A conversation with Rector Caroline Pauwels: “The outlook for students? Hopefully a summer that is slightly more free”

A second term, a second wave. How does Caroline Pauwels look back on the latter, and what can we expect from her regarding the former? De Moeial spoke with the VUB rector about desperation amongst students, inclusivity and the ‘V’ in VUB. ” I prefer talking about the existential, spiritual or religious rather than introducing a silent space. Although I certainly once thought differently about that.”

Text: Felien Dekorte & Marit Galle

Image: Charlotte Deprez

Converting commuting time to coffee breaks while working from home is a silver lining for some, but not for the VUB’s rector. Countless online notifications buzzing throughout the conversation remind us that the hour of screen time we were given is coveted. But also that the experienced worlds of rector and student have perhaps never seemed so close – starting with the mixed feelings brought by the start of this academic year.

Your second term was able to start in code yellow, albeit briefly. Was that a relief, or more of an anxious wait? 

“We felt it was important to be able to sustain code yellow for a while. Unlike the universities that were already moving to code orange, we didn’t commit ourselves to a date, but looked at the figures. We still do that today. For us these are mainly the corona statistics from in Brussels, with specific attention to the intensive care at UZ Jette. At the beginning of the academic year we had to wait and see when the vaccines would arrive, today it’s about how quickly they are administered. For us, that’s the determining factor.

But yes: this is a stressful year, and that stress goes back further than September. Of course we had hoped to move forward more quickly this year, both in terms of figures and vaccination strategy. As university board, we’ve always remained pretty zen, although that doesn’t mean there isn’t any cursing. (laughs) But I know how science progresses: slowly, checking, checking again…. I could handle that ‘wait and see’ feeling. 

“I’m an ardent defender of the free press and the importance of journalism, but sometimes it’s important to keep quiet for a while.”

What I fear most in the long run is increasing inequality. It presents us with an immense task as a university. At the same time, I have to continue to believe that there is a certain resilience. Some of my friends sometimes let slip ’that it will never be right again’. I am then the person who dares to believe that from the ashes one sometimes sees the grain grow higher, as Jaques Brel sang. Man has already risen back from enormous crises. Thus, I hope that within the government, after all this, there will be enough coalition to bring about change and further focus on what has now proven so important: mental well-being among young people, and education, for example.”

Still, it’s hard for students to stay positive and find that resilience. When the VUB switched to code red back in October, there was criticism concerning the fact that students heard the bad news from the press rather than through internal reporting. 

“I understand that criticism. For me it was important that the communication was double-checked internally. After the meeting, the communications department has to draw up the message, after which the Vice-Chancellor of Education and myself scan it again. Then the English translation follows – which is not the case in Antwerp and Ghent, for example. There is a whole process, which means that sometimes it appears in the newspaper before we have it written out. And no, we’re not exactly happy about that.

What also doesn’t help is the ferocity with which the media chase that news. In the beginning, for example, we tried to agree with all the universities to communicate at the same time. But by then the press is already aware and news gets loose. It has happened to every rector, I think. At the beginning of the crisis, for example, I received a call from the radio and heard that reporters were on their way to Rector Sels in Leuven. The ball was rolling by then, so I too seized the moment to unload the news. 

“When a teacher gets the word ‘help’, (s)he doesn’t always know what to do with it either”

You see the same thing in politics: when the consultation committee meets on Friday, the newspapers are already full of speculation on Thursday. I am a fervent defender of the free press and the importance of journalism, but sometimes it is important to remain silent for a while. I myself have gone on a media diet; I don’t let it get to me anymore.

Our internal communication was not always fast enough, but I did not think the way we communicated was bad. For example, we switched to digital newsletters, I went to the students or the staff with a video before…. I would not say it was successful across the board: the website could be better, the FAQ was not always up to date. You also have to deal with very different target groups, including international students in and outside Brussels. In short: a tight streamlining between services was missing. But you learn from these mistakes.”


You said in our previous interview that it is difficult to reach all students, especially those who need it most. Is there any improvement in that?

“That remains difficult. We created informational slides that teachers could take to their classes – but not every teacher did, and not every vulnerable student is in that class. We also tried to reach people through letters and leaflets that we sent out, so there was some progress on our side. But someone who is in need often has a harder time asking for that help. Do you know the book The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse (by Charlie Mackesy, ed.)? *Looks around searchingly and then pulls out a copy* It’s here in front of my daughter; it’s a simple little book. In it, the boy asks the horse, ‘What is the bravest thing you have ever said?’ ‘Help,’ the horse replies. We should be able to induce that in those who are in need of us. 


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A post shared by Charlie Mackesy (@charliemackesy)

In addition to communicating better to that group, we need to make sure the whole line follows. That’s what’s missing right now. When a teacher gets the word ‘help’, they don’t always know what to do with it either. Cries for help also come to me by email, but of course I can also miss such messages. 

A positive note: the emergency fund (Caroline Pauwels emergency fund, ed.) does attract people. The request to deposit money, for example, has reached a lot of people. It is also our intention to make this emergency fund more structured after the pandemic: for students who cannot go to Erasmus, for example.”

Do you have an overview of how many people the VUB was able to help in this way?

“I asked for an update, but I haven’t received the figures yet. However, a number of wonderful thank you letters already snuck their way into my mailbox. But of course the question remains to what extent we were able to actually help students. It is also about more than financial support: the calling campaign (a wellness initiative that is part of the VUB project ‘Leave No One Behind’, ed.) focuses on mental well-being. 

There we see which students are doing really well and we can respond more quickly to the people who need our help more. About thirty percent also indicated in advance that they did not want to be called; mainly boys and students with a religious background who find support elsewhere. The question remains: does that percentage include people with whom things are going very badly? Thursday (March 31, ed.) the last phone calls are scheduled, then we will be able to put the numbers on the table.”

Editor’s note: Meanwhile, the first, raw results of the call-up campaign are known. 

Since the first wave, we have been bombarded with alarming figures about the mental well-being of young people. Why did the VUB only come up with this initiative now?

“During the first lockdown, we honestly didn’t think about it. We had other challenges then: organising the teaching and hospital, making sure experts could do their job, supporting teachers and students in the digital realm, looking for masks…. The perspective was different; during that first wave we thought it would end rather quickly.

We quickly realised at the start of the new academic year that it would drag on longer and that perspective for the students was lacking. During the first semester, I indicated that I would like to call the students. There was a lot of internal discussion about that. ‘That’s 16,000 students, how are we going to do that; YOU’RE not going to call them, are you?’ (laughs) That approach was like setting up a scientific study: a lot of trial and error. 

“For higher education, I don’t see much changing this academic year”

Letting students call their fellow students, I thought, was a very good plan – they understand each other better. My first idea was to simultaneously create work for students who had lost their jobs, but if you’re not psychologically versed in such a conversation, you’re not achieving much and might even be doing more damage. In December, the plan was to bring in Psychology students, but then exams arrived. You also have to remember that the next group, after the master’s students, has to be ready: the people who need it, have to be able to be guided further. And before we knew it, it was March.

Regarding the follow-up care of students; is there going to be an increase in capacity for the group of student psychologists? Currently, there are waiting lists of about two to three weeks.

“We’re looking, but even if you want to make that happen, you don’t always find people who are available. Everyone in the field has a long waiting list. That call for more capacity is now being put into action at the psychology faculty, and we are asking them to bring in emeriti or retired alumni. I also often talk to the people at the TEJO house (a therapy centre for Belgian youth). So we are working on that expansion.”

(Interrupting herself) “I just got the numbers from the hospital, I’m going to check them, I do that every day. That’s allowed, isn’t it, for me to take a look?” (Frowned reading) “The message is that they are moving to stage 2a for the third time. That means that sixty percent of intensive care will be reserved for covid patients. Yesterday we thought the numbers would plateau, but now we know that’s not the case anymore. That’s not good.”

Those daily rising numbers also recently drew the curtain over the return to some physical classes at the VUB. What perspective is left for students, long term? 

“Honestly, I don’t think we’re going to see a lot of easing after the Easter break. I think – although I think this is very bad – the government will again give priority to primary and secondary schools, as it has always been until now. And we all advocated for increasing student credit, you can be sure of that. Most virologists – many of whom teach themselves, by the way – and ministers also think that this is absolutely right, but you always have to choose with attention to a kind of totality. That’s why I don’t see much changing right away for higher education this academic year.”

Editor’s note: In response to the Consultation Committee’s decision on April 14 that higher education will also return to the situation before the so-called “Easter break,” the rector responded as follows: “I think there is very little change. We are at the limit of twenty percent attendance. This is still a slight easing, but not the easing we were all hoping for.”

“As far as the exams are concerned, we want to work like last year as much as possible: in a mixed form. We are again in contact with the Royal Museums of Art and History so that students can take exams on off-campus location. That went well last time, and students were quite happy with that. It’s not ideal, of course, but exams never are. (laughs)

“People from diverse backgrounds should also come to our official representation.”

Above all, I hope for a summer that can offer some lightness. And for that, I’m setting my sights on vaccinations – Johnson & Johnson’s vaccines were supposed to be available in mid-April, for example – that needs to start moving forward. The perspective is the hope of a summer vacation that will resemble last year’s vacation, in which – thanks to vaccination – we can still allow certain activities to continue. I wouldn’t talk about “the realm of freedom,” because to me that’s very absolute, and we’re not there yet. Going crazy at festivals – something that is so important for young people – is not yet possible. Perhaps traveling will work again. Yes, a more lighthearted, free summer; that’s what I’m looking forward to.”

© Charlotte Deprez – Moeial archief

The ‘V’ of equality

You spoke earlier about increased inequality. After your re-election, you argued that “the VUB should stand for equality. How is the communication going between the VUB Equality Network (VEN, which came into being a few months ago, ed.) and the policy level of the university?

“In the meantime, the VEN has had three meetings; they brief me on a regular basis, as they did yesterday, and concrete actions are taken as a result. So communication is direct. I do think that certain matters should be discussed not only with me but also with the deans, so that their voices are also heard. What we really need to get to – I understood this well from our meeting yesterday – is that people from diverse backgrounds also come to that official representation. It’s very good that the VEN is there, but it would be a shame if it remained a separate organisation. We need to involve them from the start. We learn as we walk.”

Dalilla Hermans’ series of lectures on (anti-)racism will start soon. Will you be participating yourself?

“Dalilla asked me to let her become a fellow at VUB in June 2019. This allowed us to ask her to lead talks on (anti-)racism and discrimination at our university during the summer, as a response to the Black Lives Matter protests. I’m in touch with her myself. So I think that’s very important, but taking those classes, that won’t really work out in the schedule. (laughs) But don’t worry: I will be fed information on those issues; through the Hannah Arendt Institute and WeKonekt debates, for example. Dalilla Hermans will also continue to be heavily involved in much of what the VUB does.”

As a university without a prayer or quiet space, the VUB is still unique. Does freeing up such a space today still clash with the ‘V’ in VUB? (the V stands for the independent, secular, identity of the VUB)

“I have different opinions on that, and frankly they are still continuously evolving in all directions. I do have an ear for the question; for example, we have the ‘Monument of Consolation’ and we wonder if we could not have something like that: a small space, where you can meet with a maximum of two or three and possibly also do something with art (reflects). We still believe that there are several places in the area where one can go to pray. And that religion – even though it sometimes provides you with beautiful buildings – is a private matter that doesn’t always need big places. 

By the way, from conversations with those young people with religious backgrounds, I notice that they too are divided on this. Some told me, ‘We think a university should provide education and research, not religious spaces.’ What is our core business? That is education and research. Of course we also want people to feel comfortable on campus, but you can be inclusive in many different ways. Of course, religion has to be able to be talked about openly. That’s also why we have set up the expo JRSLM, for example. I think it’s important to talk about the existential, and that often goes hand in hand with the spiritual or religious. It may sound harsh, but I prefer such conversation to a quiet space. Though I certainly once thought otherwise. 

“The ‘V’ in VUB is something I think we really need to safeguard.”

I know from experience that the conversation around quiet spaces will also lead to new debates at the university. That, for example, they should be reserved for women and men separately. I have a hard time with that and would not go along with it either. At the same time, it is a discussion we should continue to have. An iftar in the cafeteria where we celebrate together, for example, I would not be against that. That’s not to say that we only want to include the celebrations and the fun of the religions, that’s not the intention, but I think that’s inclusive.

The ‘V’ in VUB is something I think we really need to safeguard, in the sense that students with religious backgrounds do not always get the initial history of VUB. That means: explaining why and in what context the Vrije Universiteit was founded. In the Catholic Flanders of the time – which, incidentally, also had a very dogmatic effect on young people – this has become a place of emancipation and questioning. And that was not even that long ago. Beware: even the liberal stance was and is sometimes still too dogmatic. When I teach, I start with the French mathematician and natural philosopher Henri Poincaré: what does that mean, and is Poincaré our dogma, question mark?”

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