Strong, united – and responsible: taking stock of four years of Presidency

Concluding two terms as CESAER President, Rik Van de Walle reflects on resilient leadership amidst global challenges.
14th December 2023
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As my second and last term as President of CESAER draws to an end, the time is right to look back on the past four years during which I was leading ‘The strong and united voice of universities of S&T in Europe’.

First of all, it is hardly believable that it has only been four years since I took over from my predecessor Sir Jim McDonald. In this short span of time, the world in which we are living has changed tremendously.

Of course, climate change was already very high on the agenda back in January 2020 – including CESAER’s, with sustainability as the most important horizontal theme guiding our activities. Apart from that, we had no idea of the series of other local and global disruptions that were looming ahead: a global pandemic that would turn our lives upside down overnight, a full-scale war on the European continent (not to mention a recent one on the other side of the Mediterranean – and many more elsewhere in the world), and also enormous inflation and an energy and supply crisis that would result from these events.

In this rapidly changing context, CESAER, as much as all of our Members, had no other choice than to demonstrate flexibility and resilience. Indeed, more than we liked, and a lot more than we had expected, we had to adapt plans, reschedule activities, and discuss the kind of issues that we were not used discussing. Strong and united as we are, we managed to remain up and running – and relevant. For this, I would like to wholeheartedly thank all who, in a way or another, have been involved in our activities.

Yet, apart from posing sudden challenges, turbulent times may also bring unexpected opportunities. The disturbances and insecurities caused by the ongoing ‘polycrisis’ have urged our sector to revert to its constitutive values (most notably those established in the Magna Charta Universitatum) as well as to critically reflect on its role in the broader society. Looking back at our publications and activities of the past years, I think it is fair to say that CESAER has assumed a leading role in this endeavour.

Reflecting on and voicing one’s core values and responsibilities is hardly sufficient, however, especially when other societal actors are in trouble upholding theirs. As I have argued more extensively in a recent piece for the Academic Cooperation Association (ACA), applying values in global academic cooperation is first and foremost a matter of safeguarding them within one’s own institutional context.

Next, it comes with the imperative to assume a nuanced and thoughtful approach toward partners from areas in the world where these values are temporarily or structurally under pressure. By guaranteeing, for instance, that non-formalised cooperation between academics in principle will always be allowed, universities can ensure that meaningful interactions across conflicts, continents and cultures persist at times when other sectors can no longer maintain similar contacts.

While taking such responsibility works best in our own institutions, where the actual academic action takes place, speaking with a strong and united voice as a sector is key to play our role in the broader society to the fullest. As my experience with CESAER shows, this works in two directions: when you are implementing a radical change of your internal evaluation system, as Ghent University did, you feel less isolated when a large group of similar universities is ready to follow the same path toward reforming academic assessment.When the same university group voices a strong statement on fundamental academic principles, as CESAER did with its ‘Guiding principles for Global Framework for S&T Cooperation’, this can further inspire you as an individual institution when safeguarding your key values amidst international turmoil.

As I said, despite the rough waters, the CESAER ship stayed well on course in the past years. Together with my team in Ghent and my Vice-Presidents Mihnea Costoiu and Jennifer Herek, I am confident that we hand over the association in excellent condition: strong, united – and responsible. With Orla Feely as new President, it will have a remarkable colleague at the helm in the next couple of years. Her leadership will bring new ideas and initiatives, but also continuity in our cooperation with the European institutions, where we are reputed for our constructive and respectful approach and tone, as well as in our perspective on global (academic) affairs, where we appear to be relevant – and rightly so.

I wish Orla and CESAER the best of luck in this important endeavour!

Rik Van de Walle
Rector of Ghent University
President of CESAER 2020-2023

Photo: President Rik Van de Walle with part of his team at Ghent University and the Secretariat. Photo credit: Christophe Vander Eecken

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