‘Make it clearer to people what the university actually does for them.'
How can the university forge closer connections with society? This is a question that is close to the heart of Willem te Beest, who retired as Vice-President of the Executive Board from 1 May.
Willem te Beest is still rather dazed after his farewell in the Pieterskerk, the many warm speeches full of kind words, the beautiful music and the royal distinction. He did give a farewell speech, but was so overcome by events that he forgot to mention something that was firmly in his notes. He would now like to share that unspoken message.
‘Both at Douwe Breimer's and Paul van der Heijden's farewell I repeated what we have always felt in the Executive Board: it isn't about us, but about the university and what the university means for society.'
Connecting with society
‘What we do at the university is teaching, research and valorisation, that we sometimes refer to as impact. But we forget that outside the university there is an enormous community of people who can make good use of our support, or who may even need our support, but who have no access to it - people who don't know what the university is or what it does and who therefore don't see it as important. Not because they don't understand it, but because we haven't found the right way to connect with them. I'm extremely happy that Carel Stolker raised the question of whether it might be a good idea to breathe new life into the Science Shops and Legal Aid Centres. That would be fantastic!'
'The general public'
Te Beest, who retired on 1 May, hopes that in future the university will be more successful at making clear the importance of its function in society. 'And by that I don't mean that we have to tell everyone about our research and teaching and their impact. What I mean is that we have to do different things to reach all those people we refer to as "the general public".'
One example of Leiden's outreach initiatives is the Present Foundation where volunteers do small jobs for other people who need help. 'Present in Leiden carries out about 150 projects a year and our students are involved in about 60% of these projects. I think it's a wondeful initiative.'
Another project that Te Beest is keen to mention is De Robijnhof care home that is due to be demolished, but that is temporarily being lived in by students, refugees with a residence permit and people who need some extra support. They pay a modest rent, and everyone living there also makes some contribution, by helping someone else for a few hours a month, with language lessons or filling in forms, for example. As far as Te Beest is concerned, there could be many more such schemes. 'So that people see and experience that the university really can make a contribution.'
LUC and Honours Academy
Students at Leiden University College and the Honours Academy also carry out community projects. 'I believe it's incredibly inspiring to see what students and lecturers are already doing. We could all step outside our cocoon more often and engage with like-minded people. Students could advise medium-sized and small companies (SMEs), for example, under the supervision of their lecturers. SMEs are very happy with this kind of advice and only have to pay the costs for the extra hours that a lecturer puts in. At the same time, students learn from the experience, in a graduation project, for instance. It's a win-win situation. Our Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Hubspot can play an important role here.'
Te Beest hopes that this will help to broaden society's support for universities, and that large sections of the community will stand up for universities and call the government to order if further cuts in university budgets ar proposed. 'Bear in mind that when study grants for students were stopped, the minister promised universities funding to put into further strengthening teaching. And then you need to realise that the actual situation is that the funding is currently not even enough to cover the cuts introduced since the Rutte II cabinet.’
Te Beest will not be twiddling his thumbs once he has retired, but will be taking on different positions at NWO, Ipse de Bruggen (care for the handicapped), Naturalis, TU Delft and the Commission on the Final Attainment Levels for Accountancy Training Programmes. ‘I'm still going to miss the very special people who work here at the university, from the security staff to the directors. It's been a wonderful experience being part of this community.'