Vic Bonke Vic Bonke Submedia

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Written by  Annelotte Huiskes Wednesday, 20 January 2016 14:27

Vic Bonke succeeded Coen Hemker as rector from 1985 to 1991. He too was at the helm of Maastricht University: he was working in Amsterdam’s physiological lab when he was brought down south courtesy of Rob Reneman, then the brand new professor of Physiology.

“In Amsterdam I was also heavily involved in teaching, and I was fascinated by the new education system being put into practice in Maastricht. Those first years were amazing. We launched in 1974 with 50 students and very few staff. It was one big family.

“Because everything was new, other universities viewed us with suspicion. Our programme focused on secondary as well as primary care, so we were initially accused of training ‘doctors with soft shoes’. The only possible response was to make sure our first graduates would do well. Fortunately, that turned out to be no problem.

“When I took office as rector in 1985, the president was Rob van de Biggelaar, and the first thing he did was wave the Deetman amendment at me. It was the eighties and times were tough economically. The former education minister, Arie Pais, had earlier threatened to close the university. Thankfully, Deetman had managed to push through an amendment that gave us the chance to prove we had the right to exist, but that meant increasing the student body from 2500 to 6000 within five years. How were we going to do that?

“Together with Fred Bakker, a friend from Rotary, we came up with an entire recruitment campaign with ads in all the national newspapers: ‘Come to Maastricht’. No one had ever done that before. The first ad came out the day I attended a national rectors’ meeting in Utrecht. They were furious; it was unheard of. But some of them whispered in my ear, ‘I wish I’d thought of that.’ Now everybody does it. And it worked – by September 1990 we had 6250 students.

“I inherited two secretaries from Coen Hemker. Apparently he thought that was necessary, but I found it too much. I suspect he just used the second secretary for all his biochemistry publications. I’m still in touch with one of them, Ans Lippinkhof.

“It was a small university, so internally there wasn’t all that much to manage. Most of what I did was outside the university, with organisations like the SNS Bank, DSM and the drama academy. That wasn’t always appreciated. The University Council, for one, felt that I missed too many of their meetings. So there was a bit of conflict, but we sorted it out in the end.

“In that period I also got to know Pim Fortuyn, then the interim director of the Centre for European Studies. He figured that as rector I was the top man here, so he was keen to get acquainted. We became friends. Years later, when he was setting up his new party, the LPF, he asked my wife if she’d like to get involved. I didn’t have much going on at the time, so she said, ‘Ask Vic’. We arranged to discuss it during dinner on 9 May 2002, but on 6 May he was murdered. Ultimately, politics wasn’t for me. You had to be so careful with what you said, especially in the LPF, or you’d immediately find yourself in hot water. Fortunately that’s not the case in academia – here you can just tell it like it is.”

Vic Bonke (1940) is emeritus professor of Vegetative Physiology. He worked in the physiological lab of the University of Amsterdam from 1964 to 1975, when he became a lecturer in vegetative physiology at the Rijksuniversiteit Limburg. After serving as rector from 1985 to 1991, he worked as a consultant and interim manager, with a stint as dean of the medical faculty from 1997 to 1999. Bonke was also spokesperson on education for the LPF parliamentary party from 2002 to 2003.  

In celebration of Maastricht University’s 40th anniversary this year, video portraits have been made of the surviving former rectors of the university. An abridged version of one of these interviews can be found below; for the full interview please visit the special anniversary website at On that site, you can also view unique video fragments from the signing of the university’s founding charter in 1976.

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