Van der Duijn Schouten (67) is clearly a heavyweight. He was professor of mathematical decision making, dean of the Faculty of Economics and rector magnificus in Tilburg. As rector, he spent the past four years sorting things out at VU Amsterdam, where he studied mathematics and physics in the late 1960s.

He was relaxed in his chair, friendly and thoughtful, with inquiring, lively eyes behind the glasses. The workroom on the fifth floor of the Tinbergen building, the Luxaflex partially closed and the light off, was virtually empty. Van der Duijn Schouten is in the room twice a week and does not need much more than a desk and a laptop. He mainly conducts meetings. The Faculty of Philosophy has been suffering for years from cutbacks, restructuring processes and internal unrest. Van der Duijn Schouten’s task is to publish a report on 1 September 2017 that will enable Erasmus University Rotterdam’s Faculty of Philosophy to move forward in a positive way.

‘At present, the faculty relies too heavily on a few high-profile professors who will all be leaving in the coming ten years.’

Frank van der Duijn Schouten

Your assignment is to consider in greater detail how philosophy can be permanently embedded as a full-fledged academic discipline in the future. What does the assignment mean in practical terms?

“Together with theology, philosophy is the mother of sciences. The position of the discipline is under pressure, however. While Erasmus University Rotterdam has its own Faculty of Philosophy, the faculty is not attracting students and is therefore vulnerable because funding is directly linked to student numbers. I have one year to formulate an idea for the future. I will discuss the matter with a lot of people. I think it’s particularly important to listen to the younger members of the academic staff. It is their field of study and their future. At present, the faculty relies too heavily on a few high-profile professors who will all be leaving in the coming ten years.”

You are a mathematician, why were you asked?

“I know about the positioning of philosophy because of the administrative work that I did in Tilburg and Amsterdam. In both cities, philosophy is compulsory for all students. They must obtain 12 credits in the discipline. The position of philosophy is therefore safe.”

Is that model also suitable for Rotterdam?

“I do not consider it strange or abnormal for there to be a compulsory philosophy component for all students. While many students may be rather less than enthusiastic about it, alumni often consider the component to have been one of the highlights of their student days. I think it’s okay for a university to be a bit paternalistic and say that, at times, the university is more aware of what is best for students than the students are themselves.”

Philosophy as an integral part of all programmes is a world away from the trend in recent years. There has even been talk about closing down the faculty.

“In the past few years, discussion about the issue has primarily been administrative rather than substantive in nature. We need to ask ourselves how we can best organise the study of philosophy and secure its place as a full‑fledged discipline at the university.”

You make it sound as if the restructuring process is intended to protect the faculty. So far, the experience of staff and students has been very different, however. Dean Jack Vromen said that an independent faculty is no longer possible.

“If I look at the support that this faculty can afford, I have to agree with him. At the same time, I understand that people are worried that philosophy will cease to exist as a discipline if the faculty is closed down. We have to work together to find a solution.”

Does your assignment include ascertaining whether the Faculty of Philosophy will in future have to be merged with smaller faculties?

“No. I explicitly asked about that. I would not have accepted the assignment had the answer been yes.”


“The Executive Board pointed out, rightly in my view, that the difference in format between philosophy and economics and medicine, for example, is problematic. A small faculty has to deal with a lot and only has limited options in terms of properly organising support, but administrative aspects of this kind should never guide considerations. I also think that the other smaller faculties – the Faculty of Social Sciences and the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication – are not the most suitable partners for the Faculty of Philosophy.”

In a response to the intended restructuring, philosopher and journalist Rob Wijnberg stated that it was a sad sign of the times that hordes of first-year students sign up for business studies of one kind or another while only a handful opt for philosophy. Do you share this opinion?

“Yes, but the university is to blame for the situation, not the student. Degree programmes focus too much on one discipline. It wouldn’t surprise me if 10% of economics and business administration students actually find it rather boring to spend all of their time improving models. But what’s the alternative? Those students are not going to study philosophy on a full-time basis. I therefore believe that we have to think about a broad bachelor’s degree programme that incorporates elements of, for example, law, economics and business administration. The current success of the Double Degree – 200 students opted for philosophy as a second study last year– suggests that people are genuinely interested in such programmes.”

How many first-year students does the faculty currently have?

“I don’t know exactly, but between 25 and 30.”

Is it possible to maintain a faculty on that basis?

“It’s not. The Double Degree is currently keeping the faculty afloat, and that’s something that should be acknowledged more. It would be nice if we could switch from the tailored funding that we must use to serve each student who is interested to a more performance-based kind of funding; to a system under which we would receive funding for each credit obtained and would therefore receive money if someone only obtained 60 credits out of the total of 90 of the Double Degree.”

What will you do after you complete the assignment on 1 September 2017?

“I’ll see what comes along at that time. I’m at a stage in which I am free to do what I enjoy doing. I’ve always been dedicated to what I do and now there’s even more scope. I no longer have anything to lose as a scientist and I also do not have to worry about a blemish on my CV. I am therefore entirely at liberty to take on challenges like this assignment.”