There was room for a mere 120 spectators in the auditorium. Everyone else joined in to watch via a video link. Nevertheless, Monday managed to turn the first day back at the university into a festive day that was perhaps more dazzling than other years. With hip, almost flawlessly functioning live connections and featuring performances from entertainers. The whole thing was strung together by the well-known Dutch TV presenter Wilfried de Jong.

Talk show settee

The tightly directed afternoon was therefore something between an award ceremony and a slickly presented talk show program. Complete with a presenters’ table and talk show settee, on which the first Rector Magnificus Rutger Engels took a seat.

As is done every year, Engels reflected on those at the university who had passed away. This solemn moment, in which the names were projected on screen, was framed by a dance performance by the Rotterdammer Gil ‘the Grid’ Gomes Leal. Gil is a former world champion of experimental dance, who with his own personal language of movement conveys his stories to this audience.

Strict mayor

A selection of guests passed by in an hour-and-a-half long show. Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb explained why he has been so strict with students lately. “The number of corona infections was so high that I had to do something. Students turned out to be one of the sources, which is why I started to wrestle with Rutger Engels on how we could resolve this.” Laughing: “Anyone who calls me a strict mayor hasn’t yet had to deal with Engels.” Fortunately, according to Aboutaleb, it looks as though Covid in Rotterdam is on the decline. “We are now in a situation where the number of infections is steadily falling.”

The first part of the program was a roundtable discussion on the theme ‘Education belongs to all’, in which the mayor also took part. Professor and Chief Diversity Officer Semiha Denktaş identified the issue of inequality of opportunities as a global problem. “It particularly affects children in families where parents have not studied.” For Denktaş, too, it was not a matter of course that she would go to university. “When a woman said to me in secondary school: ‘Semiha, I think you are going to go to university’, it was a shock to me and encouraging at the same time. With the ‘Connecting Our Future’ program, we have to make sure that more children get that encouragement and those compliments and so start believing in the opportunities available to them from an early age.”

All teachers won awards

Aboutaleb also underlined the importance of investing in education. “If I had ten dollars, education would be the first, the second and the third thing I would spend my money on. You build bridges to the city with knowledge. But for the university, it’s not enough to just open the gates. For the first generation of students in particular, the risk of quitting is quite high. That calls for a lot of counselling and coaching.”

During the show, a whole series of awards were handed out, including this year’s education prize to all the teachers at the EUR, who made it possible for education to carry on during the corona crisis. There were also prizes for the best thesis, the best student, and the student who had made the greatest social impact.

New President of the Executive Board

Although he will not officially start working until Tuesday, the new president of the Executive Board, Ed Brinksma, also came on stage for an interview to introduce himself. Brinksma talked about his reasons for coming from Hamburg to Rotterdam. “I am an inquisitive person by nature. That has brought me from Twente to Hamburg and now back again to Rotterdam. This university is among the best of its kind, not only in scientific terms, but also in the fact that the EUR is willing to contribute to solving social problems.”
How the city is evolving is something that Brinksma can judge from a great height, now that he has moved into his pied à terre last week: an apartment on the 31st floor of the Red Apple, the skyscraper situated on the Wijnhaven. To show how he much he has integrated into civil society in the city, Brinksma sang, to the hilarity of the 120 guests in the auditorium, the final verse of the renowned hit by the Hermes House Band: “Rotterdam, de mooiste rotstad die er is” (Rotterdam, the most beautiful rotten city there is).

Daring to fail

Rutger Engels closed the opening of the academic year in the traditional way with a speech. In it, he urged ‘to explore the very things we tend to leave concealed’. “The longer we ignore structural issues, the more drastic the treatment usually is”. In order to illustrate his point, Engels mentioned three crises that were recently on the agenda at a UN congress that he had attended – via a video link: The climate crisis, the pandemic and social inequality. “And there are still people who continue to ignore or downplay or even deny these,” Engels stated. “This is where an essential role lies for us as Erasmus University Rotterdam. It is our task to explore what is, and above all, what is not seen. That is how we make an impact.”

On a personal note, Engels also talked about ‘daring to fail’, which, in his opinion, is an important factor in the wellbeing of students. “We prefer to keep failures out of sight. As a secondary school student, I was once put back from 3 VWO to 4 HAVO [equivalent to A levels and O levels respectively, ed]. It was a difficult period, which felt like failure. Looking back, it was an important experience for me. It taught me not to compare myself to others, but to make my own path. Failure is confronting and puts things into perspective; it inspires new insights. We give our students more room to fail, and we lay down a good foundation for their further development and for our scientific and civic future.”