Word in the Belgian press is that the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven shall be Katholieke no more — well, somewhat.
Although it’s still to be decided this week, officially, our Dutch name shall be “KU Leuven”, with the “K” no longer signifying anything (humorously, university officials like to emphasize that we shall also no longer be “K.U. Leuven”, either). Apparently, our English name shall be “The University of Leuven — KU Leuven” or “The University of Leuven (KU Leuven)”. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in terms of letterhead, website design, curriculum vitaes, etc.
This decision is part of the ongoing mixture of market- and identity-politics here in Belgium. It has been presaged by earlier identity problems (or continuities, depending on your view): previously, we were the Studium Generale Lovaniense (from our founding in 1425 to 1797), the Université d’État de Louvain (until the 1830s, with a brief closure during the Napoleonic regime), then the Université Catholique de Louvain/Universitas Catholica Lovaniensis until the political crisis of 1968 resulted in two universities with the same charter: the Flemish-Dutch Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in historical Leuven, and the Université Catholique de Louvain in the purpose-built town of Louvain-la-Neuve in southern Francophonic Belgium.
The latest change has been justified along two lines: first, that the Catholic Church is interfering with stem cell research (apparently, the change shall also entail removing the archbishop as chairman, leaving him as chancellor); and second, that the “Katholieke” adjective hurts our reputation in the United States, as it supposedly gives the wrong impression of us, i.e., that in order to have a degree from here means one must subscribe to the Catholic faith. Proponents for the change also argue that the university is becoming more and more pluralistic (that remains to be seen in some faculties, but as an official intention this is true).
You can immediately see some of the ideological fault-lines opening up: Secularists among the professoriate and students don’t see the change as either sincere or thorough enough, as we shall remain Catholic “in values” and constitutionally, but now with a thin veneer of secularism to hide that fact from prying eyes. They contend this is another example of a “Belgian solution”, i.e., no solution at all, just postponing the inevitable. Believers, however, wonder why is the university not only hiding its identity, but drifting away from its values? How much longer before it drops the “K” altogether, and what should they do if Rome revokes the papal imprimatur, thereby rendering the charter null and void? In the meantime, do we risk giving the impression to the outside world that we are somehow ashamed of being Catholic?
There are practical problems, too. For instance, the huge Theology faculty (formally, “Theology and Religious Studies”) is really in trouble, because either they get with the new program and take seriously the sociological aspect of their official name, or they risk losing their raison d’être (I imagine that their chair of Canon Law is almost certainly extinct once the current occupant retires).
People like me are left wondering how so many “Leuvens” and “Louvains” floating around out there in the outside world will effect us when it comes time to find jobs (“Which university are you from? They’re actually the same university but different town?s What?”). Certainly, losing the “Katholieke” adjective makes my own life easier when looking for jobs in the Islamic world, but it doesn’t seem to matter in Europe. I also wonder whether it’s a straw man: I’ve personally experienced confusion among older North Americans as to which town I’m physically in, since they’ve never heard of “Leuven” — indeed, even some of my older Flemish professors refer to us as “Louvain” when speaking English! The “Catholic” issue hasn’t ever come up.
Moreover, previously us philosophers — for whom professionally the issue of ideology and values can be the make or break when applying for a job — could at least expect relatively decent employment in the Catholic university system; now, if we’re shifting to something seemingly secular, we’ll have to compete with the secular American schools on their own terms, and it’s questionable whether we really have the capability to do so (better to be a big fish in a small pond, and then again, the Catholic pond ain’t so small, either…) Also keep in mind that Leuven as a place is known because of this university (and yes, Stella Artois); we’re not Milan, Brussels, Ghent, Berlin, etc. We’re seen as an “old” school with “traditions”.
Nevertheless, I can appreciate the dilemma faced by the university administration: to completely secularize would risk losing our charter and hence our status as one of the world’s oldest continually operating institutions of higher education (the Napoleonic interlude notwithstanding, even if structurally the university that emerged was very different from the one before). If this did happen, then paradoxically, Louvain-la-Neuve would retain that title — even thought it’s an entirely different physical location. At the same time, however, the university (or at least many among its professors, students, and administrators) aspire to be “Modern” in the sense of liberal-pluralistic, globalized, and to some extent letting science lead in terms of values. That’s also why we’re slowly Anglicizing (another controversial point, since we’re supposed to be a Flemish institution). Evidently, they seem to feel that Vatican II does not seem to sufficiently provide an ideological framework by which they can be both Catholic and Modern…
What do you think? Leave a comment below and/or vote.