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‘We want the heart of VU Amsterdam to be safe’ 

If it’s up to the Executive Board, the faculties of Social Sciences, Humanities, and Religion and Theology will merge into one large faculty. ‘Such a faculty will have a greater impact.’ 

Three schools under one Faculty Board operating as a single unit: this is the plan of the Executive Board for the three faculties Social Sciences, Humanities, and Religion and Theology. “This is how we’ll make a futureproof faculty that preserves its own identity and that of those three faculties”, says President of the Executive Board Margrethe Jonkman.

The Executive Board (EB) is following the advice of the two explorers, Aafke Hulk and Erna Klein Ikkink, who spent the past few months investigating in which form the three small faculties can best continue. “A single large faculty will have a greater impact, both within VU Amsterdam and in the national domain of social sciences and humanities”, says Jonkman.

“The three faculties are an important part of the heart of VU Amsterdam, which consists of conducting value-driven science, making the world a better place based on a sense of social responsibility”, says Rector Magnificus Jeroen Geurts. “But we are worried about the current political developments. Investments are mainly made into the technical-medical sciences to solve societal problems.”

Human resilience

What is forgotten in this respect, says the Rector, is that a “guiding philosophy” is indispensable in this context. “What does all of that technology do to our view of humanity and to society? That’s why we want a strong faculty in the area of humanities and social sciences, to keep investing in the ethical and normative, conceptual depth of scientific progress.”

The newly merged faculty would be the second largest of VU Amsterdam, behind the Faculty of Science. “It would be even better equipped than now to tackle major issues such as climate policy, refugee problems, poverty and international conflicts and, for example, the ethical aspects of artificial intelligence, human resilience in times of polarisation, hope and humanness. Our theological faculty has laid such a great foundation in this respect as well. This would be our way of reinforcing that.”

According to the Rector, three small faculties would have more trouble applying this focus than a joint large faculty. “The latter can provide a proper counterweight to the one-sided technologisation of society.”

Saving a million

“In the end”, says Marcel Nollen, the EB member that has finance and the organisation of VU Amsterdam in his portfolio, it’s about education and research. “The faculty is a vehicle for those things.” Due to all kinds of developments − Nollen points to The Hague once more − that system comes under pressure and small faculties suffer the most as a result.

“If you can integrate the governance and support of education and research, you can keep doing the same at lower costs”, says Nollen. According to him, the merger of the boards and the supporting services of the three separate faculties can result in structural savings worth approximately one million euros. “That’s not intended as a cutback, but to create financial room for investments in innovation.”

Concerns about the rankings

However, recent times revealed that there’s not a lot of support for such a merger within the faculties. The explorers also indicate this in their report. “We hear those signals and we take them on board”, says Jonkman. “They also show great employee engagement. As they indicated they’re afraid their faculties will lose their identities within a single super faculty, we’ve opted for three separate schools. In the elaboration of this plan we will once again take into account the input of the employees.”

At the Faculty of Religion and Theology, there is the fear that student numbers will decline and the position in international rankings will be jeopardised once the faculty is no longer a faculty but a school. Rector Geurts doesn’t believe this to be the case. “There are international examples of renowned universities that have schools instead of faculties, or even where faculties are a subcategory within schools.”

That Religion and Theology would be less appealing as a school to the various seminaries that have consigned their programmes there, isn’t something Geurts believes either. “In that sense, nothing will change. They can keep working together in the same way they are now.”

Religious stress

Furthermore, Religion and Theology is afraid that “religion stress” will hamper integration with the other two faculties. Some people belittle the academic value of theology. “This is often caused by people having the wrong idea of theology”, says Geurts. “They see it as a restrictive framework, whereas our faculty actually has a great and very modern way of working on opening perspectives, through interreligious dialogue and interpretation of complex societal issues based on philosophy of life and humanness. The entire university can draw inspiration from this typical ‘broader mind’ ideology.”

‘A single large faculty can provide a proper counterweight to the one-sided technologisation of society’

When the different science faculties merged into a single large Faculty of Science, mutual prejudice also existed between the merger partners, the Rector explains. “Just like back then, the people at the three faculties under discussion will become better positioned to see the added value of other disciplines.”

No forced layoffs

Won’t the intended scale-up pose a risk to the quality of the programmes? After all, small-scale programmes always come out on top in evaluations like the National Student Survey. “No”, says Marcel Nollen. “At one time I was an administrator at a regional training centre, a huge organisation where, if anything, there’s a need for a smaller scale. But through its efficiency and presence, the large scale of the institute actually makes it possible to deliver small-scale, personal education that’s close to the students.”

It makes sense for the streamlining of operations to be at the expense of jobs, Nollen agrees. But he doesn’t believe this will result in forced layoffs. “We think we can solve this by way of natural turnover, also because it doesn’t have to be realised overnight, we can take our time. Perhaps there will even be extra jobs, as the money saved is invested in innovation.”

Listening to each other

The Faculty of Religion and Theology recently went through a reorganisation that was a bumpy ride. Isn’t the EB afraid this will once again be a process full of unrest? “In the time ahead, a project group led by the deans will flesh out the advice of the explorers and take on board the input from the work floor”, says Margrethe Jonkman. “But I hope they’ll also listen to us, because then it becomes a dialogue. We don’t take these kinds of decisions lightly. We weighed up all the arguments. The easiest would be to leave everything the way it is. But given all of the recent developments, that wouldn’t be best in the long term.”

“We want the heart of VU Amsterdam to be safe, and much less vulnerable to movements from the outside”, says the Rector.


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