Geert Vervaeke talks about a green and vibrant campus: ‘If you don’t set the bar high, you never take off.’
As the driving force behind a green and lively campus, Geert Vervaeke is promoting an ambition that others may well find inspirational. Tilburg University is aiming to become one of the top 10 sustainable universities worldwide. He believes this is sending a strong message to the outside world that sustainability is very high on the agenda.
It was inspiration from his children – in particular a son working in sustainable forestry – that led to Geert Vervaeke’s conversion to sustainable thinking and action. He realizes that urgent problems such as those relating to climate and biodiversity are forcing us to make fundamental changes. As the Dean of Tilburg Law School, he is in a position to make a significant contribution to that. In the role of university-wide sponsor, he is happy to extol the importance of this strategic theme. Vervaeke is convinced that the issues we face demand a wider perspective than one’s own individual discipline. “We’re being challenged to rethink the basics of how we deal with each other and the environment. Every academic discipline has certain limitations in its ability to do this. My own discipline, law, is itself being challenged. Because our discipline primarily operates between nation states, whereas the challenges are truly international. They’re not something we can regulate with state law. Watercourses don’t stop at national borders and animals also pay no attention to them.”
Sticking its neck out
The major problems require an interdisciplinary approach, in which we actively involve the outside world in our environment, believes Vervaeke. “This movement reflects what we are at Tilburg University: a university that’s engaged in society. We allow ourselves to be affected by developments in society. In other words, we don’t want to be sustainable just because we have to or it’s in vogue, but out of sheer conviction.” In its efforts to achieve a sustainable university, the Executive Board aims to go further than the law requires. This is evident, for example, from the strategic memorandum entitled ‘Towards a sustainable university 2027’. Vervaeke explains that Tilburg University is truly sticking its neck out. “We aim to be trailblazers.”
We’re being challenged to rethink the basics of how we deal with each other and the environment
So, in what ways is the university doing more than the regulations prescribe? Vervaeke cites two examples. “We opt for sustainable and healthy food on campus. Rather than just offering everything, we place constraints on the choices available.” Vervaeke’s second example of courageous trailblazing involves the policy for travel expense claims. The university now reimburses staff travel to and from work only if it is by public transport, bike or on foot. The rules for business travel are also strict. “Any journeys less than 500 km are taken by train. If flying is unavoidable, we offset the CO2 emissions. Our aim is to reduce the carbon footprint of business travel to 0. This is a strict rule that certainly doesn’t please everyone.”
The fact that Tilburg University aims to be a trailblazer is also reflected in its aim to achieve a top 10 listing in the Greenmetric University Ranking. In other words, the university aims to be one of the most sustainable universities worldwide. Vervaeke believes that it makes sense to be so ambitious. “If we don’t set the bar high, we’ll never take off.” He is not yet sure whether it will prove possible to live up to these high standards. “When you’re flying, you can sometimes lose height. Our high ambitions are important as a signal to the outside world. It’s a clear message to everyone who wants to work and study here: don’t come here if you’re not interested in sustainability,” says the Dean.
Vervaeke believes that the university is a great place to work on solutions for major issues. A range of different disciplines and nationalities come together on campus. It is a meeting place for a better future. In this, it is important not only to work towards a sustainable, but also a vibrant campus. “The university is a meeting place for people who spend much of their time there. We want that campus to be as vibrant as possible, thereby encouraging such encounters.” He also believes that it is good if the university grounds make people curious about others. “Perhaps the campus should actually slightly confuse visitors, as a way of getting them thinking.”
When you’re flying, you can sometimes lose height. Our high ambitions are important as a signal to the outside world. It’s a clear message to everyone who wants to work and study here: don’t come here if you’re not interested in sustainability
As far as Vervaeke is concerned, the campus can become even more vibrant. Especially in the evening, it can give the impression of being abandoned, he says. “Vibrancy doesn’t happen automatically. You need to work on it. In fact, students are now less likely to automatically meet on campus than they were in the past. They’re taught more frequently online, which means they attend lectures less often. This is why it’s important to invest in other facilities that make the campus attractive, such as more opportunities to study and work together.” Tilburg University is gradually introducing more study workspaces and group workrooms in order to encourage this process. As a good example of a room that encourages meeting, the Dean also cites the ‘salon’ for Tilburg Law School students that is becoming increasingly inviting.
Inspiring each other
Obviously, the people are even more important than the buildings they work in. Their behavior should make it clear that sustainability and vibrancy matter. This definitely applies to sustainability. After all, it is an all-embracing subject that encroaches on all everyday domains, such as transport, nutrition, and buildings. Vervaeke: “That requires a lot to achieve. It will only work if you invest in it, organize it properly and incentivize actual behavioral change. The behavioral change required applies to the whole of the staff, from cleaner to President of the Executive Board. The people with ultimate responsibility need to be the first to act. The fact that we, as leaders, see sustainability as important must be obvious from our business travel and corporate dining. That way, our behavior can inspire each other. Just like my own children inspired me.”
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