This opinion article is a response to an article in Erasmus Magazine by F. A. Muller, professor of Philosophy of natural science, last week. We recommend you to read his article first.

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Read the article by F. A. Muller

Chaositis and the Academic Duchies

The tumult surrounding ESHCC does not leave the philosophers unmoved, as they are…

I have become better acquainted with Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication (ESHCC) over the past four months. After all, as Dean you can call in unannounced to visit faculty staff and engage in discussions, which enables facts to emerge faster and more efficiently than through an external research agency. In doing this, I formed an impression of the school and its staff that differs in various essential components from the picture painted by Fred Muller.

As for a good understanding of the present insight into the past often helps, I’d first like to briefly describe some of the faculty’s history. The ESHCC comprises three sub-disciplines: History (from 1978), Art & Culture (from 1989) and Communications & Media (from 2008). This gradual faculty expansion is still reflected in the name: Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication. A school that is named through a simple listing of its constituent parts.

No duchies

ESHCC has been confronted with a number of challenges in its rather short existence. The significant decline in student interest in a Dutch language History programme led ESHCC to launch the first international History bachelor degree programme in the Netherlands in 2015. This study programme found its place at the top of Dutch history study programmes incredibly quickly: it has already been number 1 in the Keuzegids Universiteiten rankings for two successive years. Art and Culture has developed to become the biggest Arts and Culture Studies in the Netherlands, while also effortlessly developing a successful double degree programme, together with Codarts Rotterdam and the Willem de Koning Academy. The Communications and Media department has been able to create an internationally-respected bachelor and master degree programme in less than ten years. And all these innovations in education have certainly not been at the expense of scientific research: research evaluations are full of praise and over the past four years, 35 national and international grants have been obtained, including four Vidi grants, an ERC Consolidator Grant and four H2020 projects. The total expected income flow for ESHCC from the second and third flow of funds in 2020 is some 15 per cent of the total turnover.

The image that emerges here is not that of duchies that are fighting to try to optimise their own existence, as Fred Muller writes. On the contrary, there are three strongly operating departments that have all delivered substantial performance in their own sub-domain, have pulled their weight, have not given in when confronted by setbacks, have determined their own destinies and have searched in innovative ways for new pathways to give shape to academic education and research in the humanities at Erasmus University. These results could only be achieved due to a high level of entrepreneurship, self-confidence and perseverance. In the meantime, ESHCC is now also one of EUR’s most internationally-oriented faculties, both with respect to the student population and staff composition.


What is then lacking at ESHCC? The high growth and innovation intensity that ESHCC has undergone over the past ten years has resulted in paying little attention to the internal organisational culture at school and departmental level. In various respects it appears old-fashioned and exhibits, for instance, a lack of clarity with respect to future perspectives for young scientists. The turbulent growth in recent years has also resulted in signs of imbalance in staff composition; there are, for instance, too few young professors, and there are too many staff on temporary contracts. This is closely connected to EUR’s internal funding system, which is simply not suited for a faculty that has exhibited substantial growth in student numbers for many years in a row. A recent internal audit that the Executive Board contracted to Deloitte pointed this out.

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What ESHCC is now facing is to define a faculty profile that exceeds the sum of its constituent components. ESHCC could really use some help in this. I have been called an administrative genius that bit too often by Fred Muller to be tempted to overestimate myself, but clearly this task can be undertaken without an administrative genius. And I should know. I encountered a quite similar situation on a smaller scale some two years ago among philosophers: scarce faculty resources were distributed in advance across three mini Chair groups, and there was no shared vision on the future of the school. In addition, the faculty was being held in a firm financial stranglehold. This situation came to an end over the past two years. The development of a new university-wide bachelor programme in philosophy gave the Erasmus School of Philosophy (ESPhil) new space for development. As the government did not give EUR any extra funding, the generosity of other faculties played a decisive role in this.

New answers

The ambitions that are formulated in EUR’s new strategic plan with respect to the humanities and social sciences offer EUR and particularly ESHCC and ESPhil new opportunities and challenges, and new answers will also need to be formulated. This also demands a new consideration of our school structures. The foundation of a faculty entity that brings together a fragmented humanities offer would be an extremely credible and important step in realising the ambitions formulated in the strategic plan. With the combination of ESHCC and ESPhil, EUR has the content in house to present itself as a university that is adding something substantial to the Dutch humanities pallet. This is more than possible without us having all the classic ingredients of the humanities in house, such as language and literature. We must certainly not attempt to become a clone of the Humanities faculties at Leiden, Utrecht or Nijmegen. The Netherlands already has a sufficient number of such faculties.

Fred Muller’s opposition to this appears mainly to be driven by a fear of a loss of visibility of philosophy. A fear that in my view is entirely unjustified. Two years ago, I did indeed forcefully defend that the launch of the double degree programme, which has enabled the ESPhil to survive, in no way benefits from a merger with any other faculty. But I also added in the same breath that the independence of any school can never be a goal in itself.

Splendid isolation

esphil eshpm Philosophy

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Now that ESPhil once again has a strong position, it is facing a fundamental choice with respect to handling the challenge offered in EUR’s new strategic plan. Will philosophy continue to cherish isolation within EUR, or is it ready to choose a position in which it moves more towards the centre of the academic community in Rotterdam?

Fred Muller is clearly choosing the former. He apparently fears any form of horizontal collegial accountability. Where within other broader faculties, a healthy mutual consultation takes place between scientists from related disciplines in committees for scientific development, faculty councils and appointment advisory committees, according to Muller a fence needs to remain erected around philosophers, because only they are capable of assessing what entails good philosophy and what philosophy can and aims to mean within EUR’s total package. I see that as a form of isolationism that could ultimately lead to the destruction of philosophy in Rotterdam, as this means you leave the future fate of philosophy exclusively in the hands of administrators, without a protective circle of a broader faculty construction of mutually-related disciplines.


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The troubled year of the ESHCC

It is - and this has been said carefully - a difficult year for the ESHCC faculty. First…