Executive Board column: Our institutes abroad are part of our international DNA

Ever since its foundation, Leiden University has turned its gaze outwards to other cultures, languages and forms of academic practice. It is only natural, therefore, that we as a university have four institutes abroad: the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV-KNAW) in Indonesia, the Netherlands Institute in Turkey (NIT), the Netherlands Institute Morocco (NIMAR) and the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo (NVIC) in Egypt.

In this column Annetje Ottow, Hester Bijl and Martijn Ridderbos give a peek behind the scenes at the Executive Board of Leiden University. What does their work involve? What makes them enthusiastic? What challenges do they face? Building a healthy and engaged learning community begins with sharing what you are up to. This time it’s Annetje Ottow’s turn.

I was recently in Cairo for the NVIC’s 50th anniversary. In those 50 years, the institute has hosted thousands of students and researchers working on topics such as the Arabic language. They are part of a long tradition: Leiden University established its first chair in Arabic as early as 1613. The same goes for our institutes in Istanbul, Rabat and Jakarta: our ties with these places have grown over time and they are now part of our DNA.

Historical documents from the first chair in Arabic at Leiden University

What my visit to Egypt made especially clear to me is that an institute like the NVIC is important to our students’ education and our academics’ research. If you are learning the Arabic language or doing archaeological research, you have to do so in a country where that language is spoken or that heritage is found.

In Cairo, for instance, I spoke to a student who had just passed her Arabic exam. She mainly practised on the baker, greengrocer and other shopkeepers in the street where she lived. After her exam, they all wanted to know if she had passed and rushed to congratulate her. This shows how important it is to be connected to that other culture.

‘A presence abroad comes with a heavy responsibility’

As an international university with institutes abroad, we are exceedingly well placed for academic diplomacy. The pursuit of knowledge is a universal language that transcends borders and cultures. It is how we can contribute to solutions for a world in not one but many crises.

At the same time, this presence abroad comes with a heavy responsibility. Freedom as we know it is not always a given elsewhere. We must respect the rules and customs of other countries. But we must also stand for our core values, not least the academic freedom we hold so dear.

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