Last spring, Ronald van Raak, a former MP representing the Dutch Socialist Party (SP), said goodbye to politics. During his farewell speech in Parliament, the SP’s ‘in-house philosopher’ literally held his future in front of his chest: a portrait of Erasmus. On 1 April, Van Raak started in his new position as a Professor of Erasmian Values at the Erasmus School of Philosophy. Moreover, starting from next week, he will write a monthly column for EM.

According to the former politician, having discussions on values was a bit of a taboo for a long time, meaning that organisations such as Erasmus University were at the mercy of the logic of the market. Having such discussions is no longer a taboo, and Van Raak believes that Erasmus University is ahead of the pack in the new discussion on values. However, some tough nuts are still to be cracked.


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MP Ronald van Raak switches from The Hague to Woudestein, holding Erasmus in his hand

Ronald van Raak, a former MP on behalf of the SP, is returning to his alma mater after a…

To you, what are Erasmian values?

“As part of its strategy for 2024, the university drew up the following values: socially engaged, world citizen, connecting, enterprising, open-minded. But when it comes down to it, these are wishes rather than values. What is more important is examining how these values are at odds with reality. It’s interesting that it was Erasmus University that initiated that discussion on values. As far as that’s concerned, the university is definitely ahead of the pack.”

“In the public debate, discussions on rules and morals were considered outdated or conservative until quite recently. They were things that mattered in the privacy of one’s home. Organisations were mostly expected to be efficient and make a profit. Apart from that, everyone within the organisation was allowed to have their own values. But by not setting any values for themselves, organisations place themselves at the mercy of the logic of the market. Which is exactly what has happened. Universities judge researchers by how much they produce and treat students like consumers.”

Ronald van Raak 2 – Levien Willemse
Image credit: Levien Willemse

Isn’t EUR with its heavy emphasis on economics a university that is comfortable with the logic of the market par excellence?

“To me it makes sense that EUR is a trendsetter in this discussion because entrepreneurship is in our DNA. EUR arose from two other schools that were founded by men who got rich because of the port of Rotterdam, real Rotterdam entrepreneurs. EUR is used to commenting publicly, conducting research commissioned by third parties and conducting research that is relevant to society, and maybe it’s because of that that it’s the first university to notice that academic values and freedoms are being jeopardised. You don’t know what your values are until they’re being jeopardised.”

Is that precisely because they are sometimes jeopardised here – for instance when we conduct contract research?

“EM recently published an interesting article stating that half of all Dutch scientists admit to engaging in questionable research practices on occasion. Even things such as making up or manipulating data are fairly common. I found that quite shocking. These practices are caused by a heavy workload, the pressure we’re under to publish a lot, competition and market mechanisms. It should be noted that the people who do this aren’t necessarily bad people. Rather they were confessing a sin, making a plea for help – ‘Our values are under pressure!’”

“What I also noticed was that this didn’t result in a lot of commotion. It’s strange that a plea for help made by so many academics resulted in so much silence. Making up or manipulating data because your client wants you to or because academics feel forced to makes us vulnerable to people who say that science is just another opinion.”

So basically you have your work cut out for you?

“All universities have their work cut out for them, which is definitely true for EUR as well. I am discussing the university’s values, both within the organisation and elsewhere. I want to show people what kinds of discussions we’re having at EUR, and why they’re important to society. This university named itself after Erasmus. The city tied itself to Erasmus. Which means that we attribute certain values to the man Erasmus. The university has drawn up some nice-sounding ‘Erasmian values’, but when it comes down to it, these are wishes rather than values. They are the place we wish to get to, which means we must first determine where we currently are. Take, for instance, a value such as independence. Can you actually be independent if a large share of your income comes from lobbyists, corporations and ministries?”

Ronald van Raak 3 – Levien Willemse
Image credit: Levien Willemse

Are the values the university came up with (socially engaged, world citizen, connecting, enterprising, open-minded) at all in line with the historical Erasmus?

“Yes and no. Yes, all those values are applicable to Erasmus. He was a world citizen, he was a connector, he was enterprising and open-minded. However, there is a clear difference between the values he upheld as a human being and those he upheld as a researcher. In his capacity as a human being, he was very willing to compromise. Reading his letters can be downright embarrassing because he tried so hard to suck up to his clients and well-known persons. He also tried very hard to affect the way people perceived him – for instance by means of the famous portrait by Holbein. He commissioned it and sent it to scholars and people in charge. Trying to affect how others perceive you doesn’t have to be a bad thing. At the same time, though, Erasmus never compromised as far as his autonomy was concerned. Everything was negotiable for him – money, positions – but his independence (which is also EUR’s key value) absolutely wasn’t. Why do clients choose a university to conduct their research, rather than a consulting firm? Right. Because of its independence.”

Erasmus had a few other qualities, such as his sense of humour and his being a great contrarian, which the university has not yet explicitly incorporated into its values. Would EUR be able to learn any lessons from them?

“We could learn from his playfulness. In In Praise of Folly, he was bold enough to pose as Folly herself. The book is a brilliant analysis of the society of his age. He analyses it in a way that often offends the people he describes, but at the same time they will laugh at his analyses of other people. That playfulness in terms of points of view and language still sets a great example for today’s academics. The death of research is having to submit a research design which already spells out the conclusion you will arrive at. Researchers must be able to experiment, go off the beaten track.”

At the same time, EUR has experienced a movement whereby people seek to keep the campus free from undesirable opinions. For instance, in 2019 a protest was staged against Thierry Baudet’s attending a debate to be held on campus (the debate did end up taking place). Do you think it’s a bad thing that students are trying to ban dissenting opinions?

“I find that discussion quite interesting. Naturally, there is such a thing as academic freedom, but this isn’t absolute. Obviously, there are laws – you’re not allowed to preach hate or call for violence – but what are the boundaries we, the academic community, impose on this? This is something we can only determine by entering into a discussion with each other, based on real-life examples. This protest was a good example of that. Is it possible to get a degree without ever being hurt? Without ever having your prejudices put at stake? I have discussed this during seminars, and most of my students feel that the university must be a place where it’s safe to experiment, to get burnt. We should be able to try to determine how far we can go in our reasoning and phrasing. A university must also be a place where you can get emancipated, where you can break free from the values you were given by your family or religious or ethnic group.”

Next week your first monthly column will be published in EM. Are you planning to use that column to initiate discussions like this?

“Obviously, I’m really glad I’ve been given this column. Naturally, it will be about the discussion on values, and any trends I’m identifying. I want to make the discussion as close to real life as possible, and I hope the column will be able to fuel it.”