Kees van Paridon first entered the Woudestein complex, which had just been opened, 47 years ago. He was an 18-year-old student at the time. This year, he will be leaving as a 65‑year-old Professor of Economics at Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences. Seven sides, some known and others less so, of a professor emeritus who prefers to be out of the limelight.

The Officer in the Order of Orange-Nassau

On 10 November, Van Paridon was made an Officer in the Order of Orange-Nassau. Looking back on that Friday afternoon, during which speeches were given by Rector Huib Pols, Dean Victor Bekkers and colleague Peter Marks and the mayor of Leidschendam-Voorburg, he recalls being ‘stunned’. “I remember thinking at times: ‘Is all this really about me?’ It was that great an honour to me.” A great honour indeed, even though Van Paridon is not a staunch royalist and moreover, he does not like to be in the spotlight. Actually, he initially declined to give this interview. “It’s really not my thing.” Fortunately, he agreed to talk about himself following a second request.

The Catholic farm boy

Considering his family background, it was by no means a given that Van Paridon would complete an academic education. “My father’s education had ended after seventh grade [one year after primary school, ed.] and my mother had graduated from the domestic science school. I grew up on the farm.” Van Paridon grew up in an unlikely place, namely Prins Clausplein, nowadays a huge interchange of the A12 and A4 motorways close to The Hague. The Van Paridon farm once stood where thousands of vehicles now hurtle past on flyovers every hour.

“We lived in a beautiful polder area not far from the roundabout between the motorways. There’s nothing left of that polder. We made hay where the ADO Den Haag football stadium now stands.” Van Paridon comes from a Catholic family. Ideologically, however, he headed in a different direction. “I was terribly leftist to some family members. They always voted KVP [Catholic forerunner of the Christian democratic CDA, ed.]. But I always remained on speaking terms with the family. They were just baffled that a not-so-dumb boy like me could have such dumb points of view.”

While he no longer adheres to the religion, he retains elements of the Catholic tradition. “Those given and middle names, those initials, remain a part of who you are. Faith does shape your character and the way you interact with other people.”

The long-haired student

Van Paridon started studying Econometrics at Erasmus University Rotterdam, at the time still the Netherlands School of Economics (Nederlandsche Economische Hogeschool), in 1970. “But I wasn’t good enough by a hair’s breadth. I failed one subject and immediately switched to Economics.” To Van Paridon, the university was very much a new world. “I was astounded. There were all these smart people around who had very different ideas and opinions. I had been raised very much in the Catholic tradition and suddenly found myself in a place where it was possible to think very differently about certain issues. It was a real revelation to me.” He was a shy first-year student. “I stuttered and was someone who didn’t like to be the centre of attention.”

In the postgraduate phase of his academic career, Van Paridon opted for Spatial Economics. “It was a somewhat broader and slightly more mathematical discipline. Though small, the excellent programme was run by people like Odell, Van der Knaap, Klaassen and Paelinck [at the time professors of Economics, ed.], all of them luminaries in their field. I also became very active in the General Rotterdam Student Union (Algemene Rotterdamse Studentenbond, ARSB). I started as a member of the Economics faculty council and then served as a member of the university council for two years. All those meetings taught me how to speak in public.”

“The university was already a ‘gentlemen’s rightwing’ kind of place back then and there I was, a Labour Party (PvdA) man. I had long hair and the ‘wrong’ ideas. There were political parties in the university council back then: the progressives (more or less the Labour Party and Democrats 66), the ‘Erasmuslijst’ (gentlemen’s right to unequivocal frat boys) and ARSB, of which I was a member, at the far left of the spectrum. The council was therefore more political, something that is now a flaw. We had more say than is the case today, but whether we used that influence effectively is open to question. We achieved certain things of course, but only to a limited extent. In any case, the situation was such that meetings took a long time.” Van Paridon would return to the university council decades later: he chaired the body for two years from 2015.

The man with the contacts

To those who know Van Paridon, the first thing that comes to mind when asked about him is that he always knows everyone. His secret? “I can get along well with everyone and I’m not the kind of person who’s always out to gain something for myself. You get to know someone a bit and later think: ‘It would be great if he or she could give a guest lecture.’ I send that person an email message and usually the response is positive. Over the years, for example, ministers of finance have regularly given guest lectures here: Gerrit Zalm, Wouter Bos, Jan Kees de Jager, Hans Hoogervorst – I knew them all.”

It was not the only time in the interview that Van Paridon reeled out a series of famous names. “Well, perhaps it’s true that I remember names well, but I don’t have a Rolodex or something like that. I value people simply because of what they do and if I think ‘Only a few people can do what you do,’ I approach them. It’s no more than that.”

The expert on Germany

Former U-Council Chair Kees van Paridon Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik

Van Paridon is known as an expert on German-Dutch economic relations. That expertise actually came about rather accidentally. “I had to decide on a subject for my doctoral studies and opted for the economic relationship between Rotterdam and Germany. Strangely enough, not much had as yet been written on the subject, and when I later took up a position at CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis, I was told: ‘We haven’t really touched that subject yet, please develop our efforts in that area.” And then the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Suddenly I was the expert.”

From 1988, Van Paridon worked at CPB and, for no less than ten years, at the Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR). Nevertheless, the pull of teaching and research ultimately made itself felt. Thanks to the famous Dutch journalist J.L. Heldring, Van Paridon returned to academia in 1999. “He had collected money and used it to establish a number of endowed chairs dedicated to the study of Germany: history in Groningen, politics in Nijmegen, German culture in Maastricht. The original plan was for economics to be based in Rotterdam, but the chair was not wanted here, so I became endowed professor at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.” Van Paridon returned to his alma mater in 1999, where he still works at Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences.

The storyteller

Van Paridon has always thoroughly enjoyed working at the university. “It’s fantastic. There’s a great deal of freedom. Everyone’s their own boss at the university, and rather stubborn at times. It’s difficult for the governors of course, because it means that people aren’t always willing to listen, while it goes without saying that one’s own ideas are always the most brilliant,” he added with a wink.

“And the students are great. The majority have a bit of a consumer attitude in that they just want to achieve the necessary pass marks and that’s it. But some stand out, ask intelligent questions and hand in superlative work. That’s when I really think: ‘Wow!’. Those are the kind of students that you tend to meet again further down the road.” A series of names, this time of professors, was again reeled out: “Bram Steijn, Gert-Jan Verbeek, Paul ‘t Hart, Wil Hout – they all studied with me.” Van Paridon is not such a fan of the currently popular problem-based learning (PGO). “I’m more of a storyteller in my lectures.”

The always busy emeritus

Emeritus status will not mean sitting in a rocking chair in the Van Paridon home. “I fear the worst. I’m still a supervisory director of a few companies and will remain a member of the Advisory Council on International Affairs. I’m also still a visiting professor in Münster. But I’m no longer in mainstream education, which means that there’s a fair amount of scope for other things.”

Van Paridon does not have typical post-retirement plans. “I’ll go down a gear. I’ve always liked reading and will be doing a bit more of that. I’ll enjoy the lives of the children. Some professors carry on working until their passing. I don’t believe I’ll take it that far. I remember a visit to the late Jan Tinbergen. He was almost 90 at the time. The postal items that he had just opened included an issue of the American Economic Review, which he eagerly began to read. I don’t think I’ll be doing that.”