Rector magnificus Gerrit Berkhoff

The first rector magnificus of Technische Hogeschool Twente (‘Twente Technical College’) was Gerrit Berkhoff, a man whose revolutionary ideas about the campus community mean he can safely be categorized as one of the most influential rectors our university has ever known.

Gerrit Berkhoff (1901–1996) studied Chemistry in Leiden, gaining his PhD there in 1929. He went on to work for many years for DSM (known in those days as the Staatsmijnen or state-owned mines), where he eventually led the Research & Development department. In 1961, Minister of Education Jo Cals asked him to make preparations for the founding of a technical college in Twente. The working group tasked with achieving this was convinced that no preparations could be made until a rector magnificus had been appointed, but a rector couldn’t be appointed until the college had opened to students. To get around this, until the official opening Berkhoff went under the creative title of ‘rector magnificus designatus’, which loosely translates as ‘future rector magnificus’. He was proud to hold that title.

Berkhoff was rector magnificus from 1964 to 1967, and in that period he worked hard to promote the campus ideal. The campus was not only an experiment in strengthening the focus on studying; the idea was also for it to make a positive contribution to students’ personal development. In the words of Berkhoff himself, ‘After intellectual development, of course, human development is also key to creating a good engineer.’ He believed students should take personal responsibility in campus matters, and wanted the students to look after their campus themselves. That way, ‘the Technische Hogeschool Twente would not degenerate into a boarding school or a barracks, with discipline imposed from on high’.

Berkhoff wanted to shape Technische Hogeschool Twente into something truly new, and had the charisma to inspire his employees to go along with his frequently revolutionary ideas. For instance, he supported a suggestion put forward by several students that written examinations didn’t need invigilators – ‘a pleasing initiative’, in Berkhoff’s words. It’s hard to imagine now, but that policy remained in place for years.

One campus-related problem that arose during Berkhoff’s time in office was ‘the female housing question’. The Preparatory Committee had assumed that the only students who would live on campus would be unmarried and male, but then women suddenly started applying to study at Technische Hogeschool Twente. At first that caused a certain amount of panic among the administrators, because absolutely everything – including the toilets – had been designed with men in mind. Fortunately, the realization prevailed that there was no denying women the chance to live on campus, and that they might even have ‘a good influence’ on the student community, and a solution was soon found.

Both as rector magnificus designatus and as rector magnificus, Berkhoff strongly influenced the formation of Technische Hogeschool Twente and how the campus idea was realized. In recognition of this, he has been honoured with a room in the Waaier building that’s used for doctoral degree defences and ceremonies.

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