"The campus as THE place for cultural encounters and academic curiosity.”
Susan Legêne Dean of the Faculty of Humanities.
Now that we have primarily been working from home and following classes online for more than six months, the importance of having a physical academic environment that is inspiring is all the more evident. Susan Legêne, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and member of the team working on the strategic theme Social Campus, is committed to making the campus visible again as a place for coming together.
What is it like to work at VU Amsterdam now?
“My previous week shows how much our lives have changed. My meetings were all digital. I got a promotion—online. I participated in a focus group—online. I had a lot of meetings and discussions—also online. I only had one meeting that was not online; it was when someone came to my house to install a new computer. The interaction with students has also changed. We recently recorded a video, where I address the Bachelor's students at my faculty. The video was broadcast during their graduation ceremony, so at a different time. It is a good example of how we are increasingly ‘staging’ our interaction with students. The interaction is more frequently ‘canned’, from me towards students, but also from them towards me. They can’t just respond to me spontaneously.” “Fortunately, in education we do try to have live contact with students, so there is some direct interaction. But there too, we communicate via several channels at the same time: you talk, you listen, you ask for feedback, you read the chat, you view what has been uploaded, you watch a video. This requires a different, very intense type of concentration from both students and teachers. I have a lot of respect for how everyone has learned these skills.”
“I’m very happy that there are students who still come to VU Amsterdam to study on campus. The space is very limited, but it is possible.”
What does the pandemic mean for student life?
“For students, too, their interactions with and participation in the academic community is now dominated by that more or less canned format. I’m very happy that there are students who still come to VU Amsterdam to study on campus. The space is very limited, but it is possible. As VU Amsterdam, we try to stretch that to its limit. Students were given a hard time initially, because the blame for the resurgence of the second wave was placed on them. They felt they were being called to the carpet for this but they also thought: ‘We’re not all party animals, are we?’ The way in which the image of studying at university was twisted has affected people I’ve spoken to, quite painfully. I’m sorry about that.” “Our strategy with regard to the social campus presents a different picture. The importance of coming together on campus is also about having the chance to hang out and unwind, but out of intellectual curiosity. It is precisely this intellectual curiosity that was not acknowledged in public opinion; it was reduced to partying. I find the counter-offer made by Mirjam van Praag and others very strong. We should give students a chance to make up for what they are currently missing out on in academic education through a stay in a context that is not closed off.”
How can the campus once again play a role in this intellectual curiosity?
“The most important thing for us is to think of the campus as a place. We explicitly do not concern ourselves with the virtual community; other services and colleagues are involved in that. We want to show cohesion between the activities that take place on campus and help these provide added value to this physical environment.”
“The social campus is a lively campus; a hospitable, diverse and healthy campus; a committed campus; a sustainable green campus and an enterprising campus. The immediate results are impressive: the entrance to the campus square (Campusplein) has become a beautiful green zone and we’ve set up areas with canvas tents where we can meet each other—even in the time of COVID-19. In order to give the campus more value as a place, we want to set up a Campus Information Desk that showcases to students the context in which they are studying. There are PhD defences almost every day, the carillon and activities of the VU Orchestra. Furthermore, we have the library with its exhibitions, symposia, 3D and courageous conversations. The university is also a cultural environment. We are working on more thoughtfully giving shape to that aspect. After all, curiosity is not only aroused by a good study programme, but academic formation also occurs through happenstance—what you come across just because it’s taking place.”
“There are PhD defences almost every day, the carillon and activities of the VU Orchestra.”
“The history of VU Amsterdam has inspired me to do this: In the 70’s and 80’s, someone had the presence of mind to take all the posters off the wall every week and keep them, and that gives us a fantastic picture of campus life at that time. Some were messages from study associations and the orchestras, but some were also about all the campaigns and protests taking place. If you were to take the posters off the wall now, you would get a very poor image of our university. Right now, it’s an unbelievable mess on campus; even worse, there is no sign of engagement. And that really has to change. The social campus could strengthen this, in keeping with the times, of course. Attention to the public space as an active and curious environment is crucial in my opinion.”
Watch the video here