FASoS celebrates its silver anniversary: Innovation as the common thread.
The Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, FASoS for short, celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2019 (1994-2019). Professor Tannelie Blom and senior lecturer Jo Wachelder founded the sixth faculty at Maastricht University, and together they look back on an especially dynamic quarter of a century. “The common thread? Innovation and interdisciplinarity.”
Jo Wachelder and Tannelie Blom look back on the faculty’s 25 years
They are talking over one another straight away, the two men who have spent most of their working lives at Maastricht University, particularly at the Faculteit Cultuurwetenschappen, as it was christened at the official start in 1994. They discuss how the various initiatives came about, the different areas of education and research, the numerous disputes and differences of opinion, and, of course, which people played which role in the final creation of the faculty.
This is typical of a faculty in which discussion and debate are in the DNA, of a platform where technology and social sciences come together. “FASoS is rooted in the 1980s”, summarises Jo Wachelder, senior lecturer in history, when he and his table-mate finally agree on the big picture. “You could call the Algemene Faculteit [General Faculty] the forerunner. This was a development faculty, focused on the subjects of mathematics, philosophy, history and computer science and was, in fact, supporting the other faculties of Maastricht University. Those are quite different fields in which everyone naturally had his or her own interests. This inevitably leads to discussions and conflicts. In these kinds of processes, the human factor is important. Gerard de Vries, who graduated from Groningen as a philosopher and engineer and came to Maastricht as one of the youngest-ever professors, eventually got the most people headed in the same direction. He realised that a faculty could only succeed if it had its own curriculum, its own staff and its own students. He was able to convince the Executive Board to choose cultural sciences over a vulnerable, supporting faculty with so-called basic facilities.”
This was not an easy process, reflects Professor of Political Science Tannelie Blom, who has been with UM for almost 40 years. “No, certainly not”, he says in his office in the monumental building on the Grote Gracht, where the folders, books and piles of paper are stacked high. “At the time, it was very difficult to obtain permission from the government to expand the university. It was a period of consolidation, of merging education programmes. We had to demonstrate that we were going to set up an innovative, new programme. We were able to do this by combining different disciplines. This interdisciplinarity was innovative at the time, and after a long wait and countless consultations, the green light was given by The Hague.
The faculty did not get off to a resounding start. The expected growth lagged behind in the early years. “While growth was a spearhead in Maastricht”, Jo Wachelder is well aware. “And that has always remained the case. The number of students largely determines the funding. The competition was fierce and with our purely Dutch education programmes we attracted almost no foreign students, of course. But there was constantly something brewing here. There were always plans and ideas; innovation has always guided us. There was—and still is—room for colouring outside the usual academic lines. That culture, I think, has actually saved us.”
Jo Wachelder refers to the introduction of European Studies in 2000. It was set up by Tannelie Blom, Arnold Labrie and a number of others. “Of course, it took quite a bit of effort, but this direction was so obvious. With Maastricht, where the EU of today got off the drawing board, and internationalisation, globalisation. We were convinced that European Studies would enable us to recruit not only Dutch students but also foreign students. That is why, from day one, we offered the curriculum entirely in English. It was an enormous undertaking, of course, because the staff also had to go along with it. These days, English is the most natural thing in the world; 20 years ago it wasn’t.”
It turned out to be pure gold. For the first cohort, 230 students enrolled; a year later there were an additional 100 more. “Unprecedented numbers”, reflects Tannelie Blom. “The faculty stabilised; the new direction gave it an enormous boost. We had to do everything we could to find space, as well as to fill the extra vacancies. Fortunately, international specialists and teachers were also willing to come to Maastricht. That is anyway still the case. Of the 200 staff members for the European Studies and Cultural Arts programmes, more than half come from outside the Netherlands. Almost three-quarters of the students come from abroad. Personally, I think that’s great. When it comes to the students and staff, cultures from dozens of countries and all of the continents are represented. It is such a pleasure to discuss with them the developments in the world. There are so many perspectives and points of view. I think that is also the strength of FASoS and what has led to our popularity. Particularly with European Studies, we are at the top in Europe.”
Jo Wachelder nods. “At FASoS, the internationalisation of Maastricht University started with European Studies. It was an important switch that coincided with the new bachelor/master system in the Netherlands. For our own faculty, it meant anchoring and gaining stability for the future. Of course, this does not mean that we can sit back and relax. In the academic year 2019-2020, we will start the Digital Society programme and then, together with other faculties, Global Studies. Digital Society focuses on the connections between economics, philosophy, technology, culture and social aspects. It’s definitely innovative. Otherwise, we would not have been given permission to start it. We live in a rapidly changing world with digitisation and robotisation. We need people who can see and understand the connections. This is what we specialise in—interdisciplinarity—also in collaboration with other faculties within Maastricht University. We want to connect faculties.”
Both in their early 60s, they look toward the future of FASoS with confidence. The faculty has proven its worth; the bachelor’s and master’s programmes in Arts & Culture and European Studies and the research programmes are highly regarded internationally. With the two new directions, growth is guaranteed. But there are also concerns. “The pressure on young people in the academic world is so great”, says Jo Wachelder. “Permanent job contracts are almost impossible to get. People go from one postdoc to another and are constantly worried about finding work somewhere else after this job. The world is their playground; they don’t take root anywhere. That doesn’t have to be a problem because in the academic world, performance is important. But too much pressure is not good, either. The competition is enormous; there is never enough money for research. The government is squeezing universities; a lot of energy is invested in acquiring funding through contract research and the business world. This is particularly difficult in the non-STEM faculties. We at FASoS definitely feel it.”
Tannelie Blom agrees with his colleague. “I look back and see an extremely dynamic period. A lot has changed in 25 years—administratively, politically, in terms of content. Unfortunately, the time when I knew every colleague by name is over. There are now around 250 of them, but the turnover is high. And that certainly applies to the 1600 students walking around here. However, I will miss this environment if I close the door on it in two years’ time. Several times I have received offers to go back to Amsterdam. I wouldn’t dream of it. At those old universities, so much has been set in stone; there, you are stuck in a box. Things are different in Maastricht. We are still pioneering and innovating—especially at FASoS. I hope that this freedom remains. I’m shocked when I hear the discussions about English at the universities. If we move away from that, we will miss the boat.”
“Exactly”, says Jo Wachelder. “English is now the lingua franca. I foresee more and more European universities in the future. Maastricht can easily play a role in this, precisely because we think and act internationally. We can be proud of what we have achieved here.”