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“No research, no Coen Hemker”

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

 

The biochemist Coen Hemker, who served as rector from 1982 to 1985, was part of the first generation of professors at UM. In 1973 he was invited to join the core team charged with establishing the medical faculty, which launched the following year with a grand total of 50 students. It was not until 1976 that the country’s eighth medical faculty was officially recognised and the Rijksuniversiteit Limburg, as it was then known, was opened by Queen Juliana during a ceremony in the Sint Servaaskerk on 9 January.

“During the ceremony I was sitting on the podium behind Bishop Gijsen, just to his right. No one knew exactly why he was there. It turned out the university could only use the Sint Servaaskerk if he was allowed to say something during the ceremony. As he saw it, he spoke not only on behalf of Catholics but also on behalf of all Christians. Lots of students were against his presence, so I suggested that during his speech they should release a basket of white doves, knowing they’d figure this was going too far. So in the end nothing happened.

“My first interview here was with Sjeng Tans and Fons Baeten, the then mayor of Maastricht. I recall being quite impressed by these respectable gentlemen politicians. They wanted to start a new medical faculty with an innovative teaching method: Problem-Based Learning. It all sounded great, but what about research? I know for sure they hadn’t thought about that, though they were politicians enough not to show it. So I said, ‘No research, no Coen Hemker.’ Eventually I moved here from Leiden and brought my entire research group with me.

“The idea was absolutely genius: to start a university with very little means and to put it on the map with this different teaching method. That worked on a national level, and indeed became the trademark of the medical faculty here. As to the content of PBL, I’m neutral. I think the way in which you teach is not very important. But the enthusiasm you teach with is key; we as teachers were very enthusiastic and that helps and inspires students. But as for whether the PBL paradigm is much better than any other type of learning, I have my question marks.

“When I became a rector it was absolutely true that science, if not illegal, was something that was done in the dark. Research was not as important as teaching, so to make research salonfähig I was willing to play the rector for a few years. If you ask me what I did as rector to put research in the limelight, it was primarily being there and putting the research question on the agenda.

“Half a year after I stopped being rector, the minister asked me if I would want to become president of the university. I said, ‘God no, I am so happy to be back in the lab.’ As a Dutch poet put it: Lust wie ‘t lust, ik begeerde het niet. Administration is so much more dull than research.

“In the long term nothing will maintain a university as well as scientific quality, and right now I thank god I’m no longer involved in the medical faculty; at this moment, quantity is more important than quality. I hope it’s just a pendulum.

“At 81 you might think about taking a step back. Not me. Although I’m no longer the director of Synapse, the company I founded, I’m there most of the week. I like to stick my nose in it now and then.” 

 

Coen Hemker (1934) obtained his MD and PhD in biochemistry from the University of Amsterdam. He became professor of Internal Medicine in Leiden in 1968 and chair of the Maastricht Department of Biochemistry in 1975. He was one of the co-founders of the medical faculty in Maastricht in 1974 and later served as rector magnificus of Maastricht University (1982 to 1984). Hemker has been a member of the Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences since 1986. He is (co-)author of over 500 scientific articles and several books on blood coagulation. After retiring as professor in 1999 he became director of Synapse BV, a scientific consulting and development company.

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 www.maastrichtuniversity.nl/jubileum. 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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