• Interview
  • Reading time: ± 6 min.
  • Text: Clemens van Diek
  • Picture: Clemens van Diek

Looking back with the ultimate alumnus

Wim van den Goorbergh (b. 1948, Breda) can be described as the ultimate Tilburg University alumnus. He has been associated with the university for over half a century, in various capacities including undergraduate, student assistant, assistant professor, PhD researcher, Friend of Cobbenhagen and advisor-administrator. He met his wife at Tilburg, and his son Rob also studied here. We visit four locations which hold special memories.

Having achieved excellent exam results at secondary school in The Hague, Wim came to Tilburg at the start of the 1966 academic year. He decided to study econometrics at the Faculty of Economic Sciences (as it was then known) and joined the Iduna student society. Blessed with a keen intellect and thirst for knowledge, he proved an exemplary student. In 1971, he was awarded his Master’s degree – cum laude – and invited to join the research group headed by Prof. Dick Schouten, a prominent economist and longtime member of the Social and Economic Council of the Netherlands. The late 1960s were turbulent times, marked by the Vietnam War, the Prague Spring and student riots in Paris. Even Tilburg University (then Katholieke Hogeschool Tilburg) did not escape controversy. On 28 April 1969 it became the scene of the Netherlands’ first ever student ‘sit-in’. This was the precursor to a similar protest by University of Amsterdam students later the same month.

Student and activist. Location: the Aula

The Aula building brings back many memories for Wim: the student sit-in of 1969, the defense of his doctoral thesis in 1978, and witnessing his son Rob go through the same ordeal in 2004. The building was also the venue for meetings of the Friends of Cobbenhagen and the Nexus Institute.

“You could say that the 1969 student demonstrations were a protest against the rigid, hidebound governance structure to which universities still clung. Staff had no formal position within that structure, and students had very little input. There was a general atmosphere of unrest, perhaps stoked by the situation in Vietnam and Paris. Eventually, dissatisfaction with the form and content of the curriculum prompted students and staff to challenge the status quo.”
“I was the spokesman for the Appél student group. There were other groups, with whom we had a significant difference of opinion about the nature of the reforms and how they should be implemented. The ‘Left Front’ faction eventually won that discussion. However, one point on which we all agreed was that there should be more consultation with staff and students.”
It was in the Aula that Wim defended his standpoints to the assembled masses, and it was here that he negotiated with the authorities. “The atmosphere was very tense and both sides dug their heels in. Eventually, as is so often the case, the whole affair was sorted out by amending a few sentences in a memorandum. It was nevertheless quite exciting to have been part of what seemed to us to be a historic event.”

“It was a fine life as a researcher and teaching assistant.”

Wim van den Goorbergh

Assistant professor and PhD researcher. Location: ‘The Fifth’

We visit the Koopmans building on a Friday afternoon and find it deserted. It was here on the fifth floor that Wim laid the foundations of his extremely successful career. “Interestingly, the Rabobank boardroom was also on the fifth floor,” he muses.

Wim sets out to find the room that he and his fellow members of the General Theory and History of Economics research group once occupied. It was here that he wrote most of his doctoral thesis, ‘A Macroeconomic Theory of Employment’ (1978). He soon finds the door of Prof. Dirk Schouten’s room. This was the home of the ‘The Tilburg School’, a very tight-knit group of economists with their own model approach. They held great influence within the faculty hierarchy in a world which was still preoccupied with the macroeconomic level. This room was occupied by Schouten himself, Prof. Ad Kolnaar, Prof. Theo van de Klundert and the other members of the research group. Across the corridor was the room occupied by the monetary economists: Prof. Hans Bosman and Prof. Jacques Sijben. “In those days, the emphasis was very much on the hard economy. Monetary economics was of secondary importance. In the 1970s, neither research nor education devoted very much attention to the stability of the financial system. Today, monetary factors and the financial markets are recognized as very important.”

“It was a very friendly office. You would arrive in the morning, prepare lectures or work on a publication, perhaps your thesis. As a member of the academic staff, you were expected to study for a doctorate. At ten thirty, the coffee trolley would arrive. At lunchtime, everyone went to the refectory together. Sometimes I would then go for a little walk with the lady who later became my wife. We were married in 1974. It was a fine life as a researcher and teaching assistant!”

Wim’s time on the fifth floor was influenced by the aftermath of the 1969 protests. There was now a strong desire to update the curriculum to include political economics. “We general economists came in for a lot of criticism, accused of being stuck in the past.” The Political Economics workgroup was particularly scathing in its publication, Zur Kritik des fünften Stockes. A period of polarization began. Following the usual administrative haggling and a very short protest, the chair of Political Economics and Social Order (PEMO) was created. It survived until the mid-nineties.

In 1980, Wim decided to pursue a career in the private sector. He joined Rabobank, an organization he continued to serve for the next 22 years. He was appointed to its Executive Board (under Herman Wijffels) in 1993, becoming Chief Financial Officer in 1998 and Deputy CEO in 2000. Wim discovered that monetary economists were not entirely au fait with financial practice in the real world. Banks were more than mere mediators between savers and borrowers. They were commercial businesses existing to make a profit. They invested and they dealt on behalf of clients, staff and shareholders. This was all very different from the theory!

“This room was too big for dialogue. Besides, we lecturers communicated so clearly that questions were entirely unnecessary!”

Wim van den Goorbergh

Assistant professor. Location: GZ 101

Wim used to give lectures to several hundred students at a time in the main hall of the Goossens building (then known as Building C).

Wim can still remember the lectures he gave at the university. “I taught second-year students about the determinants of economic growth and the history of economic theory. In the third year I covered conjuncture and structure theory, medium and long-term economic growth, and the reports published by the Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis and the central bank, DNB.”

“I really enjoyed teaching. Although there were no formal evaluations in those days, you did get to hear some feedback about your performance. It was very much a one-way street. I stood here and presented the information. There was very little time for questions or interaction: that was the purpose of the tutorials. This room was too big for dialogue. Besides, we lecturers communicated so clearly that questions were entirely unnecessary!” (He laughs.)

“Even in those days, students were inquisitive and keen to learn. The vast majority were studying business economics and management. They found general economics rather challenging. I had no difficulty in maintaining their attention. I often had to explain some quite complex material. I found that I had something of a talent in this area. During my career at Rabobank I always enjoyed explaining our policy and strategy to stakeholders.”

Advisor and administrator. Location: the TIAS building

This location brings back memories of two periods in Wim’s life: as supervisory director of the TIAS Business School (1998-2005) and as Chairman of the Supervisory Board of the Nexus Institute, which was based here for a while.

“TIAS is very important as a bridge between the research world and society. It channels new knowledge which can be put to practical use. Every faculty of economics should have its own business school. Nexus is an institute which exists to study and promote European humanism. It does so through its own journal, annual conferences and the prestigious Nexus Lecture which has been given by some extremely prominent speakers such as the former president of Germany, Richard von Weizsäcker, and the Indian politician Sonia Gandhi. I have always considered Nexus to be a valuable adjunct to the university’s Catholic identity and I attempted to promote formal cooperation between the institute and the university. Sadly, I was unsuccessful.”

A longer report with video clips can be found at www.tilburguniversity.edu/alumni

A message for the university at 90

“The university’s motto, Understanding Society, carries the risk of being misinterpreted. Some people might think that it implies a lack of obligation. It is one thing to ‘understand’ society. Connecting and engaging with society is another. The theme of this anniversary year is Connecting people and knowledge. I see that as a valuable clarification and I wish the university every success in its efforts.”

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Would you like to look back at special moments at Tilburg University as well? Share your story with us via alumni@tilburguniversity.edu.

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