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The new honorary doctors of the VUB, clockwise from upper left: Deirdre McCloskey, Gary T Marx, Willem van Mechelen, Paul Ginsparg en Jan Terlouw.

Under the title Break down the walls Vrije Universiteit Brussel will this year award honorary doctorates to committed scientists who transcend the boundaries of their own disciplines and to personalities that have been at the frontiers of societal change. On Tuesday, May 23rd, the VUB honorary doctorates will go to the Dutch author Jan Terlouw and the international elite scientists Paul Ginsparg, Willem van Mechelen, Deirdre N. McCloskey and Gary T. Marx. In the fall the Italian politician and activist Emma Bonino and the inhabitants of the isle of Lampedusa will receive their honorary doctorate.


Join us on May 23rd. For more information about the event and registration, click here.


“The entire academic year is dedicated to ‘Break down the walls’, and we continue down that line with our honorary doctorates”, VUB rector Caroline Pauwels proclaims. “In my inaugural academic address as rector I launched a warm plea to tear down walls, the walls between university and society, but also the walls between the scientific disciplines. Because only then can we truly start contributing to solving social and scientific problems.”


That is why on Tuesday, May 23rd, four cross boundary scientists will receive a VUB honorary doctorate, together with (youth) author and former politician Jan Terlouw. They have each connected their own domain to other disciplines and created new insights through surprising perspectives. 

Deirdre McCloskey

Deirdre N. McCloskey
The American economist Deirdre N. McCloskey (1942) is currently a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). She has enriched and broadened the economic research with new insights. Over the last years her focus is on the role that values and ideas play in the historic development of markets.


“Most of my colleagues are wasting their time”, she boldly stated a few years ago in an interview with newspaper De Tijd. “To them the market is only about supply and demand and utility. But I am of the opinion that there is ethics in capitalism and that capitalism in its turn creates moral values.”


Proximus to Deirdre McCloskey is professor Luc Hens of the Faculty of Economic and Social Sciences & Solvay Business School. Professor Hens points out the importance of her tripartite magnum opus ‘The Bourgeois Era’ (2006-2016). “In it she emphasises the significant role of bourgeois values or civil values in economics.”


Deirdre McCloskey was born as Donald. “My gender change definitely gave me an added impulse to release myself from the extremely masculine world of economics, and to consequently look at it from a distance. I believe my current work is a synthesis of my entire intellectual, personal and spiritual life”, she added in the prestigious Flemish newspaper De Tijd.

Paul Ginsparg

Paul Ginsparg
American Paul Ginsparg (1955) is a physicist in theoretical high energy physics (Cornell University). But he is best known as the father of arXiv, an absolute pioneer in open access information distribution. Paul Ginsparg started the arXiv e-print archive in 1991. “It signified a true revolution in the transfer of scientific results within the world of theoretical physics”, states professor of physics Alexander Sevrin, who nominated Ginsparg and will act as proximus.


In the field of Sevrin all papers are made available on the arXiv repository before being published in conventional scientific publications. Over the past 25 years arXiv has known explosive growth and became a dominant archive for physics, astronomy, computer science and more and more other domains. In 2015 alone more than 105.000 new pre-prints were archived and more than 139 million downloads were registered. “I believe that few people have had such a significant impact on the distribution of scientific results as Paul Ginsparg”, says professor Sevrin of the Faculty of Sciences and Bio-Engeneering. 

Willem van Mechelen

Willem van MechelenDutchman Willem van Mechelen (1952) is professor Social Medicine, with a focus on occupational and sports medicine at VUmc Amsterdam. He has had a fruitful career sporting an impressive list of more than 550 scientific publications. He is co-author of an article that was published in the medical scientific journal The Lancet a few months ago titled ‘The economic burden of physical inactivity’. The article was widely cited in the international media. The research of Willem Van Mechelen centers around health prevention, sport injuries (prevention and treatment) and the socio-economical aspects of exercise. “Willem van Mechelen is someone who - free of prejudices - has a clear opinion and dares to act”, posits professor of exercise physiology Romain Meeusen, who acts as proximus on behalf of the Faculty of Physical Education and Physiotherapy.

Gary T Marx

Gary T. Marx
The American sociologer Gary T. Marx (1938) is professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He was a pioneer with groundbreaking insights in the research on surveillance. He gained fame with his book ‘Undercover: Police Surveillance in America’ (1988). Proximus professor Serge Gutwirth of the Faculty of Law and Criminology emphasises that “Gary Marx was absolutely the first one to profoundly research the undercover topic in a scientific manner. From there he expanded his focus into privacy and surveillance.” Last year his magnum opus ‘Windows Into the Soul: Surveillance and Society in an Age of High technology’ was published. To Gary Marx surveillance and social control are inherently neither good nor bad, it all depends on the context and the behaviour. Marx looks at all possible shapes and forms of surveillance: by governments, by corporations and organisations, but also between individuals. Marx’ approach in that sense is also groundbreaking in that it is inductive and “modestly analytical”, and as such, takes the used techniques very seriously. 

Jan Terlouw

Jan Terlouw
Jan Terlouw (1931) is probably most known for his work as a (youth) author of among other the classics Koning van Katoren and Oorlogswinter. Jan Terlouw grew up as a child during World War II and that left a profound effect on him.


After his studies as a mathematician and physicist he commenced a successful academic career. This scientific predisposition stayed with him throughout his life, even as a politician, where he was one of the leading figures of the D66 party. Terlouw always considered himself a scientist first, on his own account because that was his profession as a young man and because his academic approach influenced his writing and work in politics, but never the other way around.


In recent years Terlouw strives very explicitly for more sustainability and a long term vision on climate change. His most recent work “Het Hebzuchtgas” focuses completely around that topic. Last December Terlouw made a passionate plea in the popular Dutch talkshow De Wereld Draait Door to that effect. A plea against the destruction of our planet and for the restoration of trust between people.


Rector Caroline Pauwels is proxima of Jan Terlouw. “He fits perfectly in the theme of our honorary doctorates: Break down the walls. Terlouw is scientist, author and (former) politician all at the same time. That is not an obvious combination but Terlouw manages to be a little bit politician, writer and academic in everything he does.”

Emma Bonino and the inhabitants of Lampedusa
After the summer VUB will award an additional two honorary doctorates, one to the committed Italian politician Emma Bonino and one to the citizens of the island of Lampedusa.


Emma Bonino (1948) is one the most significant figures of liberal radicalism in the modern history of Italy. In 1994 Bonino became a European commissioner. In that role she was charged with the domain of refugee policy. Between 2006 and 2008 she was Secretary of Trade in the Prodi government and between 2008 and 2014 she was vice-chairwoman of the Italian Senate. Further, she played an instrumental role in the establishment of the International Criminal Court in The Hague.


Emma Bonino is an activist. During her political career she carried out multiple hunger strikes, among others for the legalisation of abortion and euthanasia. She campaigned for the abolition of the death penalty and is the founder of No Peace Without Justice, an organisation that strives for the eradication of genital mutilation in women. She has always been a strong proponent of gender equality.


“It is clear that Emma Bonino’s ideals are closely linked to those of VUB”, says proxima and vice-rector International Policy professor Sonja Snacken. VUB wants to honor Emma Bonino for her determined efforts in relation to migration and refugees. Even today she is still very committed to the refugee problem.


The honorary doctorate for Emma Bonino seamlessly ties into the honorary doctorate for the inhabitants of Lampedusa. Over the course of the past two decades approximately 400.000 refugees have landed on the island, and thousands of drowned men, women and children washed up on its shores. This has a massive impact on the lives of the Lampedusa citizens. As island dwellers and fishermen they have always had a tradition of solidarity and helping one another. Those values are now applied to the refugees landing on Lampedusa. One of the most visible individuals in this story is dr. Pietro Bartolo. From the onset he has been active in providing first aid for the refugees. And towards the rest of Europe he has always defended the charity and helpfulness of Lampedusans.


Practical information
The award ceremony of the honorary doctorates to Jan Terlouw, Deirdre N. McCloskey, Paul Ginsparg, Willem van Mechelen and Gary T. Marx will take place on Tuesday May 23rd at 10:00 on the Brussels Humanities, Sciences & Engineering Campus (campus Etterbeek), Pleinlaan 2 in 1050 Brussel.


At a later to be determined date in the fall the awarding of the honorary doctorates to Emma Bonino and the inhabitants of Lampedusa will follow.