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Rector Stolker: ‘Give chance a chance’

What does Rector Magnificus Carel Stolker think about subjects such as student stress, ‘clean’ transcripts and the onward march of the English language? Law students fired their questions at Stolker during the Leiden version of College Tour on 27 January.

Life can take an unexpected turn, Rector Carel Stolker remarked several times. He was now answering questions from law students at Leiden, but in 1974 he was one himself. ‘I had no idea that a university even has a rector. I didn’t know the Dean either. You had your own little group, and I suspect that may still be true for students.’ He spoke about the various roles of a Rector. Together with Hester Bijl and Martijn Ridderbos he is on the Executive Board of the University, which runs the University. ‘My time is taken up with things like appointing professors and audit committees. I’m also a figurehead for the University at meetings, discussions and ceremonies. Then I wear a livery collar – we have a very sober one in Leiden. A professor from Wageningen once commented that it looked as though I was wearing a bike chain.’

Carel Stolker also answered questions from moderator Bastiaan Rijpkema, an assistant professor of philosophy of law and alumnus himself. The College Tour was organised by J.F.V. Grotius study association.

How do I future-proof myself?

Various students asked law alumnus Stolker for advice: should I choose a broad or a specialised master’s and how do I future-proof myself? ‘If you study law you shouldn’t just be able to spout laws because something like Article 23.2 might no longer apply in a few years’ time,’ said Stolker. ‘The main thing you need to learn is analytical thinking and not to be afraid to keep on asking questions.’ And perhaps most important of all: you have to learn how to keep on learning in this rapidly changing world. ‘I had to do that myself when I had just done my doctorate and was suddenly asked to work on a new Civil Code for Albania.’

English as primary language of instruction

On to another hot potato: what does Stolker think about the Anglicisation of Dutch universities. Does he, like the University of Twente, want to adopt English as the primary language of instruction? Stolker pointed to the differences. The University of Twente is near the German border and is more specialised in technical programmes. In short, it’s a different university. ‘Here we apply the rule that the bachelor’s programmes are in Dutch unless they are very international in orientation, and the master’s programmes are in English unless they are very Dutch in orientation. Dutch law, for example.’ The programmes in The Hague are more likely to be taught in English given the international topics studied there. And in general the research is international in focus and therefore in English, Stolker added.  

The student audience in Lorentz Hall at Leiden Law School.

Commercialisation of education

The discussion was also about the battle for more money for research and the Van Rijn Committee, which wants to transfer money from the humanities and social sciences to science and technology. Stolker said he supported the protest against this and that things weren’t looking good. Is commercialisation an alternative funding option? Stolker doesn’t want this for Dutch students at today’s universities. Then a university education would almost have to be free. But he does see opportunities for international programmes at new educational institutions in the Netherlands, for instance in deprived regions, because there is a colossal need around the world for good education and this is something the Netherlands is good at. Stolker joked: ‘Perhaps we should turn our pig pens in the Netherlands into student hotels.’

Position of PhD candidates

Has Stolker changed his mind about anything during his tenure as Rector? ‘Yes, I have found out much more about topics such as a high workload and how this can affect family life.’ He said he has also become more aware of the position of PhD candidates. They are dependent on their supervisor, which makes it hard for them to voice open criticism, and this can lead to a culture of fear. A new system with more-professional confidential counsellors and the opportunity for PhD candidates to attend an annual meeting with an independent person from outside the University could be a solution.

‘Don’t let time slip through your fingers.’

Student stress

Obviously the topic of student stress reared its head. ‘Who here suffers from this?’ asked Stolker. Some students said that they did. It’s the demanding combination of study debt, having to graduate within a set time, having a social life and making sure you’re ready to enter the job market. What is the best route to follow? Stolker said he understood that students were worried but had the following advice for them: ‘Let life flow. There’s no such thing as a single path and you can’t plan everything.’ He confessed that he himself had repeated a year twice in secondary school. ‘But luckily I discovered I had a talent for law.’ It’s not all about speed, he emphasised. ‘Employers also look at what else you’ve done, so do something alongside your studies. Whether this means joining an association, finding a job or being a carer. don’t let the time slip through your fingers.’

Clean transcripts

A few students drew Stolker’s attention to the phenomenon of ‘clean’ transcripts. Some law firms ask job applicants for transcripts from the Law School so that they can see how high the student’s grades were and whether they did a lot of retakes. This is why some students unenrol from their first exam. This gives them more time to study before the retake and they then get a higher grade in one go. One student asked whether the Law School could provide a transcript showing only the highest grades. The question took Stolker by surprise. He said he couldn’t make any promises but would add the topic to the agenda.

Let lightning strike

Several political questions were raised. What about the hotline for ‘leftist education’, an idea of the Forum for Democracy political party? Stolker emphasised that you need to create a safe culture of debate. He said he felt lucky that this university is home to a very wide range of opinions. In the 17th century the theologians Arminius and Gomarus were at loggerheads, whereas today we have on the one hand legal scholars such as Cliteur and Ellian and on the other historians such as Lucassen and Bouras. Stolker: ‘Let lightning strike. As long as the debate is respectful and about the matter at hand and as long as you can walk out onto Rapenburg afterwards and have a drink or a cup of tea together.’

Don’t plan everything down to the finest detail

Stolker has one more year to go as Rector. What will he do afterwards? ‘I want to sit on your side of the room: for instance, go to HOVO (University of the Third Age) and Studium Generale lectures. That would be wonderful.’ To finish, the classical College Tour question: what is his ultimate advice for students? ‘Give chance a chance. Don’t plan everything down to the finest detail. Back in 1974 I would never have thought that I would be Rector one day!’


Text: Linda van Putten
Photos Marnick van der Bom
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