‘WUR should invest more in the town’

Geert van Rumund was mayor of Wageningen for nearly 16 years.
Photo: Guy Ackermans

Geert van Rumund was mayor of Wageningen for nearly 16 years. He was the mayor of ‘campus Wageningen’, as he sees it. He said goodbye at the beginning of this week.

By the time you read this, Geert van Rumund – one of the longest-serving mayors in the country – will have retired. Wageningen was his first and last post as mayor. Having served for some time as a municipal councillor in Nijmegen, he wanted to be mayor of a middle-sized municipality. ‘On a scale and with the kind of community I can understand, and where I feel an affinity with the people. I come from Zevenaar myself.’

And then Wageningen came up. Just the job?

‘I should say so! Wageningen is a great city to be mayor of. It has an academic world, which I was familiar with from Nijmegen, it has the intimacy of a small town with the traditions and culture of the authentic Wageningers, and it is the City of the Liberation.’

We are richly blessed here thanks to WUR’

During your term WUR moved out of town to its current campus. Is that a pity?

‘I wouldn’t put it like that. My view is that the town is one big campus. In small university cities, town and campus are so intertwined that you can’t talk in terms of a separate campus.’

But didn’t it happen at the expense of the liveliness of the town centre?

‘That is undeniably so, and I am very pleased that the student societies are still located in the centre. But it was the university’s salvation. When I started here, the number of first-year students had hit rock bottom. At the AID at Duivendaal, I could shake hands with every single new student. Nowadays I stand on a large podium to address 2000 new students. In fact, you could say student numbers went up when I got here. Joking! One thing I do regret is that WUR has let the Aula go. There is something special about holding a PhD ceremony or inaugural lecture in such an iconic building in the town centre.’

Has the relationship with WUR changed in your period as mayor?

‘That relationship has improved. An audit about eight years ago suggested there was a need to strengthen the link between the municipality and WUR. Both parties have worked on that since then, exchanging visits annually, giving extensive presentations on numerous subjects, and holding open discussions. We work together on a city agenda. At a personal level, we are in easy contact, without pestering each other. I am very positive about it, but of course that are always things that could be improved.’

Such as?

‘WUR could take more of an interest in the symbolism of Wageningen as the City of Liberation. It’s even more important here than in other municipalities to realize that we mustn’t take freedom, safety and peace for granted. I would call on WUR to address those values more. WUR should stick its neck out for them more than it does. How? But joining the conversation and action on how you can give substance to the theme of freedom. By investing time and money in it, and by joining the foundation Stichting 45. That’s a way of making clear that WUR too sets store by the title City of Liberation.’

There is too little knowledge about local policy issues at WUR

Is WUR too inward-looking?

‘There is too little knowledge of local policy issues within WUR. WUR has an ambitious agenda and vision of the future. But you are part of a city with its own history too. WUR ought to have more people with roots in the city, and it should pay more attention to what’s going on here. WUR should invest more in the city. WUR needs the city whenever it wants to achieve something. If the university just pursues its own agenda, that puts people’s backs up and it becomes harder to get things done. You need two-way commitment and mutual understanding.’

A recent report by Neo Observatory shown what a big economic impact WUR has on Wageningen. Is that a problem?

‘I always say to critics who think WUR is too powerful and dominant that we should be very happy with WUR and everything that goes on within it. We are richly blessed here thanks to WUR. In times of economic crisis, we never suffer huge dips because so many people work for WUR. True, the growth of WUR is not doing anything to diminish the gap between rich and poor. But it’s also partly thanks to WUR that we are a left-leaning municipality that pays a lot of attention to people who are less well-off.’

What advice do you have for your successor?

‘Keep your eyes open and listen. Show plenty of empathy and interest. Be approachable. You’ve got to win the confidence of the townspeople. Only if you are mayor for both the town and the university, can you reap a good harvest. If that balance is lacking, it’s risky.’

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