Jan Giesbers
Jan Giesbers

In memoriam Jan Giesbers (Nijmegen, 1932 – Nijmegen, 2023)

Professor Jan Giesbers, Rector Magnificus of the then Catholic University of Nijmegen from 1982 to 1987, passed away on 14 November. He will be remembered as an administrator who steered the University through the 1980s, a period of major budget cuts, in an amiable yet decisive manner.

The four years during which Jan Giesbers was Rector were marked by drastic government measures. At the time, universities were processing the two-stage structure introduced in 1981, which was intended to put an end to unlimited study time. During Giesbers’ time as Rector, the Dutch central government tightened the strings further with two massive austerity operations, Task Distribution and Concentration (1983) and Selective Shrinkage and Growth (SKG). A number of Nijmegen language study programmes had to be discontinued, while many others skirted the brink of collapse, such as Dentistry, Political Science, and Spatial Planning. The fact that these study programmes weathered the storm of this difficult time was partly thanks to Jan Giesbers.

The first thing that stands out in the photographs of Giesbers through the years is his large, upward curling moustache. An extremely flamboyant appearance entirely in keeping with his amiable character. In word and in writing, Giesbers was known for a light-hearted, slightly ironic tone that sounds strikingly modern to this day. See, for example, his farewell speech as Rector in January 1987, in which he immediately grabbed his audience's attention with two statements. “1: Dutch universities in general, and the Catholic University of Nijmegen in particular, have a future. And, before you recover from the shock and wonder and sit back complacently, let me immediately proceed with Statement 2: But there is still a lot of work to be done.” The fact that Giesbers of all people was able to realise all this ‘work that had to be done’ is due to an exceptional combination of traits.


Jan Giesbers
Jan Giesbers (centre) at the Beatification of Titus Brandsma in Rome in 1985. Photo: Orphaned photograph. The copyright holder can report to communicatie@ru.nl

Incurable optimism

Don't be misled by his ever roguish gaze, for this was a man who could be extremely tenacious when needed. Tenacious also in the incurable optimism with which he held the University's hand. “The fact that we as a university have to be more frugal is clearly not the end of the world,” the Rector was quoted saying in the university press, putting the troubled 1980s into perspective. “So let's not make a drama out of it.” After completing his studies in Pedagogy in Nijmegen (1965–1969), he went on to obtain his PhD almost immediately, in 1970. By the time he began his studies, he already had experience teaching English in secondary school, a love of teaching that also marked his academic career. After all, his working life at the University began at the teacher training study programme, first in a student job, then from 1969 as a full-time lecturer in Pedagogy, Didactics and Educational Science at Katholieke Leergangen. In 1972, Giesbers was appointed lecturer – the first step towards his chair, with the eloquent and befitting title: Pedagogy and General Didactics in the Service of Teacher Training, which he held from 1978 until his retirement in 1997.

The list of his positions and corresponding titles is impressive, with achievements within the teacher training study programme, entrepreneurship on campus, and as chairman of Stichting Actief Comité Nijmegen. More than as a researcher, he will be remembered for his work as an administrator. Being rewarded for his work by being crowned Knight of the Order of the Netherlands Lion in 1995 will certainly have pleased Giesbers. A respect and admiration that could also be heard at his farewell, in the acknowledgment speech of Jan Gerris, his successor as Dean – a position Giesbers held twice, from 1978 to 1982, and from 1993 to 1995. Giesbers could not help but govern, Gerris said, praising his ‘only real hobby’, which he said made him an ‘administrative personality and personal administrator’.

Loyal to the University and to Nijmegen

He was loyal not only to the University, but also to his hometown of Nijmegen, which he never left since his birth in 1932, with the exception of a period of military service in the mid-1950s. “Because Nijmegen is the place that I am in love with,” Giesbers said in his farewell interview for KUnieuws. In this interview, he recalled the ‘dazzling city’ of his childhood years. “It may be less dazzling now, but I still feel irrationally connected to Nijmegen.” He also always felt connected to the University, a connection strengthened by his passion for the University's values, especially its Catholic roots. Almost as a matter of course, Giesbers drew on his distant predecessor Jos Schrijnen, the first Rector, when articulating his own passions. Giesbers called Schrijnen's 1923 inauguration speech his ‘compass and guideline’, which he reviewed and referred to in his own 1982 speech: “Because it expresses élan, belief in our own abilities, and confidence in the future.” Thanks to these qualities, the University made it to celebrate its centenary, which Giesbers lived just long enough to see, thankfully. Because it is in part thanks to the man with the moustache, one of our most colourful administrators, that we were able to celebrate this centenary.