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'First listen carefully, then stick my neck out'

5 October 2023
The oldest -and smallest- faculty of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam has a new helmsman. As of September 1, Frank van der Duijn Schouten is dean of the Faculty of Religion and Theology (FRT). He is not a new face for VU Amsterdam, Frank was previously a student, researcher and rector magnificus here. What makes him return now, and what does he hope to achieve?

You have been rector magnificus at VU for 2 years, between 2013 and 2015. What do you remember best from that time?

It was quite intense, there was a lot going on. Administratively, it was certainly not a matter of looking after the store. My predecessor Lex Bouter had resigned quite suddenly, which caused consternation, partly because of a conflictual relationship between the college of deans and the executive board. And it was precisely then that institutional accreditation was at issue. Due to the administrative consternation, the Executive Board was advised to withdraw the application. That happened and my assignment was to make a new start. It ended well in the end, the committee granted full accreditation in two steps.  

Another issue was the merger of the two science faculties. Amongst other things, this involved a reorganization in which we had to say goodbye to people. We also changed the internal funding system at that time. The employee work council insisted on extra protection for smaller courses. It is a challenging university balancing act to find a balance between solidarity and pulling the plug. One of the consequences was that concerned Earth and Life Sciences students occupied the 14th floor of the main building. Now we didn't really need that floor, but the students also used the roof and had plenty of drinks to their disposal. For the sake of safety, we had to intervene. 

You are now not heading an entire university, but a faculty. The smallest of the VU even. What is your plan?

As a dean, I think you have two roles to play. First of all, you represent the interests of your own faculty and everyone in it. In addition, together with the Executive Board and the other deans, you must contribute to the growth and flourishing of the university as a whole. As rector you lead that process, as dean you are one of the players in the field. Those roles are different, but in the end my way of working won't be that different. 

What is your way of working?

I like to listen before coming to conclusions. When I took office as rector, there was no clear vision for education. I first made a tour of all the faculties and then I locked myself up for a few weeks to put a concept on paper. I then submitted that result to the faculties for comment. So first listen, then stick your neck out, and then be open to feedback. In the end, you can be expected to draw conclusions and dare to make decisions. 

As dean, the employees of FRT are now primarily my interlocutors. I think it's very important to be able to walk in on everyone and ask my questions. I use my doorstop mainly to keep my door open. For example, I recently had a conversation with the rectors of the nine seminaries, to hear their opinions, vision and challenges. I sense a lot of commitment to the faculty and responsibility for the big picture. In my view that’s an important basis in the exploration of the future of the FRT. 

Because that future is now on the table. The executive board wants more cooperation between three faculties: FRT, Humanities and Social Sciences. How do you feel about that? 

It's good to have a conversation about this. I understand that this can seem quite threatening to some, but if you avoid these kinds of conversations, the conclusion can easily be drawn that for theology and religious studies the viability within VU Amsterdam has fallen below the critical point. I believe this would not only be disastrous for the practice of theology and religious studies in the Netherlands, but also for Vrije Universiteit. After all, breaking away from your historical roots is an extremely risky operation.  

The university has made quite a step forward in the last decade with clustering of faculties. As a result, FRT has become a relatively small player within VU Amsterdam. Not because we are shrinking, but because the other faculties have become larger. That is why I’m in favour of an open proactive approach to the question of how theology and religious studies can continue to occupy a prominent position in the whole, also for the benefit of the other faculties. How you organize that is next is a following, not leading. 

With better anchoring in the whole, you can also gain greater visibility. From our religious and theological science practice and with our multi-coloured seminaries, FRT in 2023 has perhaps the most varied and committed constituency of all faculties of our university. This gives us the opportunity to make a major contribution to the public debate. That is valorisation par excellence. I see it as one of my tasks to ensure that VU Amsterdam remains sufficiently aware of this. The warm heart that people have for the university is, I think, not least nourished by humanities, including theology and religious studies. We could appeal more emphatically to that feeling. 

How are you going to do that?

If you are part of a larger whole, it is important to have a clear view of the diversity of your supporters and your own identity. You have to design and make it explicit, so that you are recognizable to the outside world. If you can't do that, you have a problem. That is why we need to formulate a common narrative with each other, with which we can enter into the conversation within the university in a sound way. And then also outside VU, to present ourselves more sharply to other stakeholders. My goal is therefore a clear proposition of what theology and religious studies can mean and contribute in a scientific and social sense. 

What do you think is that contribution?

In an academic context, I see theology on the one hand as a discipline that enables students to sharpen their thinking skills. On the other, our scientific fields, especially in our time, are close to the perceptions of the general public. That’s why I see no obstacle for these disciplines to take a full position in the academic domain. If there is one university in the Netherlands that will wholeheartedly endorse this, it will have to be VU, right? 

In my view, theology has an important role in facilitating public debate socially and socially: how do we deal with each other, how do we look at problems that arise with regard to the environment, how do we relate to people from outside our national borders, how do we define meaningfulness? These are all questions for which we can also make valuable contributions from theology and religious studies.  

The realization of impact and valorisation by theologians is quite close to the surface, more than, for example, in mathematics. But we still don't always manage to do that well enough. It's a process that requires us to constantly keep up with the times. What questions do we put on our scientific agenda? This does not necessarily lead to direct and bite-sized application tomorrow, but you must be able to explain how you want to place it in the social context.

You are initially appointed for one year. When are you content?

I am content when the VU community is content. And if I have the idea that we can move forward with theology and religious studies in such a way that the people who work here can give their full attention to education and research. In addition, I think it would be good if we could unburden the scientists with regard to organisational and administrative matters. But 100% satisfaction is probably not going to work. For example, I have always been rather wary of evaluations with more than 80% student satisfaction. Maybe we made it too easy for them? There may be a little dissatisfaction, as long as it is used in a constructive way. Is one year enough? I don't think it's mission impossible. Let's take the bull by the horns and agree that in a year's time we will be significantly further along. We'll see by then if we're done. 

About Frank van der Duijn Schouten

Frank was born on 17 September 1949 in Ridderkerk. He was the first in the family to go to college. At the age of 17 he moved to Amsterdam to study Mathematics, Physics and Astronomy at the VU. In 1973 he married Chris, they are still together. They have 6 children, three daughters and three sons. Since 1987 they live in Ridderkerk again.