Henk van de Bunt, the ‘founding father’ of the department of criminology, is saying goodbye after forty years. “I have always wanted to expose injustice, and show why people get away with their behaviour.”

“When my father was awarded a royal distinction, I had a huge argument with him because he was going to accept it. But I was about fifteen years old at the time, and I had long hair,” says Van de Bunt with a smile. Now history is repeating itself. He himself was named an officer in the Order of Orange-Nassau when he retired as a Professor of Criminology at Erasmus University at the beginning of the month. It came as a complete surprise to him.

So, is he happy now to receive the ribbon of honour? “Of course it’s an honour. I loved receiving it. But I’m not the kind of person who will attend all sorts of meetings and receptions wearing that thing (points at his chest). I did wonder – what would my father have said?”

“When my father was awarded a royal distinction, I had a huge argument with him”

Henk van de Bunt

Henk van de Bunt looks back on forty years’ worth of criminological research and teaching, a week and a half after saying goodbye as a professor. We meet in his brand new workroom at the university. He may now be an emeritus professor, but he has not yet completed his research, and so he moved to the Sanders Building last summer, along with all his colleagues.

Absent-minded inspector

Conversations with his colleagues and friends clearly demonstrate that Van de Bunt was partially responsible for the rise of criminology in the Netherlands. Hans Nelen, a professor at Maastricht University, calls him ‘one of the founding fathers’ of the Dutch criminology degree. He ‘got criminology going’, says René van Swaaningen, a professor at EUR.

The most striking characterisation of Van de Bunt is provided by his former student and former colleague Pascale Rollé-de Leeuw, who compares him to Columbo, the protagonist of the eponymous TV detective show. “He was the kind of inspector who wears a shabby coat and looks rather absent-minded. Once you’ve been talking to him for a while, you will hit the point where you’re wondering if he is actually listening to you. And then, suddenly, he will ask you an excellent question.”

These characterisations make Van de Bunt laugh. “I have to admit to being somewhat chaotic sometimes. Just look at my desk. I’ve been here for three days now.” There are several stacks of paper, as well as four empty cardboard coffee cups.

Indoor activist

“They all insisted on wearing proper suits, which wasn’t necessary for the kinds of jobs they were doing.”

Van de Bunt about his promotional research regarding prosecutors

Van de Bunt has always been interested in criminology, he tells us. “When I was about sixteen years old, I bought my first ever book on criminology, about the criteria used in the administration of criminal justice. It cost four guilders.” The book still sits in his workroom. Van de Bunt was forced to study Law by his parents. “I thought it was boring. A fellow student who was a friend of mine took up Sociology in addition to Law, and I thought, hey, actually, that would suit me, too. This way I can keep my parents happy and do something I like myself.”

During the turbulent 1970s, Van de Bunt was ‘mainly an indoor activist’. He never stood on the barricades. He joined the Willem Pompe Institute for Criminal Law and Criminology in Utrecht. In 1985, he was awarded a PhD by Utrecht University for a thesis based on a participant observation study of public prosecutors. “I was walking among them carrying a small tape recorder. I recorded conversations and attended meetings. It was fascinating, seeing how formally the persons involved were all acting. I was really struck by that. They all insisted on wearing proper suits, which wasn’t necessary for the kinds of jobs they were doing. And needless to say, they saved their loudest laughter for the Director of Public Prosecutions’ jokes.”

Hidden in broom cupboards

Van de Bunt feels that the establishment of the Department of Criminology was the key moment of his career. “When I was a student, I occasionally spoke to criminologists. They existed, but they were hidden away in the broom cupboards of the various Faculties of Law. They were allowed to teach the odd elective. Criminology was fragmented, which does not do the quality of science any favours.” We need a good criminology degree, Van de Bunt decided.

It turned out to be a hit. Before they even began offering the degree, the ‘founding fathers’ were shocked by its popularity. “We said to each other, Jesus, look at those enrolment numbers. We’re going to be exhausted,” says Van de Bunt. “We had to implement a numerus clausus right from the start. Even now, we get about 120 new students every year.”

Professional snake pit

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Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik

Van de Bunt is also proud of his having razed the barrier between ‘non-governmental’ criminology (read: science) and ‘governmental’ criminology. He bridged the gap between the two. “When I switched from the university to the Research and Documentation Centre in 1994 (Van de Bunt was appointed director of the Ministry of Justice’s research centre – ed.), several people believed it was a risky venture. They thought I was leaving academia only to end up in a professional snake pit.”

“They disparagingly called it ‘governmental criminology’, as if it were an inferior product. I never understood that,” says Van de Bunt. “By ‘governmental’, they meant that it did not involve any theory. Which was partly true, because it was all very practical. For instance, we looked at patterns in recidivism rates. But they hugely exaggerated about this. Moreover, I actually think it’s important that scientific research have a high degree of social relevance. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Van de Bunt briefly remains silent when asked if he has any regrets. “I sometimes bit off more than I could chew. This negatively affected my family and also contributed to my divorce. Moreover, it negatively affected the quality of my work.” He is quick to change the subject to the current working conditions in science, which he feels are worse: “These days, universities are only interested in truly outstanding candidates. You must be able to prove that you are good at carrying out research, that you are an eloquent lecturer, that you know how to get funding for your research, and that you are active in various international networks. You are practically obliged to spend a year abroad. Young academics must sacrifice a lot in order to have a successful career.”

Exposing injustice

So what did Van de Bunt seek to achieve with his research? “Exposing injustice. Explaining why perpetrators get away with their crimes so easily. But I also wanted to create an understanding, in the sense that I wanted to make people understand what’s going on. That, too, is very important in the way we deal with crime. Organised crime does not exist despite us, but rather because of us. Take, for instance, people who buy second-hand iPhones at prices that are far too good to be true. Everyone knows there’s something wrong there.” He quickly adds, “But I’m not much of a moralist, really. I don’t like wagging my finger.”

“Conducting research is the best thing in the world, especially when it involves subjects that I find interesting. Which is the case with organised crime.” With three other persons, he established the Organised Crime Monitor, in response to the Van Traa-led Parliamentary Board of Inquiry (which was investigating controversial investigative methods), to which Van de Bunt was a contributor. “How do some people manage to commit such tremendous crimes? Take Madoff, for instance – the American fraudster. He caused 50 billion dollars’ worth of damage. That’s inconceivable in itself. I find it interesting to analyse how the people around him were involved. Did they know he was doing it? If they knew, how come they didn’t say anything? I call this protective circle of people ‘walls of silence’.”

‘I love empirical detail, but I don’t like being sued’

Henk van de Bunt

In the aftermath of the Van Traa Committee, Van de Bunt was dealt a bit of a blow. In a study of accountants’, notaries’ and lawyers’ culpable involvement in organised crime, he described an anonymised incident involving a lawyer. “A journalist working for De Telegraaf managed to find out who the lawyer was, and that lawyer then sued me.” Van de Bunt lost the case. “That was a difficult time in my life. I hardly ever talk about it. It’s better to sit still while you are getting a shave.” Although the case never negatively affected his career, it did have an effect on his work. “I have become more careful in my publications because of this incident. I love providing some empirical detail, but I do not like being sued for damages.”


Despite the fact that he has retired as a professor, his forty-year career as a scientist is not over yet. “I’m still writing – I’ve made a few promises here and there – but I do intend to take it a little easier.” His son Joris had a baby girl a few weeks ago. “I want to be able to enjoy my granddaughter.” Then, with a smile: “But that depends on the grandchild, as well – whether she’s at all keen on hanging out with granddad.”

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Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik