Prof. dr. Wim van de Donk

Rector Magnificus Wim van de Donk on ‘markers and movements’ of universities: a sneak preview

Published: 30th March 2023 Last updated: 30th March 2023

On Thursday, April 13, 2023, Rector Magnificus Wim van de Donk will deliver the Willem Witteveen Lecture. This annual lecture is dedicated to the memory of Professor Willem Witteveen of Tilburg Law School, who together with his wife and daughter died when flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine in the summer of 2014. Even though he is busy preparing his lecture, titled Markers and Movements. On Universities, the Rector is happy to offer a glimpse of what he has in store for us.

“I am greatly honored to deliver the Willem Witteveen Lecture. I knew Willem; he and I were colleagues at Tilburg Law School, where I started as a lecturer and researcher in 1986 and later worked as a professor. In my lecture, I will reflect on the university as a vital, centuries-old institution that I am deeply attached to, like Willem was. Protecting it is a great responsibility, but we can only do that well if we dare to evolve.

Markers and movements

Universities came into being in the twelfth century because students began to unite and asked lecturers for more structure. We should never forget that a university is first and foremost an educational institution. At the same time, research has become increasingly important, especially so since the nineteenth century when Alexander von Humboldt ushered in innovations. These markers define the university, but the university is also flexible: it moves with the times, always. And to remain embedded in and in touch with its manifold relevant contexts, it has to.

Just like seaports, universities have a global scope; that is not new

Willem liked to use generative metaphors, and it is in that spirit that I have chosen to imagine the university as a seaport. Just like seaports, universities have a global scope; that is not new. And regionally, too, the university has a role to play – the question is how we can prepare the university as an open and loosely coupled arrangement for whichever future will come our way. Our Minister of Education recently raised that question when he launched a foresight study.


One inescapable pivotal ‘movement’ that will greatly impact on all of our futures is digitalization, a current so strong it will leave no process unaffected, neither in education nor in research. As for the role of technology in academia, I’m taking the long view. We are not a department store delivering digital education to order, but we should certainly experiment with it. It could just be an opportunity.

Responsibility for the world

In addition to their responsibility for education and research, responsibility for the world is increasingly becoming an identifier for universities. The Tilburg way is to commit to Lifelong Development and to meaningful research. How will we do that in the years and decades to come? As far as I’m concerned, students are not customers and the university is not a business but a civil society actor. It is because of our social responsibility that we opt for a broad view of the world that is informed by a variety of disciplines. The organizational model of Schools may not be the only one and indeed no longer the best one to do so. I certainly value the core disciplines, but interacting with other disciplines and letting go of one’s comfort zone has value, too. It is my hope that as a university we will make choices: merely storing knowledge in silos will not suffice.

As far as I'm concerned, students are not customers and the university is not a business but a civil society actor

One such choice, an excellent one I believe, has been made by Tilburg Law School, a wonderful School that I’ve stayed connected with since 1986 and that is celebrating its 60th anniversary: its legal researchers and public governance experts have set their sights on the world of tomorrow and that of the day after tomorrow. Digitalization has long been a strong research area at Tilburg Law School, as well as, for example, the Anthropocene, the Earth’s most recent geological era when human activity began to have serious and potentially disastrous consequences for the planet’s climate.

Universities under pressure

In the Netherlands, the funding of universities is a subject of debate. The current system is perfidious and perverse, and we should be rid of it. Competition between universities is fine, but it should be about ideas, not about student numbers. The future of the university system, its sustainability, is up for discussion, but what does that future look like? Who really understands? What about the all-essential academic freedom? What does it mean, and why and how is it essential? I see this lecture as an invitation to an exchange of ideas that I believe is much needed.

Universities are being challenged: culture, technology, and students are changing. Willem Witteveen was an artist, a researcher, a Senator, and a powerfully imaginative outsider. We are going to need all of these perspectives to find answers. And I have every confidence we will.”

  • Rector Wim van de Donk will deliver the Willem Witteveen Lecture (in Dutch) on Thursday 13 April, 7.30 PM in the Auditorium of Tilburg University (doors open from 7 PM);
  • You can register here (obligatory).