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Blog: Freedom is important, commitment too

Professor Jan Willem Erisman is happy with the freedom at our University. But frameworks are needed, he believes. That is why he makes a proposal for such a framework from the perspective of his own profession. In fact, he makes a proposal for a wonderful ambition for Leiden University.

‘Leiden is a bastion of freedom. It is the motto of the University. I have been working at the University for over a year now and I that’s my experience as well. Freedom strongly determines the culture within the University. As Professor of Environmental sustainability, I lead one of the eight Interdisciplinairy programmes: the Liveable Planet programme. In doing so, I strongly experience the influence of Leiden's culture, both positive and negative.

First of all: what does the programme entail? The Liveable Planet programme strives for welfare for every human being within the boundaries of the social, ecological and planetary systems. Important for this are local solutions that fit within global goals, such as those of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We want to achieve this by connecting scientists and research groups inside and outside the University. 

Producing food and fostering biodiversity

An example of this is the Polderlab Vrouwe Venne. Together with citizen cooperative Land van Ons, surrounding municipalities, farmers, citizens and other stakeholders, we will develop the peat meadow area there. The most important objective is to produce food while fostering biodiversity. And all that without emitting greenhouse gases, without land subsidence and within the limits of the quality of the living environment.

Bottum-up: typical of Leiden culture

The emphasis on local solutions stems from Leiden's culture of freedom, a culture that is bottom-up. This distinguishes us from the rest of the Netherlands and beyond. At least, that applies to my field of research. With the Leiden approach, we offer the possibility of working together on solutions from different disciplines. This happens in complete freedom, of course within certain frameworks. 

'The emphasis on local solutions stems from Leiden's culture of freedom'

Clear frameworks are important

In the Leiden approach clear frameworks are essential. For our programme, for example, these are the global objectives for climate, biodiversity and the SDGs which I mentioned earlier. Within such frameworks, people can work freely. Farmers, for example, theseguidelines are useful for making long-term plans. 

Freedom stimulates

I am a great advocate of freedom, in order to develop, undertake and excel within frameworks. It has great advantages because it enables people to work from their own strengths on the things they’re passionate about. 

Of course, freedom also has its disadvantages. We have noticed this in the design of the Liveable Panet programme: if there is little control, it takes more energy to motivate faculties, institutes and researchers to cooperate. 

Searching for a balance between freedom and control

Our board members know this too. In the outline of the University strategy 2022-2027 they are seeking a good balance between the freedom that is so important for Leiden and defining spearheads that are really important for the future development of the University. 

Connecting is essential

That is why the new strategic plan focuses on 'connecting', because freedom is not without obligation. Connecting people is essential in order to achieve a joint result. Just as in local communities, this includes a common goal, a framework, to which everyone is committed together.

From my professional background, I would like to propose one of those frameworks, a common goal for our University. Let's make Leiden the most sustainable university in the world. In freedom, but connected.’

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