15 August 2023. I enter the doors of the iconic building of the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague to start my job as its new rector. I am shown around the monumental hallways, along the picturesque stairways with a multilingual welcome and into my ridiculously large office (being used to a flex-working environment). The building is relatively empty, which only changes two weeks later when all the ‘new batch’ students arrive. I feel the anxious sensations of a newbie. I smell the adrenaline that all the newbies before me have left on the doorstep, in the hallway, on the stairs … But I also feel the comforting and welcoming atmosphere created by the soon familiar faces of Gita and others at the reception desk, Rafael in the canteen and Sandy in the Butterfly bar.
What I am trying to say: ISS is not only the academic, EUR nr. 1 hotspot of development studies. Not only a vibrant intellectual arena where development economics, critical agrarian studies, migration and social justice, governance and legal mobilization, humanitarian studies and so many more issues are critically encountered, discussed, taught. It is also a place to be home.
This reminded me of a crucial insight from sociology. A social institution (like ISS) can simultaneously be at least three different things. It can be an organization, governed by structural procedures and protocols, rules and regulations. But it can also be a social movement, determined by societal aims and the visionary dream to change the world. And it can be a community where people belong and are supported and comforted. Three completely different dimensions, each with strengths and risks. The organizational dimension is helpful to sustain clear procedures, clarity of roles and solid structures. But it can easily turn into a bureaucratic beast. The communal dimension is essential to safeguard the personal and interpersonal character of working together. But it can also become a suffocating blanket. The movement dimension is the energizing force that aims at changing the world. But it can soon become a revolutionary monster.
I don’t know what my years at ISS will bring. And that is true for most students, PhD candidates and others. But if we can keep these three dimensions together, be it in ISS or anywhere else, we will be able to tap into great resources, opportunities and challenges! And that is the only way to make the world a better place.