An interview with the President

Written by Ellen Halliday on . Posted in Current features, Features

Professor Renaud Dehousse became President of the European University Institute on 1 September 2016.  At the end of the EUI’s 40th birthday celebrations, where does the President  place the EUI in the landscape of European higher education, and what plans does he have for the future?

High on the hill in Fiesole, the EUI can seem distant from life in the city. As the community here has grown over forty years, it has done so as a European island in an Italian landscape. Look out of the window and Tuscany is irrepressible: cypress trees, terracotta tiles and olive groves hang picturesque in the frame, whilst Brunelleschi’s Duomo emerges hazily from the skyline. And yet, in the imaginations of staff, researchers and fellows, the EUI is very much the European University Institute. What then, does the future hold for the EUI? Early one January Friday, the EUI Times met with the new President, Professor Renaud Dehousse, to find out what he hopes to change and sustain during his term.

Professor Renaud Dehousse, President of the EUI

Professor Renaud Dehousse, President of the EUI

‘Since I arrived as a researcher at the EUI in 1982, it is striking that there is a great continuity,’ explained President Dehousse. ‘When this institution was created, it was made to be a kind of crucible, for all kinds of disciplines in the social sciences and, of course, for all kinds of cultures,’ he said. Indeed, after all these years the EUI ‘remains a highly stimulating place because one is exposed to a variety of approaches, no matter the subject,’ notes the Professor. Alongside the interdisciplinary research ethos at the EUI, the President, who took up office in September 2016, praises the Institute for having retained its ‘truly transnational identity’ which, he believes, is unequalled. Yet this ‘melting pot’ of transnational and interdisciplinary identity creates a particular challenge in diffusing knowledge beyond the walls of the Badia. ‘By definition, the initial work is to be concentrated here, before reaching out’ Dehousse said. ‘You have to blend all of these [diverse cultures and approaches] and transform the result into something that can be exported, and add value to what is done elsewhere.’

The European landscape –not to mention the contours of the academic institutions that populate it – has changed drastically during the EUI’s lifetime.  In 2017 the President has ambitions not only to keep up with these changes, but to lead the way. Whilst this involves external partnerships and creating new programmes for outreach, Dehousse emphasised his commitment to the EUI’s ‘first contribution to the broader European academic world – our Ph.D. program.’ ‘We need, at regular intervals, to ask ourselves what needs to be changed about the way we work, and what new needs have emerged. That’s a healthy exercise,’ Professor Dehousse explained.  ‘Explaining to our stakeholders what it is we are doing forces us to keep thinking about the way we work and how it might be improved,’ he said.

Dehousse also sees a role for the EUI as a proponent of positive change in European higher education. One area in which the President sees potential for the Institute to generate change is the place of women in higher education. On this issue, ‘we are not exemplary,’ the President admitted. ‘But if we address this problem, once we have come up with a good construction of the problem, and how it can be addressed, it is also an opportunity to replicate solutions at the level of higher education across Europe’.

Disseminating research useful for the construction of Europe has long been on the Institute’s agenda. The creation of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, which celebrates its 25th birthday in 2017, was a crucial step in the realization of this objective. The idea was that the Centre ‘would act as a kind of beacon for actors interested in research on the construction of Europe,’ the President explained. It was intended to create a ‘focal point’ for research on the problems and solutions for Europe.  In fact, the work and reputation of the Schuman Centre over the years is an example of how the EUI has been very successful in reaching out to those outside of academia. The Schuman Centre ‘has served well the interest of the Institute at large by making available, to non-academic audiences, the ideas that were developed in the EUI’s various research programmes,’ he said.  This is a continued priority in general, he explains, mentioning that there are plans underway to ‘develop a more outward-looking approach to [the EUI’s] activity’.

Whilst the research activities of the Robert Schuman Centre are just one component of the EUI’s focus, Dehousse emphasises his conviction that the Institute’s role in producing knowledge and sharing findings is more important than ever for Europe. For example, ‘deep transformations within European society and the economy at large are a source of uneasiness within the European public, hence the mushrooming of populist movements,’ Professor Dehousse explained. ‘All this is a new phenomenon that deserves to be studied systematically.’ ‘We want to disseminate the conclusions in the hope this will be of use in countries where the same questions are asked,’ he said.

The ambition to lead research and training activities that strengthen Europe is one of the motivations for the proposed establishment of the School of Transnational Governance at the Institute. The school is due to begin a pilot phase in the second half of 2017. For Dehousse, training leaders in the research environment of the EUI has great potential to change Europe for the better. ‘We see a problem in the growing gap between elites and, as their opponents would say, the people. It is really important to equip those who will be active tomorrow with the analytical skills to understand better how society needs to be reformed, but also to make sure people feel associated to the reform agenda and not merely an object of reforms.’ As such, ‘developing educational programs on public policy in a place where there is a very strong research component really enables us to better respond to today’s and tomorrow’s challenges,’ he argued.

Looking to the future, President Dehousse says the mission of the EUI is to be ‘a contributor of ideas’ at the European level. But in the end, the EUI’s outreach value depends on the consistent quality of research and training conducted here in Fiesole. ‘Year after year, we create a community of people who have gained a lot from having spent time here,’ he said. ‘That’s our number one contribution.’

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