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500th meeting of Leiden University’s Board of Deans

On 9 June the deans of Leiden University met for the 500th time with the Rector Magnificus for the Board of Deans. An informal, inspiring and contemplative meeting without a strict ending time, say deans and former deans.

Regular places

Every month on a Thursday evening, the seven deans of Leiden University sit in their regular places at the oval table in the Curator’s Room at Rapenburg 63. The seat to the left of the Rector Magnificus is traditionally taken by the dean of the Leiden Law School. If the regulations or legal provisions come up for discussion during the meeting, this dean can quickly whisper the correct information to the Rector, is the historical explanation. Another custom is of more recent origin: the University’s highest legal expert is also the person who goes round with the tray of snacks during the meeting.

Until 2008 the seat directly opposite the Rector was also reserved for a specific dean: the one of the Faculty of Theology. This dean was considered to be the conscience of the meeting, says Henk Jan de Jonge, who occupied the seat facing the Rector between 1994 and 1996 and between 2002 and 2005.

Advisory and informative meeting

The other seats also have predictable occupants – it can be rather confusing for newcomers who unsuspectingly choose the wrong seat, say various deans. Yet the meeting is not formal in nature: its function is mainly advisory and informative, emphasises De Jonge. ‘The Rector presents the Executive Board’s policy to the deans, and consults them about it.’ The aim is to reach a majority, but no decisions are taken. Budgets and related issues are not on the agenda: these are discussed by the Executive Board and the deans during the meetings of the Governing Council, which are also held monthly.

Long history

Since its foundation in 1575, Leiden University has probably always had some kind of Board of Deans. The first mention that is still preserved dates from 8 February 1579. ‘On this day the four assessors were chosen, who this year will provide the Rector with advice. Each faculty chose its head: thus for theology Mr. Wilhelm Fugueray, law Mr. Neostadius, medicine Mr. Bontius, and humanities Mr. Drusius’, can be read in P.C. Molhuysen’s Bronnen tot de geschiedenis der Leidsche universiteit 1574-1811 (Sources for the history of Leiden University).

Two bodies, one composition

Meetings of the Board of Deans are now combined with those of the Doctorate Board. Strictly speaking, they are different bodies. A Doctorate Board is a legal requirement, while a Board of Deans is not, although Leiden University has included the Board of Deans in its own Management Regulations. In Leiden, both bodies have the same composition.

The Doctorate Board establishes the PhD regulations, the latest version of which came into force in 2015. A great deal of time was spent on this back then, says Law dean Rick Lawson. In their capacity as the Doctorate Board, the deans also discuss questions and problems about individual PhDs, he continues. ‘We also exchange experiences. What can we do to help the various elements of the PhD track run as smoothly as possible? From registration of new PhD candidates right through to the defence: these might seem like small details to the outside world, but a lot of time goes into ensuring that the whole process runs optimally.’

Endowed chairs and honorary doctorates 

Another role of the Board of Deans is to advise on appointments to endowed chair positions. In addition, there is one full professor who is actually selected by the deans during their meeting: the annual Cleveringa professor. The deans also nominate potential honorary doctors, who are discussed and deliberated during the meetings.

Time for reflection

The tone of the meetings is extremely courteous, says former dean De Jonge, who cannot recall a single instance of discord. The Social and Behavioural Sciences dean Hanna Swaab praises the inspiring chairmanship of the Rector, and the fact that the meeting usually does not have a strict ending time. ‘It’s important, when evening falls, to have time to reflect and to share important university-wide issues that concern us, in a historical setting.’ Kutsal Yesilkagit of Governance and Global Affairs: ‘It’s a place of contemplation and reflection on the academic enterprise. Together with the Rector Magnificus, we think about the major questions relating to our beautiful university.’ De Jonge: ‘The Board of Deans reflects the unity of the university as a whole.’

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