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English review - A New Identity for the University?

Last month, the Conference of Dutch Bishops (Nederlandse Bisschoppenconferentie) announced they were revoking the predicate of 'Catholic' from Radboud University. The revocation was directly caused by a decision by the Enterprise Chamber allowing the university's Board of the Foundation to appoint new members without the bishops having a say. But there had been conflict for a long time; the Board of the Foundation was finding it difficult to fill vacancies, because the bishops felt the candidates were 'not Catholic enough'. There were also differences of opinion between the bishops and the Board of the Foundation on the way in which Radboud University and Radboud university medical center should express their Catholicism. In an online interview, chaired by programme manager Liesbeth Jansen, the consequences of the decision for the university were discussed by Wilma de Koning, Vice Chair of the Executive Board, and university historian Jan Brabers.

Surprise Decision

De Koning was taken by surprise on 20 October when she heard that the Conference of Dutch Bishops intended to revoke the predicate of 'Catholic'. It felt as though the university was being deprived of its identity. The reactions received by the Executive Board showed both disappointment and understanding. De Koning pointed out that there was also a positive side to this revocation: the decision prompted people to open the discussion about the university's identity. This is also an objective on the part of the Executive Board: to maintain the dialogue about the identity and future of the university.

Jan Brabers agreed with De Koning, even though he had found the decision surprising and in the first instance, disappointing. Now hehas become accustomed to the new situation. Brabers commented that the decision need not have as much impact as we might think right now: "We still have the same identity we always had." Catholicism still has a place in that.

A History of Discussion

In addition, Brabers pointed out that the discussion about the Catholic identity was nothing new. During its entire existence, there has been tension between Radboud University professors and the bishops. There was a lot of interference by the bishops in the early years. But as the university grew, the bishops took a step back until the 1960s, when they retired from the board and took on a more supervisory role. The university had become so large and complex that it was no longer possible to combine the management duties with the Episcopate.

De Koning pointed out that the revocation of the predicate 'Catholic' has formal consequences for Radboud University. For example, the university may no longer call itself a Roman Catholic institute. But in concrete terms, the consequences are limited, in any case in the short term. The Special Faculty of Theology will continue in its present form and for the time being, nothing will change in education and research. However, De Koning commented that a number of issues remain open in the long term, such as: Will the prayer at the beginning of PhD graduations be retained? Will the Dies Natalis celebration be adapted? Will the university retain its name? All options are still open. De Koning does not see the name ‘Radboud University’ being changed.

Current Influence of Catholic Identity

What actually is the current influence of the predicate 'Catholic'? According to De Koning, it can be seen in the culture at the university. Take for example the University Chaplaincy, which is open to all religions. Or the university's slogan: you are needed. In addition, Radboud University offers philosophy in all its study programmes and is firmly committed to sustainability goals. De Koning: "We want to have a campus where everyone feels welcome and where people care about each other."

Is the Catholic Identity Outdated?

A follow-up to that question is rather: do we need the Catholic religion for this identity? De Koning said that some years ago, research into the image of the university among its alumni revealed that the Catholic identity was sometimes seen as a negative aspect. Many people feel that the Catholic interpretation in education does not belong in our times. De Koning did not comment on whether she agreed.

Brabers confirmed the finding. On the other hand, there is a modern translation of the original Catholic values. Where it was originally about the emancipation of Catholics, Radboud University now plays a part in the emancipation of first-generation students and female professors, for example.

The Beginning of a Dialogue

At the end of the interview, questions from the audience were answered. The large number of questions reflected how important the subject is to students and staff. One of the questions was about the formal status as a special university (as opposed to public): may Radboud University retain that status, without the Catholic identity? De Koning thinks this possible, since the university is a private body, not a public one. But it is fair to ask: what would be the reason for retaining the status 'special'?

In the concluding words, De Koning talked about the steps following this discussion. A programme is to be launched to conduct the dialogue with the academic community about the identity of the university. The bishops in particular have been cordially invited to take part. De Koning says that Radboud University is proud of its history and it would be a shame to waste all the good things the Church has brought the university. The aim is to have an answer to the question of the university's identity by the centenary celebrations in 2023. That may sound like a long time from now, but it gives the Executive Board the time it needs to carry out this important discussion together with staff and students.

By: Thijs Meeuwisse