In Memoriam Hans van Ginkel

By Luk Van Langenhove and Luc Soete, former directors of UNU-CRIS and UNU-MERIT

Hans van Ginkel, who passed away on Thursday, 27 July 2023, was a formidable figure by any standard. He was also one of those rare individuals who knew he could make a difference and so he did through his times in charge of the largest Dutch university, Utrecht University, and the smallest international university, the United Nations University (UNU). 

Intellectual, managerial and entrepreneurial

Intellectually, Hans was always ready to challenge the typical disciplinary prejudices popular in both the so-called “hard” natural sciences and the “soft” social and behavioural sciences, forcing others to broaden their perspectives on different views, environments and situations. His own life experience in Indonesia was undoubtedly instrumental in this; Hans was born in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Sumatra, Indonesia on 22 June 1940. It wasn’t until after the end of World War II that he moved back with his brother and father to Holland, where he spent his school years in the village of Roermond. 

In line with his diversified upbringing, Hans studied geography, a discipline he saw as integrating and bridging the natural sciences, humanities and social sciences with one another. Not surprisingly, inter- and trans-disciplinary approaches became a guiding principle of his intellectual endeavors, to the point of becoming his trademark, from his early days as Rector Magnificus at Utrecht University (1986-1997) through his Rectorship of UNU (1997-2007). Even after the latter, when he took on a special guest professorship back in Utrecht on sustainable urban futures, his multifaceted manner toward academia remained his leitmotif. 

As a manager, by being particularly aware of the intrinsic limits of leading complex academic institutions, Hans always focused on how to further build on existing strengths of the nodes of the academic networks of which he was in charge, whether those were university faculties or the family of global experts housed collectively across the UNU institutes. Having held the longest ever rectorship of Utrecht University and one of the longest of UNU, he was well aware that universities needed to form strategic international alliances and continuously diversify these external networks to maintain their positions as centers of creativity and innovation. And while he also knew that society could not afford to lose control over the activities and direction of university institutions, he also believed universities needed to have a large degree of autonomy. During his tenure at UNU, Hans, above all, exhibited his consciousness that excessive centralized control would lead to bureaucracy and loss of innovative capacity. 

From an entrepreneurial perspective, Hans acted as an initiator, a challenger and even a risk-taker when it came to new ideas as well as new institutional set-ups, often driven by dissatisfaction with existing structures. For example, during his rectorship in Utrecht, he illustrated his creative dynamism by being instrumental in bringing about the most radical physical transformation of the university, moving the faculties and research institutes out from the centre of the old town to the eastern part of the city (Uithof) and asking renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas to develop the new university campus concept. 

Leadership-wise, in typical Dutch fashion Hans would express the way he saw things rather directly, but at the same time, he never failed to motivate and respect the support and administrative staff working for him. Whereas bluntness hinders many Dutch politicians from making much impact at the international level, Hans developed a good sense of “slow diplomacy,” able to see how things would play out how “the hares would run” as they say in Dutch in international circles and act strategically. The Utrecht University newspaper even once described him as “having more political influence than [former Dutch prime ministers] Lubbers, Balkenende and [former Dutch development cooperation minister] Pronk put together.” 

Tenure at UNU: Europe, Japan and beyond

By all accounts, Hans’s UNU rectorship, based at the UNU headquarters in Tokyo, similarly became a period of highly innovative initiatives. He convinced then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan that UNU should hold similar importance within the UN as any other agency, thereby making the UNU Rector part of the Secretary-General’s Chief Executives’ Board. In Japan, despite the tragedy Hans had endured as a child in Indonesia, he established a close connection with the Japanese Imperial Family. At the level of UNU institutions, he both strengthened and radically expanded the network. 

The relationships that Luk Van Langenhove and Luc Soete, the authors of this obituary, held with Hans began differently yet were similarly close and brought us to work together, beginning in the mid-1990s. Hans was instrumental in the creation and transformation of the UNU institutes we were asked to direct, though initially neither of us could have imagined we’d become colleagues as UNU Directors. Luk became closely involved with the creation of UNU-CRIS (the UNU on Comparative Regional Integration Studies) in Bruges, Belgium, which achieved funding from sub-national regional authorities a novelty within the UNU network at that time. Luc, meanwhile, became the “merging” director of UNU-INTECH (the UNU Institute for New Technologies) and MERIT (the Maastricht Economic and Social Research Institute on Innovation and Technology), creating UNU-MERIT in Maastricht, which became the second-largest UNU institute. 

Other institutes such as UNU-EHS (Environment and Human Security) in Bonn, Germany, and UNU-IIGH (International Institute for Global Health) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia were created along with other major programmes and operating units in Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Japan, Jordan, Namibia, Senegal and Spain. But Hans also started initiatives that were more practice-oriented than academic, and these still flourish, such as the Regional Centres of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development (RCEs) – an initiative in which both Luc and Luk became involved. In typical Hans style, we were repeatedly challenged to broaden our perspectives, to become closely involved in such new endeavors, sometimes simply as helping hands with potential funding ministries and other times taking up extra assignments on-the-ground, such as Luk running the Paris office of UNU at the UNESCO headquarters there or kick-starting the former UNU institute in Barcelona. Not every effort ultimately materialized or proved sustainable, such as the UNUs attempted in Algeria and Barcelona, but Hans was not afraid to fail and when failure happened, he communicated about it openly and moved swiftly on to the next new challenge. For all these reasons, we both had a special connection with him and his wife, Bep. 

In the 1990s, Luk was the deputy secretary-general of the Belgian Ministry of Science Policy, and in that capacity, he was the representative of the Belgian federal government in the governance board of the College of Europe in Bruges. He met Hans there in the aftermath of the creation of BRIOSS (Bruges Research Initiative for Opening the Social Sciences), which began in 1997, just when Hans had been appointed as rector of UNU. BRIOSS had the ambition to become an epistemic community and even received financial support from the monks of Westvleteren along with endorsement from the academic council of the College of Europe. From BRIOSS, UNU-CRIS was born.

Luc, on his side, had been appointed Professor of International Economics at the Faculty of Economics of Maastricht University in 1986 and was closely involved in the feasibility study and creation of UNU-INTECH that happened at the time. The MERIT institute was set up in 1988 at Maastricht University as a sort of forerunner of UNU-INTECH, which was created two years later. Charles Cooper, who had been Luc’s PhD promotor at Sussex University, became the first UNU-INTECH director. Given his old student roots in nearby Roermond, Hans, who was then in his rectorship at Utrecht University, took a particular interest in these developments, the more so when he joined the UNU Council in 1992, prior to his rectorship. From the beginning, UNU-INTECH and MERIT worked closely together, setting up first a joint master’s programme and, later on, a joint PhD programme. As a result, Luc got to know Hans as he was each year invited to attend the international advisory board. Ultimately, it led to the merger and creation of UNU-MERIT in 2005. 

Involvement in the creation of UNU-MERIT

In Maastricht, van Ginkel felt more or less at home. UNU-INTECH was, so to say, his institute. He attended its opening in 1990 and had a close relationship with Charles Cooper. As a member of the UNU Council, he attended as Rector-designate the UNU-INTECH Advisory Board meeting chaired by Nate Rosenberg in 1997 (see picture below). 

International Advisory Board meeting of UNU-INTECH in Maastricht with first row: Swasti Mitter, UNU Rector Hector Gurgulino de Souza, Nate Rosenberg, Hans van Ginkel, Wan-Kyoo Cho, with back row: Margaret Hoegen, Ranjit Jayanti,  Hebe Vessuri, Charles Cooper (director), Winnie K. Byanyima and Wil Albeda.


Hans kept a close eye on the ups and downs of UNU-INTECH and appointed Lynn Mytelka in 2000 as the new director. The small size of the institute located in a peripheral Dutch city remained an issue of concern. 

International Advisory Board meeting of UNU-INTECH Advisory Board in 2002. From left: Jan Muntendam, Linsu Kim, Hebe Vessuri, Eugene Skolnikoff (chairman), Lynn Mytelka (director), Wil Albeda, Winnie K. Byanyima and Hans van Ginkel (UNU Rector).


In 2004, Hans asked Luc if he wouldn’t be prepared to become director of UNU-INTECH and merge it with the MERIT institute, something which had always been on both of their minds. The timing was perfect. So on one November morning in 2004,  Hans announced in Luc’s presence to a relatively shocked UNU-INTECH audience that Luc would become the new UNU-INTECH director and that the institute would now become UNU-MERIT. Luc took office on 1 April 2005, and the formal agreement was signed between UNU, Maastricht University and the MERIT institute (see picture), which is the basis on which UNU-MERIT still operates. As such, Luc served as the third director of UNU-INTECH and the first director of UNU-MERIT until 2012, before becoming the rector of Maastricht University until 2016.  

From left: Jo Ritzen, President of Maastricht University, Hans van Ginkel, UNU Rector, and Franz Palm, Dean of the UM School of Business and Economics and chairman of the MERIT Foundation on the signature of the UM-UNU-MERIT agreement.  


A cherished legacy

The history of UNU is embedded with the unique figure of Hans van Ginkel. We both owe a large portion of our careers to him. With so many other social sciences scholars, friends and colleagues in Bruges, Maastricht, Tokyo and so many other places in the world, we will deeply miss him, but comforting us are many fond memories we will always cherish.  


Luc Soete                                                Luk Van Langenhove

Former director of UNU-MERIT               Former director of UNU-CRIS