Paul van de Laar: How 'Rotterdam' is Erasmus University really?

On the relationship between city and academy
De Hef Rotterdam
Paul van de Laar on campus
Bou Wong

At 110 years old, Erasmus University Rotterdam is a relatively young university. But indispensable to this city. Why and when did this university originate in Rotterdam? And what place does Erasmus University occupy in Rotterdam? We discuss this with Paul van de Laar, endowed professor of urban history and head of department of history at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication.

The foundation for Erasmian Values

"Always known as an enterprising city, Rotterdam had numerous merchants who drew inspiration from intellectuals who came from elsewhere. Pierre Bayle, Mandeville and John Locke, to name a few, were part of a circle around the English Quaker merchant Benjamin Furly in the late 17th century. This Rotterdam mercator-sapiens was the lynchpin of a network of international communities that met in both small circles at home and improvised societies. De Lantaarn, the house where Furly held his meetings, was an important base for exporting Enlightenment ideals outside Rotterdam. They built on what is today called 'Erasmian Values'.

A school for the trade elite

But intellectual Rotterdam was being supplanted by the working and port city in the late 19th century. The port was getting bigger and more international and the need for better-educated tradesmen and merchants increased. "At first, it was normal to be trained in the family business or go to work for friendly relations, but the need to professionalise the practically trained entrepreneurs was growing.

Maashaven 1908
Gemeentearchief Rotterdam

Therefore, in 1913, the Nederlandsche Handels-Hoogeschool was founded, a practical broad-based trade school meant for the trading elite, with subjects such as languages, history, geography, and economics. Economics became increasingly important for the education. Other universities wrongly looked down upon this fledgling science. For instance, they said 'whoever studies economics is a glorified accountant.'"

From college to university

After World War II, things moved quickly for the Hogeschool. The campus moved from Pieter de Hoochweg (near the port area) to Woudestein, where the current campus was built from the 1960s onwards. And since 1973, the school has finally borne the name Erasmus University Rotterdam, following a merger between the Dutch Economic University and Medical Faculty Rotterdam.

"All the practice-oriented studies that Rotterdam is known for, which other universities used to turn their noses up at, have become commonplace"

The Rotterdam way: making societal impact

But what characterises Erasmus University? Can we really call the university Rotterdam and what is left of its connection with the city? "You can really see the Nederlandsche Handels-Hoogeschool as the precursor of Erasmus University. Everyone knows that the focus on economics, and later the social sciences and humanities, makes it an entrepreneurial university. In Rotterdam, there is a different way of working. You can even see that all the practice-oriented studies that Rotterdam is known for, which other universities used to turn their noses up at, have become commonplace." Rotterdam is known as a city with a "roll up your sleeves" mentality; "niet lullen, maar poetsen" (“don’t talk, just clean”, which means “actions speak louder than words”) is the famous Rotterdam saying. And that aligns with Erasmus University's pragmatism.

EUR campus with Rotterdam in the background
Alexander Santos Lima

"Rotterdam has always said: we are socially relevant, we make 'societal impact', as we now call it. You see that from the very beginning in Erasmus University's programmes, all programmes are socially relevant. And Erasmus University gave its own twist to existing programmes like law, sociology, and history with a clear Rotterdam profile. And that is the charm of Rotterdam in particular as a university city, there is always room for experimentation. That is truly something Rotterdam. That's why Rotterdam and Erasmus University originally had a lot in common."

Distance between city and university?

But looking at the present, Paul does place a critical note. "The bond needs to be much closer. Of course, they embrace each other, but how does that become visible to ordinary Rotterdammers? Yes, the mayor visits the opening ceremony of the academic year, but does the city notice enough of the cooperation between city and university? It does, but not enough. When I was recently at a conference on 150 years of the Nieuwe Waterweg, I noticed that Port of Rotterdam’s scenarios were based on Oxford University's consultancy branch. That surprised me. And the university used to be much less involved in the National Programme Rotterdam South (NPRZ), which means a lot to the city."

Paul van de Laar at Maassilo
Bou Wong

"Fortunately, we see that cooperation has become a lot closer in recent years. Erasmus University Rotterdam and NPRZ signed a covenant in June 2020 and a cultural exploration was launched in autumn 2020 that explored the focus, concept, network and needs of the Culture Campus (Cultuurcampus). Our faculty is now closely involved in this."

Rotterdam as a laboratory

Paul sees plenty of opportunities in Rotterdam. According to him, the city is a laboratory for the rest of the Netherlands. He dares to say that everything that happens in Rotterdam will sooner or later have repercussions throughout the country. "Whether the energy transition will be successful is largely determined here in Rotterdam. That is a tremendously important issue, and the port plays a big role in it. In the field of healthcare, the medical faculty, Erasmus MC, is leading the way for new courses, curricula, and research. That is really a jewel we have in the city. You see new things being tried out everywhere in Rotterdam, including at Erasmus University. And that is very Rotterdam."

City hall in tow

In the Lustrum year, the university wants to raise its profile in the city. Paul sees the Lustrum activities as a good endeavour but focuses his gaze mainly on the future. For example, can the university say that in a few years' time, something has really been achieved in the city?

Stadhuis Rotterdam
Iris van den Broek

"Show that the university is not dependent on policies at city hall. As a university, you want to take the policymakers at city hall with you. Pick some major themes that are at play in Rotterdam and work on them in the long term. That happens too little. So, what is our long-term strategy and how can we use the Lustrum to give new impetus to this?"

In conversation with the Rotterdammer

"We need to look beyond the Lustrum and actually look at the long term. See this Lustrum as a new starting point and at the next Lustrum, see how far you have come and what we can develop further in the future. When you engage with the people who live here, look at what the needs are and create a vision. We have so many great scientists and knowledge here that Rotterdam as a city can benefit from. And with that, so can we as a university."

"How streetwise are we really? What can we learn from the life of the Rotterdammer?"

Markt Blaak

"You could, for example, appoint a university professor of 'Rotterdam impact' to deal mainly with social themes in the city. We now have many programmes running and that's fine, but how do we translate them back to the city? It is essential that we also consciously use knowledge from residents, so not knowledge transfer purely from the university, but also from the city. Let's turn it around: maybe we should be taught by people from the neighbourhoods. How streetwise are we really? What can we learn from the life of the Rotterdammer?"

Monument Erasmus's birthplace
Iris van den Broek

The start of something beautiful 

Leveraging knowledge from the university and picking up knowledge in the city. The combination of the two is golden according to Paul. Can Erasmus University and the city of Rotterdam meet in this in the future? Hopefully, this Lustrum Year will be the start of something beautiful we can look back on with pride.

Paul van de Laar is endowed professor of urban history at Erasmus University and former director of Museum Rotterdam. He knows the city from bottom to top and has written several books about it, including his latest publication (with Peter Scholten): De echte Rotterdammer komt van buiten, Rotterdam migratiestad 1600-2022 (The real Rotterdammer comes from outside, Rotterdam migration city 1600-2022).

More information

Erasmus University Rotterdam turns 110

Our research matters! During our 22nd lustrum we will show what impact Erasmus University Rotterdam's research makes. Read more about how we’re marking our 22nd lustrum and 110th anniversary during the 2023–2024 academic year.


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