills. University hospitals as well as clinical and biomedical research are undergoing the same administrative overload and the same competitive pressures, once again to the detriment of our academic colleagues.
The University lecturer and time
The time that university lecturers can devote to their research and to the preparation of their teaching has continued to diminish as their other tasks have grown. Far from dedicating themselves exclusively to these two main missions, most university lecturers are taking on a raft of different functions:
- evaluating the knowledge of students (which now takes up an unreasonable amount of time for lots of us);
- the excessive number of administrative tasks;
- the evaluation – internal and external – of teaching and research;
- research for external funding;
- evaluation of research by others;
- monetizing research by providing public or private consultation or expert assessment;
- to provision of community services;
- the time-consuming management of emails…
These changes have not come out of the blue
Like a slowly boiling frog, we have not taken proper notice of their effects on our profession and on our mindset. And as we have not given up on the ideals of our career – ideals that may live in our deep inner selves – a culture of disenchantment has taken root everywhere. Throughout the numerous meetings that I have set up to prepare my programme, and regardless whether I was talking to academic, scientific, FNRS, contractual research, hospital, administrative, technical or management staff , what struck me most was the scale and spread of this disenchantment, of this malaise, of this disillusionment. All these rich, passionate and fruitful meetings have allowed me to get a grasp of the mindset and expectations of the university community. They have convinced me of the need to reinject some wellbeing and meaning into our professions.
Stop the reform race
Let us set a triple priority:
- capitalize on and enrich ourselves from the many reforms by first taking the time to assimilate them;
- return to the foundations of the university institution;
- give some meaning back to our professions and to a University where we continue to be proud, really proud, to work for.
Our University must go back to being a thriving, joyful, passionate universe where breaking new ground is a priority, where research and the spreading of the resulting knowledge contributes to the emancipation of each and every one in terms of individual fulfilment, social justice and upward mobility. Let us reconnect with these objectives without being fooled by, nor indifferent to the inevitable constraints, but by rediscovering the meaning of our task:
- by overhauling the way we work so as to devote less time to administrative tasks;
- by giving teachers more time – including longer, uninterrupted periods – to prepare their teaching, to reflect and to research.
Our University has been around for 186 years
It must put its historical record to good use to take back the initiative and to preserve a space of free and critical thinking in a society engulfed in an ever-rising tide of information, fake news and the relativization of knowledge. Our University has the resources to live up to its mission, whether at the global, national and local levels, without naivety or arrogance, but lucid and creative and with ambition and determination.
Free inquiry, critical mindset, respect and generosity, solidarity
Through its history rich with commitments, resistance and revolts, our University has developed and defended a particular identity. We are all attached to its values. Because I am convinced that in the Belgian and Brussels landscape, the ULB can and must play a key role, I will defend, with the whole of our community, this identity, these commitments and these values. It is through these common values and commitment that relations between members of a community are woven. Because I conceive of the University as a community in the strong sense of the word. More than ever we must share an intellectual horizon and a human community; using a critical mindset, commitment and culture to share knowledge, to defend respect, solidarity and fraternity; to rediscover the link with our students, to reweave a thread between our past and their future, to do everything to make them freer and more (im)pertinent, to help them to become well-adjusted and responsible citizens. I believe in this with strength and determination.
In the seven themes of my programme, you will find the measures that I am putting forward to direct the University on its future trajectory. I have checked to make sure my proposals are financially sustainable. Building on all the hard work and achievements of recent years, we can make further progress towards a university model that inspires us all. My project is an ambitious one that takes into account what many of you have told me. I will continue to listen to what you have to say, so that our University may meet your expectations and become a true collective undertaking.
Enjoy reading on!