The Dies Natalis Question: Remembering What Universities Are For

The Dies Natalis Question: Remembering What Universities Are For

Monday the 10th of January was the UvA’s 390th birthday. This was celebrated with a traditional (online) Dies Natalis ceremony, featuring the rector magnificus, researchers, and UvA students. As per usual on a birthday, there was quite a bit of reflecting on the past year. It was the perfect opportunity to ponder on the quintessential Dies Natalis question: What, actually, is the purpose of our university? And who is it for?

The answers to such questions vary, of course, on a yearly basis. Each year has its own specific challenges, and 2021 was no exception. The twin threats of impending climate catastrophe and vaccine conspiracies were the backbone for this ceremony’s programme. On top of tackling these issues, the UvA itself had its own fair share of problems. Like many other universities, it faced both intimidation of researchers and distrust in scientific practices on the whole. The overall take-away of the ceremony boiled down to something that borders on the self-evident: science and universities are meant to improve society.

In fact, the ceremony contained quite a number of similar self-evident statements. After her opening speech, rector magnificus Karen Maex mediated a discussion on digitalization with political scientist Eefje Steenvoorden and political communication scientist Michael Hameleers. The three specifically discussed how social media platforms create bubbles in which conspiracy theories and alternative realities can thrive. On the internet, according to Maex, “you can seemingly find proof for every opinion.” The big question, then, was: what to do about these bubbles? The conclusions the trio made were surprisingly safe. They agreed that it was important to always separate fact from fiction, make sure scientific research isn’t labelled ‘fake news,’ and, as icing on the cake, “listen to everyone and engage in dialogue.” While all of that is most certainly true, it is also overwhelmingly commonsensical.

Nonetheless, the afternoon did end on two intellectual high notes. Professor of Environmental Economics Rick van der Ploeg’s Dies Speech discussed why there currently is no sufficient climate policy, and – more importantly – what we can do about it. Inspired by the competitiveness amongst the developers of the COVID vaccines, he made the case for a similarly competitive spirit in the world of Sustainable Research & Development.

The ceremony concluded with the awarding of the UvA honorary doctorates to COVID vaccine developers Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci and the first female director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. In a speech addressed to Okonjo-Iweala, Professor Sweder van Wijnbergen shared some memories from when they attended M.I.T. together. He specifically praised her for bravely putting her passion for theoretical economics into practice, and with tremendous results in the fight for global equality, fair trade, and sustainable development. Okonjo-Iweala – who is currently working on new WTO legislation for pandemic-related issues like worldwide vaccine distribution – thus formed a meaningful example of the real-world impact academics can make.

A recording of the livestreamed event can be found here.