For the first time in Belgian history, the President of the Flemish far-right Vlaams Belang party Tom Van Grieken was invited to give a guest lecture at the KU Leuven University. Luc Sels, the university's Chancellor, stressed that he was not asked for permission.
Van Grieken was asked to give a guest lecture for the 'Political current affairs' course on the topic of whether the political cordon sanitaire imposed against Vlaams Belang (then still called Vlaams Blok) in 1989 was a curse or a blessing for the party.
"Academic freedom also means that teachers are free in their choice of teaching materials as well as to invite guest speakers," Sels said on Twitter. "Therefore, I was logically not asked for permission for the guest lecture of Van Grieken, and I am in any case not in a position to give it."
The cordon sanitaire means that from 1989, Vlaams Blok was effectively blocked from entering any level of government after all other parties agreed not to form a coalition with them, because of the party's racist rhetoric. The party rebranded itself as Vlaams Belang in 2004 after it was convicted of breaching the anti-racism law, but the political cordon sanitaire still remains in place.
"Giving someone the floor is not the same as 'normalising' their ideas," he said. "Civilised debate and discussion remain a building block of our model of society. Academics have an exemplary role in this."
Sels stressed that a cordon around racism and discrimination remains necessary. "And yes: Vlaams Belang is and remains a party that stands for racism and discrimination. And we will never normalise that at KU Leuven."
However, the professors who invited Van Grieken did realise that inviting him would be controversial, and decided not to make any announcements about it.
Unlike previous speakers invited to give a lecture at the KU Leuven earlier this academy year, such as Deputy Prime Minister Petra De Sutter or Covid-19 Commissioner Pedro Facon, the university did not communicate about Van Grieken's lecture to the general public.
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“We consciously opted for an internal event and we agreed on that with the speaker as well," political scientist Bart Maddens, who organised the lecture, told De Standaard before it took place. "It is only for students. That way a critical exchange of views can also follow, without intimidation from a wider audience or cameras."
Like Sels, the Dean of the Social Sciences Faculty Steven Eggermont was not aware of Van Grieken's lecture either. Requesting permission from either of them was not necessary, reports De Standaard: if a lecture is not publicly accessible, its content and the speaker fall under academic freedom.
Eggermont, however, took to Twitter to express his disappointment about the decision, agreeing with a KU Leuven alumnus who said that "these are not the values the Faculty stands for. Inviting Van Grieken does not create a safe space at the university. This is downright embarrassing and disastrous for the quality of education that I have always enjoyed."
Eggermont said that "that is how it feels for [him] too. As a human, and as a dean too, actually."