In her Dies speech, rector magnificus Annelien Bredenoord discussed the role she envisions for Erasmus University. “We have chosen to be a civic university that reaches out to the world beyond our university walls, not just making knowledge available for practice but innovating and developing knowledge in collaboration with societal partners, businesses and government organisations.”

In her personal narrative, the rector advocates for making bold choices that take you out of your comfort zone, echoing the founders’ adventurous spirit in establishing the country’s first school of economics in 1913.

Trust in science

At the same time, Bredenoord outlined the dilemmas associated with pursuing societal impact. She referred in her speech to research by the Rathenau Institute on trust in science. This trust has grown, but scepticism has also intensified,, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In the polarised society of 2023, this is a complex paradox”, said Bredenoord. “Scientists want to contribute to society, but when they share their research publicly, they can encounter threats or the politicisation of their scientific knowledge. While that’s not exactly what you envision when contributing as a lecturer or researcher, it is the reality you sometimes have to deal with. Particularly at a university, difficult, critical and moral questions should not be avoided.”

More than just media training

She believes that the university should better support teachers and researchers in this regard. “If you are active in the public arena, media training may not always be sufficient. We should also provide tools to gain more insight into the role science can intentionally or unintentionally play in the world of politics and lobbying.”

There should be additional support for scientists engaging with the public, but the outside world is also increasingly influencing the university, Bredenoord pointed out, referencing recent events in Israel and Gaza and the resulting unrest within the university. “We have noticed in the past month that the emotions in this situation are so intense, and the violence so overwhelming, that we need to find ways to stay in touch, to make each other feel safe, to engage in dialogue and to not lose each other in the struggle for a standpoint. Especially at a university, there must be room for different narratives, and difficult, critical and moral questions should not be avoided. But this should happen in an open and respectful dialogue. And that, of course, is a constant search.”

Nevertheless, she concluded on a positive note. “The transition to a civic university can be challenging and uncomfortable at times. But this is the only way to grow and move forward.”

During the Dies, several other awards were presented in addition to the honorary doctorate for Guido Imbens.

For example, Stijntje Dijk, PhD student at Erasmus MC, received the Lambers excellence award for her master’s thesis on medical decision making. The Criminology research team received the Research prize 2023 for their pioneering research on, among other things, drug-related crime in the port of Rotterdam. PhD student Maria Carmen Punzi received the FAME Athena award for her commitment to open dialogue on menstrual health, and for being the driving force behind the placement of lockers with menstrual products in toilets on campus.

Finally, Jun Borras, professor of Agricultural Studies at ISS, was appointed the third Erasmus professor. This position aims to give substance to creating positive social impact.