Screenshot of the Dies celebration that went online on Friday. On the left, UU Rector Henk Kummeling; on the right, UMCU President Margriet Schneider.

Dies Natalis goes digital: a no-frills kickstart to the lustrum year

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No crowded Dom church, no procession across the Dom square and no exuberant lustrum programme. The 385th anniversary of Utrecht University was unusually quiet because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead of the usual programme, there was an online celebration and UU employees received a gift.

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A guaranteed smile. If you ask Utrecht residents to pronounce the Latin term for anniversary, "dies natalis", they will probably say something like "dish noatoalish". Vlogger Loeki Alflen, born and raised in Utrecht, provided this comic relief as part of the online celebration of UU's 77th anniversary.

Unfortunately, there was no grand celebration with hundreds of guests in the Dom church on Friday. No live streaming of a small ceremony in the church or the Academy Building either. Everything was pre-recorded and then posted on YouTube. The video collage was presented by UU alumna Naomi Kok Luis. Around 300 people watched the first screening on Friday afternoon.

This time, the University's lustrum will be celebrated alongside UMC Utrecht. The theme is "Creating tomorrow together", emphasising how important it is for scientists to connect with society at large.

Just like in the regular celebration, self-contratulations weren't missing on YouTube. UMCU Chairperson Margriet Schneider and UU Rector Henk Kummeling stressed how the science made in Utrecht is indispensable, especially for the city.

The UU rector also invited people living in Utrecht to submit questions for a Utrecht-themed science agenda as students and researchers of the University will work on issues currently at play in the city.

The engine of the city
The programme was fast-paced, featuring the students responsible for the nominations of the Teachers of the Year award, followed by the winners themselves. Then, we were introduced to three students helping schoolchildren and those in need amidst the corona crisis. The mayor of Utrecht, Sharon Dijksma, expressed her appreciation for the University, which she called “the engine of the city”. She was followed by student choir Dekoor, performing the University's new anthem. There was also a brief introduction to UU's new Vice-President, Margot van der Starre.

Professor of Environmental Epidemiology Roel Vermeulen was chosen to give the Dies Natalis' speech. He is an expert on the exposome, a term meaning all the non-genetic factors that influence a person's health. Wearing an academic robe, Vermeulen started the speech in a meadow near the Utrecht Science Park, and then he appeared in several different neighborhoods of Utrecht. UU scientists are helping to make Utrecht's living environment healthier, he explained.

A little gift
The lustrum celebration went on for just 45 minutes. The awarding of honorary doctorates, usually part of the anniversary's celebrations, has been postponed to September, when the new academic year will begin. The announcement of the alumnus of the year didn't have to be included in the programme either, as the winner of the accolade, author Rutger Bregman, received praise on Thursday in an interview that can also be watched in its entirety online.

It's not easy to celebrate in these times. A few more anniversary activities have been scheduled later this year, with the hope that students and staff will be able to witness them live. That is the case of the inauguration of a floating work of art in the Singel canal, which will also serve as a platform for lectures and performances. Also waiting to happen are an exhibition about student life and the university, to be held in The Utrecht Archives, and an app for a walking tour highlighting the history of science in Utrecht. But, for the time being, students and staff will have to make do with the online programme.

Last but not least, all UU employees were informed by e-mail on Friday that they can choose a gift on a webshop. Options include a sweater, a t-shirt, or a set of UU mugs or glasses. Students were surprised with a similar e-mail earlier this month.

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