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On Tuesday 19 November, Caroline Pauwels and Eddy Van Gelder, the Vrije Universiteit Brussel’s rector and chair respectively, signed a declaration of intent to turn VUB into a ‘compassionate university’ by 2021. The aim of the initiative is to clearly recognise illness, loss and mourning as part of the VUB community and to involve all members of that community in caring. The signing followed the unveiling of a place of silence for individual or collective mourning around the Monument of Comfort, which has been created as part of this commitment. “With this new place of silence, we give suffering and comfort a place in the heart of our community,” said Caroline Pauwels at the unveiling. “Because compassion and a place to grieve should be part of the warm and connected community that VUB wants to be.”
The declaration of intent includes a series of actions that the university will carry out, such as expanding the range of professional care services and providing training for managers and teachers on how to deal with grief, loss or illness when a colleague or student is confronted with it. In addition, VUB will use exhibitions, debates and lectures to make experiences with care, illness and death visible within its community. Finally, the university wants to facilitate commemorative moments. A minute’s silence was therefore held before the signing to commemorate all VUB members who have gone before in the university’s 50 years of existence. Such a ceremony will take place every year on 19 November: the day before the St V celebrations in which VUB and ULB commemorate their founder, Pierre-Théodore Verhaegen. From today, there will also be a place of silence for students and staff members around the Monument of Comfort. This new statue by the artist Philip Aguirre depicts a person covering someone up and is based on a photo from a Spanish newspaper showing a soldier covering a refugee with a blanket. VUB will also invest €550,000 in developing an interdisciplinary centre of expertise on compassionate communities.
The declaration of intent is an initiative of Caroline Pauwels and the VUB-UGent research group Care for the End of Life led by Professor Luc Deliens and lecturer Joachim Cohen, and follows the example of the Compassionate Cities movement. It is the first university in Europe to make this commitment.
Meaningfulness in finiteness
Marc Van Den Bossche also took the floor during the ceremony. The professor of philosophy of culture lost his wife in 2011 and wrote a diary of the mourning process called Life After Death. We are physical beings, he said, and anyone who talks of physicality talks of finiteness, transience and limitation. “How do we deal with this transience in order to regard it as superfluous or unanswerable without the question of meaning?” He sees an answer in the possibility that life can have meaning, within that very finiteness.
The ceremony was attended by Philip Aguirre, whose work, specifically the Monument of Comfort, was interpreted by philosopher and professor-emeritus Willem Elias. After the unveiling of the statue and a floral tribute by deans and others, the declaration of intent to make VUB a compassionate university was signed and distributed to those present.