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Do the weather gods support a call for cooperation between the communities? One would think so, looking at the radiant sun shining upon the VUB and ULB’s opening of the academic year at Jubelpark in Brussels in the presence of King Philippe. The message of the joint opening speech by Caroline Pauwels (VUB rector) and Yvon Englert (ULB rector)? We need to think freely sans frontières, “penser libre without boundaries”. In other words: the future is one of cooperation, beyond all limits.
The call by the ULB and VUB rectors could not have been expressed in a more fitting setting. Indeed, the beautiful site of Jubelpark has been built to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Belgium, our country which, at the moment, close to its 190th anniversary and more than 100 days after its most recent elections, is going through times of difficult federal government formations.
A common history as inspiration for the future
A word is enough to the wise. Sometimes, a separation is inevitable, said Yvon Englert during the opening speech: a reference to the separation between the VUB and the ULB in 1969. But to separate does not mean to break, he continued. The proof is there: the ULB and the VUB have never stopped working together, and the last couple of years they have been cooperating even more closely. In that field, our joint past even serves as a source of inspiration, Caroline Pauwels added. “A source that never runs dry and that needs to be cherished.”
The list of projects jointly initiated by both Brussels universities the last couple of years is very impressive.
For example, at the border of their adjacent campus in Etterbeek, they are planning to build a joint Learning & Innovation Center for students of both universities. Together, they also bought the Fitz Toussaint barracks in Elsene/Ixelles, which in time they want to transform into a complete university area. Jointly, they will set up an AI Experience Center. But, also very important is the commitment of both universities to multilingual education and multilingual schools, “in a multicultural and multilingual city such as Brussels not only an obviousness, but also a priority.”
By the end of the speech, some of the projects were illustrated by a video on screen. But even before that, an unnoticed picture unfolded: Pauwels and Englert taking off their togas. Through that, they made clear the resolution of both universities, namely to close the gap between “that which causes people to lie awake all night and that which we, as academics, are doing.”
Celebrating what brings us together
Those words also summarized the greater purpose of the speech. In these ‘gloomy days’ – next to French and Dutch, English was also spoken – what does not work is emphasized far too often, and they call us to “celebrate what unites us, enriches us, strengthens us.”
And that turns out to be a whole lot. To begin with, our country, in which “time and time again, we manage to agree on joint solutions.” Next, our communities, “because they urge French, Dutch or German speaking citizens to cooperate.” Then, Brussels itself, which, as a city, is a “living lab for students and researchers” and as a region with an international character, “brings the concept of borders and the way it is used up for discussion.” Finally, love was declared to “our universities,” where the frontiers of knowledge have been pushed back since 185 years.
No naive declaration of love
Caroline Pauwels admitted that such an enumeration may sound naïve. Perhaps, from China’s perspective, we are only a tiny speck on a piece of paper, she wondered. Then she mentioned that the VUB and the ULB, each with their own separate projects, - EUTOPIA and CIVIS respectively – have been selected by the European Commission as pioneers of the European University Alliances, and so denied her own reflection. There definitely are a lot of possibilities, both in Brussels and in Belgium, as long as we work together.
“I am sure you have understood,” Englert spoke at the end of the speech to the King, “that today, we celebrate the power of cooperation et de l’union. And today, more than ever, l’Union fait la fête.” After that, he invited Caroline Pauwels to dance to the song “It takes two to tango”, which was received with a roar of applause.