New rector Herwig Leirs: ‘Happy with support’

5 min
Text Katrien Verreyken
Image UAntwerpen

With 68% of the votes in the first round, Herwig Leirs has been elected as the new rector of UAntwerp. Our Stroom journalist got a chance to speak to him afterwards. ‘We hadn’t expected such a great score. It goes without saying we’re very happy and relieved.’


Until a few months ago, you chaired the Board of Governors. Prior to that, you were the dean of the Faculty of Science. Have you always secretly aspired to the rectorship?


‘No, not at all. But I have always been interested in policy. As a student, I was president of student association Fabiant and student representative on the Board of Governors. I guess leadership comes naturally to me.’

What will you take from your studies and research in Evolutionary Ecology and apply to your new job as rector?


‘I specialise in pest control, so that’s one thing that won’t come in handy! (laughs) But I’ve always had an international focus. I wrote my thesis in Tanzania, so I got involved in European and international collaborations early on. After that I moved to Denmark, where I headed up a research group. That international perspective and global engagement – partnerships with the South – are things I acquired during my career. And my interest in sustainability obviously also comes from the way I think as a biologist. During our campaign I noticed that there’s broad support for the environment and sustainability now.’


Have you heard from your opponent Koen Augustyns after the results were announced?


‘We were both present when the votes were counted. He congratulated me and I thanked him for the fair campaign. Our election programmes were similar in many ways, so I’m convinced we can also cater to the people who voted for Koen when we implement our plans.’

Have you heard from the rectors of the other universities?


‘Yes, they sent me congratulatory messages. I look forward to getting to know them and collaborating with them. Sure, we’re competitors when it comes to acquiring Flemish funding. But we’re also colleagues that want the same from the government. I see no issues in working towards that joint goal together.’


If there’s one thing you would like to make happen during your rectorship, what would it be?


‘Our university is so big and complex that I can’t reduce it to one specific thing. I think it’s very important the university’s operations are highly sustainable. But I attach equal importance to facilitating a healthy student life. After all, that doesn’t only affect students’ wellbeing, but also their lives after their studies. And these are just two of the examples to demonstrate it’s not really possible to weigh them up against each other.’

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I’ve always had an international focus. That international perspective and global engagement – partnerships with the South – are things I acquired during my career. 

Herwig Leirs

In financial terms, you may not have the easiest years ahead of you. Does that scare you?


‘We’re not expecting overnight cutbacks, but we can’t promise people the world either. Choices will have to be made and we’ll have to think critically about what we do. This implies that we’ll sometimes have to make people unhappy.’


You’re probably looking forward to being rector, but is there anything about it you’re not looking forward to?


‘My predecessor has had to deal with a number of internal problems: transgressive behaviour, unintentional video recordings... Those are things I’m not looking forward to. I also realise that whatever I do, it will never be good for everyone. But someone needs to make the final decision, and I’ll do my best to inform myself as best I can every step of the way. Hopefully I’ll be able to use my experience working with people, so at the very least I can create understanding and sufficient support for less pleasant decisions.’

from left to right: Chris Van Ginneken, Nathalie Dens, Herwig Leirs, Maarten Weyn, Steven Van Passel

Herman Van Goethem is an important voice in the societal debate, also when it comes to subjects that don’t have a lot to do with the university. Would you like to follow in his footsteps in this respect?


‘Due to his professional field – political history – Herman is often confronted with questions to which he responds as a historian, not as a rector. So I might get different questions. I welcome questions about sustainability, ecology and the environment, but I don’t think a rector should have a say in all societal issues. I’ll be happy to leave those to the respective experts.’


8 March, the day you got elected, was International Women’s Day. Those women are still missing from the higher echelons of the university: the two candidates for the rectorship were men. Do you have a solution in this area?


‘In any case, I have two young female vice-rectors in my team. And I’m very pleased with them. In staff recruitment, we’re considering working with “search committees” that actively look for good “diverse” candidates, not only in terms of cultural background and nationality, but also of gender. By directly asking people to apply you create more interest and, hopefully, a more diverse list of candidates.’

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