nieuws> Two candidates with different styles

Theology chooses new dean

Will the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies get a female dean for the first time? Biblical scholar Bénédicte Lemmelijn takes the lead, Vice Dean Johan Leemans trails behind.

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The Voice is the student newspaper run by internationals at KU Leuven. Between 2018 and 2022, The Voice published articles on the Veto website under the The Voice section, combined with translations of Dutch Veto articles. After 2022, the section was renamed to Veto English. Since then, the section has been operated by Veto English staff only.

This article originally appeared in Dutch on 18 May 2022. Veto commits itself to translate relevant articles to English.

On Thursday, a dean debate took place for the first time at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, organised by the student union Katechetika. Around seventy people attended, including a few professors.

Bénédicte Lemmelijn, member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission and former Vice Dean of International Affairs, is competing against Johan Leemans. He is already serving his third term as Vice Dean of Research.

Retirement wave

Despite Leemans's experience, Lemmelijn currently seems to be the biggest contender. In the indicative voting round she scored double the votes Leemans did: 24 against 12, while 8 members of the Faculty Board casted a blank vote. Lemmelijn is therefore on track to become the first female dean of the faculty.

Leemans doesn't want to move to the stately dean's office

There weren't many potential candidates. As a candidate you have to be a full professor and cannot retire within the next four years, while professors have to go into retirement at 65 years old. Coincidentally a wave of retirements is approaching the faculty in the next four years.

Current dean Johan De Tavernier was too old for a second term. He won the dean elections from Didier Pollefeyt, former Vice Rector of Educational Policy, in 2018 . Pollefeyt would have been able to run again this time, but backed out. Just like many other potential candidates in fact, including Vice Dean of Education Pierre Van Hecke.

Policy culture

During the debate, the emphasis on personal style and policy culture stood out. Leemans, for example, said that he would not move to the stately dean's office with a secretariat, but wanted to stay in his current office to be easily accessible. The office space of the deanery could then be turned into a meeting room.

'I wish I had thought of that myself'

Johan Leemans, Vice Dean of Research

Lemmelijn, on the other hand, wants to open up the faculty board to anyone who wishes to come by. Leemans thought that was a very good idea. 'I wish I had thought of that myself', he reacted.

The two candidates do have different styles. For instance, Lemmelijn's vision statement including a professional website had already been finished a few days after the indicative election round, while Leemans still did the dean's debate without an official program. That did appear online last Monday. The programme is quite concrete from a policy point of view.

Hot potatoes

There is quite a bit going on at the faculty. Transgressive behaviour was discussed multiple times during the dean's debate. We probably have to see that in light of the two reports that emerged in the last few years about the situations of assistants at the faculty.

'The bachelor's reform mainly wanted to please everybody'

Bénédicte Lemmelijn, Biblical scholar

The second report, which Veto was allowed to take a look at, spoke on the basis of focus-group discussions about 'a variety of forms of bullying and inappropriate behaviours' at the faculty. 'This seems to indicate that this behavior is understood to be, however small, a part of the culture of the Faculty', the authors conclude. An important note is that only 12 assistants took part in these focus-group discussions.

This does not concern sexually inappropriate behaviour, but rather the general expectation at the faculty to overperform, so the authors say in a response to Veto. This the candidates also explicitly spoke of during the debate. The mentioned tensions concerned the strong criticism on the academic work of assistants.

Theologists vs. religious scholars

During the debate, the bachelor's reform of Theology and Religious Studies was briefly mentioned. Both candidates were not in favour: 'A mountain which laboured a mouse', Leemans called the reform. Lemmelijn thought that the reform 'mainly wanted to please everybody'.

Only in 2011, the faculty added 'Religious Studies' to its name

The reform of the only Dutch bachelor at the faculty dragged on for one and a half years. During such decisions the discussion between theologists and religious scholars typically comes up. The former study religion from the viewpoint of their own religion, the latter approach religion more like social scientists. Only in 2011, the faculty added 'Religious Studies' to its name.


Internationalisation is also a hot topic. A significant part of the audience on Thursday was made up of internationals. The debate was partly held in English and partly in Dutch with simultaneous subtitles.

Katechetika often struggles: most meetings where they represent students are in Dutch, while the number of Dutch new students shrinks. Both candidates have committed to better support Katechetika.

At the end of the debate, the students present were able to vote for their favourite candidate. About fifty did so. In the elections this Friday, the five student votes on the Faculty Board will go in full to the candidate who received the most support after the debate.

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