Hora est!

My job
What does your work involve, and what do you enjoy about it?

Master of ceremonies in a gown
Len Cuppens (1955), beadle, Maastricht University Office

“I was pretty nervous the first time I had to enter a PhD defence as beadle, 20 years ago, and announce ‘Hora est’. These days I mainly just enjoy it. You can feel the tension in the air on all sides, and the announcement that time’s up comes as a big relief for the PhD candidate. I’m always just hoping it’s the PhD candidate speaking when I enter, because after all the message is intended for them. Personally I don’t find it all that appropriate to interrupt a professor in the middle of a question. 

“The beadle is a kind of master of ceremonies who leads academic ceremonies. I started at UM 23 years ago as secretary to Job Cohen, who was then rector magnificus. At that time the office of the rector was responsible for the 50 or so PhD defences that were held each year. Last year, there were 55 defences in December alone. In those days the beadle was Ber Nypels, a burly Maastricht fellow who only did the ceremonial side of the work, but in a way that left a big impression.” 

“Two years ago we moved to a separate office on the ground floor of the Minderbroedersberg, and we now organise everything involved in the PhD defences: from registering the candidate and setting the date, to receiving the PhD committee and running the ceremony itself. We organise the diploma evaluation for foreign PhD candidates, and coordinate with universities abroad on joint and double degrees. With some PhD candidates you have a lot of contact and you become very involved. The day itself is quite nerve-racking for them, so you’re always trying to put them at ease. You’re the point of contact for everything involved in a PhD defence, and if it all goes well that’s really the cherry on top of your work. 

“As beadle you have to be friendly but firm and remember you’re representing the university. You have to work hard; it’s not a nine-to-five job. And you have to have some affinity for dealing with people, including those who are higher up in the hierarchy or known for being ‘difficult’. Now that I’m 60 I feel I can sometimes get away with saying something, in a nice way of course.”

Smooth team
“Last year was extremely busy for PhD defences, but things actually went very smoothly with our entire team. Besides me there are two other beadles, Fabiënne Dingena and Simone Lemmerlijn, and we have a reserve beadle, Willy Stijns. But our building manager Lou Quaden and the receptionists, too, are very important on the day of the defence. And of course there’s the people who do the calligraphy by hand and put the red seal on the degree certificate – we also get a lot of positive feedback about that.

“You notice that the families of the PhD candidates are always very impressed by the ceremony. In the Netherlands we do make it a really nice event, with the gowns and the audience. In other countries it’s sometimes just a three-hour exam, with no audience. After the ‘Hora est’, the beadle leads the professors to the coronakamer for deliberation. That’s when all opponents get the chance to say what they thought of the PhD and their comments are recorded in the report, which the university keeps on file as evidence the defence actually took place. No, the PhD candidate doesn’t get to see that.

“The beadle is also responsible for the academic part of other ceremonies, such as the Dies Natalis and the Opening of the Academic Year. We organise the registration of professors and draw up the programme for the procession. During this year’s Dies, UM’s 40th anniversary, there was some concern as to whether there’d be enough room in the St Janskerk for all the UM professors as well as the rectors from other Dutch universities. I’ve never had 150 professors walking behind me before, and the board of the student associations. It was an impressive procession and turned out to be a wonderful Dies celebration.”

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