Rector Carel Stolker on university governance

Running a large faculty like Law and then a comprehensive university as a whole is no easy task. Within the university you have to deal with different, often conflicting target groups and interests, and then there’s society, government and the world around us, all of which are constantly changing and coming up with new demands. Carel Stolker, Rector Magnificus of Leiden University, reflected on these tensions and wrote a book about them.

Stolker's book, Rethinking the Law School – Education, Research, Outreach and Governance, was published by Cambridge University Press, and is now in the bookshops. Stolker, not only Rector but also President of the Executive Board, explains what prompted him to commit his views to paper.

Critical self-reflection

'There is so much we have to take into account: rapid innovation in education, researchers who are involved in the Science in Transition movement protesting against the increasing pressure to publish and the fact that there’s enormous competition in everything we do. And besides these factors, there’s also growing criticism of university governors, who are often scornfully referred to as ‘managers’ with little or no real knowledge. It is in this arena of mounting tensions that law schools and universities have to plot their course, knowing that in ten years’ time the world will be a very different place. I wanted to have the time and space to give these developments serious consideration, and think about what effects they might have. The book is a critical self-reflection, not only on how a large faculty like Law, but also universities as major societal institutions, are governed.’

Values, responsibilities, ambitions and problems

Professor Carel Stolker (1954) has been Rector and President of ‘the Netherland’s first university’ - Leiden - since early 2013. After almost seven years as dean of ‘his’ law faculty, that he steered through a period of change, he withdrew for a year’s sabbatical to write his book. He was interested to find out whether the values, responsibilities, ambitions and problems currently facing law faculties – and also universities – are the same throughout the world. Stolker examined what this means for education, research, impact, societal outreach and the governance of law schools, today and in the future.


In his book he identifies many similarities between running a law faculty and a university. Stolker examines the issues that he himself comes up against when managing a law school and governing a university, how he believes these issues should be handled in the discussions with fellow governors and what the role of institute directors and professors is.

The book is relatively unique because it’s rare for a governor of such a large institution – Leiden has some 4,000 members of staff and almost 25,000 students – himself to reflect on what is going on there. Stolker: 'We are about number 60 in the world rankings, out of a total of 25,000 universities. That means we have a responsibility in the worldwide debate on opportunities and challenges, and on how we deal with teaching and study financing and with our research. The fact that we are the oldest university in the country – founded in 1575 – is an added reason why we believe it’s important to raise these issues and why we want to play a leading role in the ensuing debate. That’s one of the aims of my book.’

A more ‘schoolish’ approach

And, as Stolker states in his book, the world has changed drastically. ‘When I started in 2001 – first as Vice Dean of Law – I found a faculty where not everything was as it should be and many students dropped out early. It’s true that Law is a complex faculty with a lot of students, a lot of different programmes and very intensive teaching; researchers and lecturers have several hundreds of young people in their lecture halls. Much has improved at the faculty in the brief period of a few years, thanks to the efforts of a great many people. Leiden’s Law Faculty is now one of the most successful in the world; it’s ranked in the top ten. We’ve now taken a more ‘schoolish’ approach, the binding study advice applies in the second year as well, and we offer our students a lot more structure and supervision. These are developments I talk about in my book. It’s important to take an evidence-based approach, so I wanted to know whether other faculties or universities elsewhere in the world are experiencing the same difficulties and challenges. What I found was that Leiden is one of the front runners in these developments.’

We don’t shun our responsibilities

Stolker considered the position of Leiden University in the Netherlands and in a global context. ‘In my book I asked the question that I am now as Rector having to think seriously about: What kind of university do you want to be? How good do you want to be? And who are you actually there for? Is it primarily the researchers, the students or first and foremost for society? What does that mean for your relationship with your target groups? What kind of young people do we want to educate? What skills do they need to have? What does society ask of us? What are our core values? I mapped out these dilemmas and discussions and reached the conclusion that we as a university do not avoid our responsibilities. In Leiden we really do stick our necks out. We are ahead of the game with innovations in teaching, such as the new digital teaching methods, and we involve our students in our world-class research.’

Legislation and funding

But that doesn’t happen of its own accord, Stolker comments. ‘One of the stumbling blocks is unhelpful legislation. For example, in the Netherlands we are still not able to select our students, which makes it difficult to distinguish yourself from other institutions. On the whole, universities in the Netherlands are equally good at educating students. Everyone is welcome, and that’s a fine principle, but it also has its disadvantages. Then there’s the funding system which means that every student counts (state funding in the Netherlands is based on the number of students, Ed.). At the same time, growth also brings new problems, such as how to make sure you continue to guarantee good quality teaching. It is asking a lot of an organisation such as a university that, as I show in my book, is changing with the times and experimenting to keep up with all these new developments.’

Radically different

Stolker predicts that universities will be radically different in ten years’ time. ‘In 2025 around 10 million students will be studying outside their own country. Dutch universities are among the world’s top institutions, so international students are likely to flock in our direction. Many of these young people will come to Leiden, which is something we already need to plan for. The higher education market will increasingly become an international market, with all the characteristics of an economic market. There’s already an enormous demand for our English-language bachelor’s programmes, and we’re working to make sure our teaching and research are set up to meet this demand. What’s important, in the midst of all these developments, is that you don’t forget who you are, as a university, and why you were established in the first place. It’s not pure chance that Leiden has been around since 1575 and Bologna since 1088.’

 (5 February 2015)

Read more

Carel Stolker, Rethinking the Law School - Education, Research, Outreach and Governance , is published by Cambridge University Press.

Last Modified: 05-02-2015