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Caroline Pauwels: "By talking with parents, alumni and students, I get the feeling that they see it ias a statement, coming to study in the capital."

“VUB wants to build a real connection with Brussels,” said Caroline Pauwels in her maiden speech as rector. And so it was. One year and one opening ceremony later, we have konekt.brussels: an experiment that pushes students to go into the city and literally and figuratively fly the flag. As the rector puts it, konekt.brussels “highlights the B in VUB”.

 

Author: Aubry Cornelis
Photography: Bas Bogaerts

 

konekt.brussels aims to strengthen both education and research. By giving students the starting point in a fulfilling career, for example. Or by helping Brussels to face the challenges of the 21st century with verve. Because the challenges facing the city are the challenges facing the world.

The origins of the word konekt are fitting: it means ‘connect’ in Esperanto. But what does it mean for VUB?

 

Pauwels: “konekt.brussels is about unexpected and hopefully surprising connections with everything and everyone who’s doing their thing in Brussels. The working title was ‘the pop-up university’, to underline the fact that it’s something temporary, that appears and disappears here and there. That’s also how life goes. Some roads are a dead end, others are there for ever.”

“konekt.brussels is about unexpected and hopefully surprising connections with everything and everyone who’s doing their thing in Brussels.”

What does it mean for students in practice?

Pauwels: “We’re now adding the konekt.brussels logo to everything we’ve already done, in, round and with Brussels. That way, students will see the link with the city immediately. And there’s a lot: lectures on location, a trip to Cinematek, visiting the European institutions, demographic and sociological research in the various neighbourhoods, mobility and societal research in the pedestrian zone…

 

“Secondly, we launched an appeal to Brussels organisations to make their infrastructure available to us: not for a week or a month, but for a whole semester. That could be at the Federation of Belgian enterprises, for example. Bozar is taking part. There’s an auditorium at the National Orchestra of Belgium. In the Belvue museum you sit beneath the chandeliers, with a view of the palace. These are all places that students are going to discover and say ‘Ah, right, is that here? But it’s right next to the Warande park!’ It will get them moving, and also thinking and discovering.

 

“A third thing we’ll be doing here and there is bringing together location and content. Some organisations have asked to take part: they want to share knowledge as well as space. So you might have the CEO of Solvay taking an hour to share his current dossiers or his vision of the economy while you have lessons there. It embodies the fifth pillar of our pedagogical vision. This helps our students to prepare for their professional career.”

“For lots of students, choosing Brussels is a statement about themselves, often against the flow. konekt.brussels makes a collective and personal journey of it.”

So it’s a lot more than just taking a few classes in a different place?

Pauwels: “konekt.brussels is one big encouragement to discover the city and urbanism. By talking with parents, alumni and students, I get the feeling that they see it as a statement, coming to study in the capital. Choosing Brussels is a brave choice, often against the flow. And so these students can absolutely take the next step and throw themselves into life in the city.”

 

And they all benefit from that?

Pauwels: “Indeed, on a number of levels. This city could be where they end up working, and konekt.brussels puts them into contact with lots of organisations. It’s also a personal journey of discovery, just like an Erasmus exchange. The city and everything it has to offer make it a valuable research domain.” Continue reading below the picture.

“Konekt.brussels works like islands in an archipelago, from Central station and the Ravenstein via Kroonlaan to VUB.”

Where will konekt.brussels take place?

Pauwels: “The first movement will be around the Ravenstein gallery. Lots of VUBers commute. They first set foot inside Brussels at Central station. With konekt.brussels, they will immediately be part of the university, because even the NMBS is making space available for us. Look at it like islands in an archipelago. From the station via the Ravenstein we’re making a link with Kroonlaan and all the way back to here. In the other direction, from the campus, VUB rolls along this route into the city. It’s the same for ULB, which joins in at the Elsene ponds. They’re part of this story too.

 

There’s also a second phase, condensed into one week?

Pauwels: “Yes, just before the Easter holidays, we’ll be going off campus, into the city, with as many people as possible. In what form and for how long is for the professors to decide themselves. It could be one afternoon, a couple of snatched hours, or a few days. I want this to happen, because it’s an explicit movement by VUB towards the city and the metropolitan.

 

“I realise that konekt.brussels is on top of everything else. Some people wonder how it can be done during the academic year, and I understand this concern, it’s legitimate. Academic and support staff are under enormous times pressures. People don’t have to cover the whole city. I just hope everyone joins in at some point. One week off campus just before the Easter holidays is an option for those who want to but can’t make a lot of time for it.”

“Artists and scientists both start from wondering or curiosity. We can see the results of this questioning from both sides.”

In the third phase, you also want to brings art and science together

Pauwels: “Yes. It’s called Art&D, a bit like R&D. Artists and scientists are very similar. They both start from wondering, annoyance or at least incomprehension about what they see happening around them. They just work in different reference frameworks and have different ways of expressing their desire to intervene. What we can see from each of them is the result of that search or query.”

 

Is konekt.brussels going to succeed in that aim?

Pauwels: “We indeed want to strengthen the link between art, culture and science. For this section we are looking more towards cultural institutions. From the second undergraduate year we will open the academic year in the KVS, with an opening session called Mindblowers. The border between artists and lecturers will completely fade. The theme of this sessions is ‘resistance’, a nod to May 1968.”

“The surrealism of Magritte connects with our university. It’s pure Poincaré. Always think critically. Break down the mental walls.”

For the general theme of the year you’ve chosen surrealism. Are you a fan of Magritte?

Pauwels: “Magritte made a rigid, bourgeois society look at the world and itself differently. That surrealism seamlessly connects with our university. It’s pure Poincaré: always look and think critically. Not the sort of surrealism that’s too often used as an excuse for what’s wrong in this country – meaning nothing has to be remedied. But a surrealism that unmasks tunnel vision, that reveals our dogmas. Magritte personifies the mantra ‘break down the mental walls’.”

 

With all this collaboration and crossovers, are you worried about the independence of the university?

Pauwels: “Independence isn’t the same as working in isolation. Thinking has evolved in that respect. Just because you’re working together, it doesn’t mean you’re dependent on each other. Konekt.brussels rather does the reverse. It’s precisely by making so many connections with so many different organisations and people that we can conserve and strengthen our independence.

 

“So this is no procession with a few friendly partners. That would be giving the wrong message. We just want to open minds. That can happen if you also work with people and institutions that you perhaps don’t feel so positive about or don’t have an affinity with. It’s only by talking to them that you can confirm whether your opinion is justified, or whether you need to adjust it. That’s what konekt.brussels can do.

 

“As a fan of Camus, I believe that the quest for freedom is a lonely journey. Konekt.brussels is a collective quest, breaking through that loneliness.” Continue reading below the picture.

“We’re very lucky to be on this campus, but also to be in Brussels. We appreciate that first fact, but what about the second?”

The campus is a nice home, but there are no ivory towers. Is that one of the messages you want to give?

Pauwels: “Yes, if you like. We have fantastic, peaceful campuses; it’s a haven, a comfort zone, a piece of green in Brussels. So we must cherish this and expand as well as we can. Certainly because I’m convinced the campus pulls students over the line when they visit for the first time. This is where the adventure begins. They are always welcome here. They should feel safe here.

 

“But as a university, we can’t say ‘this is it now, it’s all you need for the next five years’. There is also a world outside. That’s where the decision to hold the Mindblowers session in the city comes from. We’re really very lucky to be on this campus, but also to be in Brussels. We appreciate that first fact, but what about the second? Hence konekt.brussels

 

Is the city the ideal place to discover the world, and yourself?

Pauwels: “Village and city are equivalent. And the city isn’t an ‘ideal’ environment. But urbanism is advancing around the world. In villages too there are huge, fundamental challenges emerging that we once only associated with cities.”

 

Such as?

Pauwels: “Thanks to Eric Corijn, I see at least three. One: the relationship between city and nature. How does an increasingly populous city provide energy, how does it become self-sufficient? How does it relate to the environment? Two: identity. In Brussels, you can’t pass through two districts without being confronted with this question, and with your own identity. It makes no difference whether you call that cosmopolitanism, multiculturalism or super-diversity: there is no escaping it. So the only question that matters is how do we work with that? Three: inequality. It’s not just economic, it’s about more than the income gap between expats and certain parts of the Brussels population. The discussion is wider than that, it’s about social, cultural and political inequality and participation.

 

“For me these are issues that a university can’t afford to ignore. Brussels addresses them spontaneously. The sustainable development goals are crystallised here, in this city. If we can help with finding answers, then we must.”

“If this exercise helps to underline the B in VUB, then for me it will have been a success.”

You wrote an opinion piece this summer about the difference and the relationship between practical, linear time (Chronos) and the time in which to be calm and aware (Kairos). Is this a Kairos moment?

Pauwels: “On the one hand, this is a sort of calm time; on the other, everyone instinctively feels a sense of urgency. There is also a lot of individual volunteering around today, I feel that everywhere I go. That goes to show that it’s not so much a matter of urgency, but a sincere wish to reflect on what exactly we’re doing and how. Brussels is both that resting place and the urgent sense of inquiry. If this exercise can help underline the B in VUB, then for me it will have been a success. There will be some falling down and getting up again. Slowly. But slowly tilting is also good.”

 

Is this a milestone in your project as rector?

Pauwels: “What is a university in the 21st century? What can it be? This question really occupied me when I was considering putting myself forward as rector. And once you start thinking about it, you can’t get away from the fact that it’s about having more than just a scientific or economic impact. You need a whole community to drive good science and improve a society. Insights from other people, even if they’re not scientists. The taxi driver can offer valuable insights that a research group can then take to a new level. If you’re working alone, under constant pressure to publish, you don’t have the time to listen with an open mind to your colleagues. That’s my point.”

 

Is progress in science always measurable?

Pauwels: “Measuring is important. You can’t sail blind. But it’s equally just a beginning. After knowledge comes understanding. Numbers are reassuring and offer a direction, but neither science nor society can be reduced to just numbers. That’s why we also need surrealism; true surrealism, like we’re aiming for with our theme this year. Achieving both the V and the B of VUB: that’s a beautiful thought.”