Just imagine: it is as quiet as a mouse in the Erasmus building. Professors should now be having coffee. Everything is ready. The biscuits, the pitchers and the chairs. Despite all the solemnity, this should have been a sociable occasion. Recognition and acknowledgement. Except hardly anyone is around.

Then at long last, after half an hour, a few professors in robes trickle into the auditorium. They all bashfully greet the balding man behind the lectern. They are only there out of a sense of duty; they would rather not talk to professor Pim. After a caustic farewell lecture entitled ‘Your job is on the line. The consultation economy is over’ Fortuyn theatrically casts off his toga and angrily storms off the stage.

That Friday 1 September 1995 was the last working day for Fortuyn at the EUR. It was the end of a period that was important for the politician.

Endowed professor

Sociologist Pim Fortuyn was appointed as an endowed professor of the Employment Conditions department at the Faculty of Social Sciences (now the ESSB) in 1991. He obtained his PhD doctorate in Groningen and worked there as an associate professor. Rotterdam had been his home city for several years, where he had many contacts with entrepreneurs and professors.

For years, he had his sights set on a professorship in Rotterdam. And if it should happen, he would be the first person to hold the so-called Albeda Chair, a position that should yield primarily policy-oriented studies. This chair was established by the Centrum Arbeidsrelatie Overheidspersoneel (Centre for Government Employees Labour Relations, CAOP), a foundation affiliated with the Dutch Ministry of the Interior. His appointment was limited to one day a week.

Difficult relationship

Fortuyn has a difficult relationship with science. In 2012, Han Leune, professor emeritus of sociology, stated that he and other colleagues on the board that appointed him had definitely had their doubts for a long time about Fortuyn’s suitability. Apart from his then unpublished PhD thesis, he had no scholarly publications to his name worth mentioning.

According to historian Clemens van Herwaarden, who obtained his PhD at the EUR with his doctoral thesis ‘Liefde voor een leider: Het charismatisch leiderschap van Pim Fortuyn’ (‘Love for a leader: The charismatic leadership of Pim Fortuyn’), Fortuyn’s thesis was seen as a sound piece of work. “In it, he gives a well-founded account of how the Germans introduced certain elements of the welfare state during the Second World War. Therefore, he did know how to do research and his colleagues recognised this at the time.”

The current rector at Nyenrode University, Koen Becking, is the only one out of the group of external PhD students who started under Fortuyn’s supervision who has managed to earn a doctorate. Becking carried out research at the CAOP in the 1990s. When he was 22, he visited Fortuyn several times a month, where he and the other PhD students were always warmly welcomed. Becking found Fortuyn to be an original thinker, but also knew that he should not turn to his supervisor for everything: “He was not very good with statistics. I preferred to go to another supervisor for that.”

Despite his later reputation as a professor of the people, Fortuyn also liked elitism. This contradiction becomes clear when you look at his idea of what a university should be. In a speech in 1995, he advocated that only the most prominent scientists and strictly selected students should be welcome at the university. Only in this way could the quality of science and education be guaranteed in the long term.

Pledge

Fortuyn’s heart was not in science either, believes Roel in ‘t Veld, professor emeritus of Public Administration. “He was mainly preoccupied with his popular books. And everyone was jealous of his sales figures. The products that stemmed from his appointment should therefore be interpreted more broadly. They should be seen more as having social value that he added.”

In order to convince the members of the curatorium, Fortuyn pledged that he would attract and supervise a lot of PhD students and research assistants. This pledge won over the majority of the professors. But Fortuyn did not keep his word.

His role at the university was never very significant. According to Leune, he did not supervise any PhD students at the university and had no set lecture programme. He did not publish in scientific journals during those four years either. According to In ‘t Veld, this is why Fortuyn was not reappointed after four years. He clarifies: “He was allowed to stay on, thanks to particular insistence on my part and on the part of others, on the condition that he would work on one publication a year. But he found that an insult.” This is the reason why Fortuyn angrily stormed off during his farewell speech.

Professor Pim

There is another reason why the Erasmus University is important to Fortuyn. It signified the first time that he was allowed to call himself professor. A role he relished. According to Leune, Fortuyn went around drumming up photographers everywhere to photograph him during all kinds of ceremonies. Clemens van Herwaarden also remembers how Fortuyn played this role. His father Jan van Herwaarden, emeritus professor of cultural history of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, held his oration. Clemens van Herwaarden laughs: “Fortuyn was present and the field in the guest book was far too small for his huge signature. Of course, that was wonderfully symbolic. Hundreds of people had already signed that field.”

Oration and debate are things Fortuyn delights in doing whenever he gets the chance. Jan van Herwaarden remembers this clearly. “In the 1990s, Pim sat with us in the corridor next to the room of my good friend, former professor of Economic History Huib Vleesenbeek. Fortuyn was a fascinating guy to talk to. His standard catchphrase was always: ‘You can say that, Mr Van Herwaarden, but…’ and then the refutations would begin.”

Fortuyn Afscheidscollege Sept 1995_ Levien Willemse
Fortuyn walks away furiously after his farewell speech in the auditorium. Image credit: Levien Willemse

Burden of proof

According to his son, Fortuyn expert Clemens, the label ‘professor’ belongs to the brand that Pim Fortuyn later became. “It gave him the stature that made people think that he was exceptional. Readers of his books and later his voters saw an educated man who spoke on their behalf. Who was on their side. His books, for example, were bought by people who otherwise never read. His biggest opponent Ad Melkert, for example, once jokingly said about Fortuyn’s latest book that fish would be packed in it tomorrow. Whereas people thought it was a very special book, Melkert was of the opinion that it did not have a long shelf life.

On a personal level too, it must have meant something to Fortuyn that he was allowed to call himself professor. Clemens van Herwaarden explains: “In his house it was either a matter of going on holiday or of paying for Pim’s studies. The Fortuyn family often did not go on holiday. The fact that these sacrifices were made for him imposed a burden of proof on him.  So, the confirmation he received when he became a professor must have been important to him.”

Pim the inspirator

What Fortuyn especially developed during his time at the EUR, according to Clemens van Herwaarden, was his own sense of uniqueness. “At that time, he started writing and speaking about subjects that were not regarded as major social problems until the following decades. He was then unique in that respect. Consider his criticism of the purple government cabinets led by Wim Kok, but also his warning about the threat posed by Muslim extremism long before the attack on the Twin Towers. You can think what you like about that, but he was the first to raise these issues for large parts of the population during the national elections. While at Erasmus University, he finally had for the first time the time and the position to think about those themes. That’s also what you see. He then started with his columns for Elsevier magazine, invested in his contacts in Rotterdam and started speaking in halls and venues.”

Koen Becking, who first started his doctorate under Fortuyn, eventually completed his PhD at Utrecht University in 2002. During his doctoral defence he received a note from Fortuyn congratulating him. It was a day after Fortuyn had died. The mail had been delayed. Becking will not forget his tutor any time soon. “He was an inspiring teacher all the same.”

Fortuyn graduated in Sociology from the VU in 1972. In the mid-1970s he obtained a PhD in Groningen, where he became a lecturer in Marxist sociology.

The young sociologist first supported the communist party CPN, but during his career, he was a member of the social-democratic PvdA for a long time, from 1972 to 1989. After that, he was a member of the liberal VVD for a few years.

In 1988, he moved to Rotterdam and became director of the company behind the ov-studentkaart, the first travel card that students could travel within every public means of transport. From 1991 to 1995, he worked one day a week at the Erasmus University as an endowed professor in the Albeda chair.

From 1992 until his death in 2002 he worked as a political publicist. Fortuyn spoke in halls and at receptions and wrote books such as Aan het Volk van Nederland (To the People of the Netherlands) (1992) in which he called for an uprising against the political system, Tegen de islamisering van Nederland (Against the Islamisation of the Netherlands) (1997) in which he turned against the multicultural society and De puinhopen van acht jaar Paars (The ruins of eight years of Social Democratic and Liberal cooperation Cabinets) (2002) in which he criticised the privatisation of government institutions and presented an alternative recovery programme.

From 20 August 2001 until his death on 6 May 2002, he was active in national and municipal politics. He was the leading candidate for right-wing populist parties Leefbaar Rotterdam, Leefbaar Nederland and Lijst Pim Fortuyn.

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