VUB Honorary Rector Caroline Pauwels passes away

VUB Honorary Rector Caroline Pauwels passes away

Sint-Niklaas, 23 June 1964 - Brussels, 5 August 2022

The Vrije Universiteit Brussel announces with great sadness the death of Honorary Rector Caroline Pauwels. Professor of Communication Sciences Caroline Pauwels was rector of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, to which UZ Brussel is affiliated, from 2016 to 2022. She was 58 and leaves behind two children.

Caroline Pauwels passed away on Friday, 5 August 2022 at UZ Brussel. She had been suffering from stomach and oesophageal cancer for several years. Earlier this year, her illness forced her to resign as rector.  

Karsten De Clerck, Chairman of the Board of Directors: “The death of Caroline has brought VUB great sadness. She was a warm and engaging person. A great inspiration with a clear vision. Her commitment was not only to VUB but to society as a whole. She put all her energy into connecting people, until the very end.” 

Rector ad-interim and elected successor Jan Danckaert: “Caroline will be greatly missed by VUB, but we will always carry her in our hearts. She has made VUB a warm, connected and compassionate university. Connecting VUB with the international, diverse and multilingual character of Brussels was a priority for her. Everyone mattered to Caroline. She would listen carefully, take the time to think, and then come to a well-considered decision, invariably with an eye on justice and humanity.”

Prof Dr Marc Noppen, CEO UZ Brussel: “Caroline succeeded in giving VUB a clear face, and placing the university at the forefront of the social debate in Flanders, Belgium, even Europe. Her motives were authenticity, connection, love for the student, academia, ‘her’ university and her fellow human. A great woman has left us far too soon. It was an honour to work with her.”

The entire community of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and its affiliated UZ Brussel wish her family, friends and acquaintances much courage and strength in these difficult times. 

At Caroline’s explicit request, the funeral ceremony will take place in a family setting.


Scientific career

Caroline Pauwels studied Philosophy at UAntwerp and Communication Sciences at VUB. After graduating, she worked for a short time in 1989 in the cabinet of European Commissioner Karel Van Miert, after which she became a researcher at VUB’s Department of Communication Sciences. 

She obtained her doctorate in 1995 with research focusing on the European Union’s audiovisual policy. In 1998, she became a professor, and she has numerous publications to her name in the field of communication and media. From 2000 to 2016, she was director of SMIT, a research centre specialising in the study of information and communication technologies, which since 2004 has been part of the iMinds network. Within iMinds, Caroline led the Digital Society department, which unites research groups from Ghent, Leuven and Brussels. She was awarded the Francqui Chair by the University of Ghent in 2014, and between 2012 and 2016 she held the Jean Monnet Chair. In addition, she served on several boards of directors, was a government commissioner at VRT and a member of the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts.


In April 2016, Caroline Pauwels was elected rector of VUB, succeeding Paul De Knop. She was the 11th rector of VUB and the second woman to hold the post, after Els Witte. In 2020, she was re-elected with an overwhelming majority. In the same year, she was ranked fifth in a study on Thought Leadership in Flanders, and was the highest-ranked woman.

In 2021, she was awarded the Ark Prize of the Free Word.

Connection with the world 

VUB will particularly remember Caroline Pauwels as the rector who established the great connection with the outside world. With people, with Brussels, with Europe, with the world. Her work, which she said she hoped would never be finished, led the VUB community into the future along a carefully mapped out path. How we should be, and how we want to be. With her policy plans as a guide, VUB positioned itself as an urban engaged university that is humanistic, diverse, democratic, sustainable and digital.

Connection with Brussels

With, Caroline Pauwels strengthened the link with the city and with sister university Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB). The two universities jointly took action for the city and its residents by contributing to the development of a free, connected and resilient urban community. Brussels became a lecture hall and a workplace, as students were successfully connected with local stakeholders and the professional field. Researchers apply their expertise to make the multilingual and multicoloured capital stronger by providing answers to metropolitan social challenges.

In 2017, she and former ULB rector Yvon Englert were awarded the title Brussels Leader of the Year for their contributions to a positive image of the city through education and research.  The same year, she was named Brusselares van ‘t joer, for her love of the city and its dialect. She liked to quote former chair of the board Eddy Van Gelder: “Voesj met de Koesj” (“And now forward, to work”).

Ahmadreza Djalali 

Until the end, Caroline Pauwels worked hard to secure the release of VUB guest lecturer Ahmadreza Djalali. The Iranian scientist was arrested by the Iranian authorities in 2016 without a warrant and charged with espionage. Caroline made multiple appeals to various government leaders and organisations. 

Culture and science 

Thanks to Caroline, VUB began partnerships with cultural institutions such as Bozar and KVS, and she breathed new life into the important link between science and art with the Mindblowers initiative, in which scientists and artists share the stage. Her love of art, culture and philosophy was translated, among other things, into her guest curatorship of the Theater Aan Zee festival in 2021, when she celebrated the act of wondering. One of her great inspirations was the philosopher Hannah Arendt. In 2020, VUB and UAntwerp launched the Hannah Arendt Institute for diversity, urbanity and citizenship in Mechelen. The centre aims to make a fundamental contribution to the social debate and to living together in the city. 

Her books 

Caroline Pauwels also set her philosophical nature and her talent for wonder down on paper, publishing several books. In Ronduit: Overpeinzingen van een possibilist, she told of the winding path she had taken in her life, of special experiences, inspiring encounters and profound lessons. In Wonderlust, with Jean Paul Van Bendegem and Pat Donnez, she laid down rules for a more beautiful life. “Live life in full awareness of finiteness,” is one of those rules. And her Ode aan de verwondering is a plea to look at the world again with a childlike view. In science and art, but also in the big and small moments of each day. 

European university collaboration 

Caroline Pauwels was also involved in creating the EUTOPIA European cooperation project, in which VUB is represented alongside nine other European universities. She herself said recently: “I am a Europhile, tout court. Europe propagates values that I find absolutely worth defending. Despite the often justified criticism of its policy, I am in favour of a strong European Union. In the EU, education is becoming a key pillar. When Macron came up with his idea to have our universities form European alliances, I was very excited. For me, that call was a dream.”

Difference Day 

Another ideal that Caroline Pauwels fought for was the freedom of the press. 3 May is World Press Freedom Day, a day to reflect on the huge importance of journalistic freedom as a foundation of our democratic system. With the affiliated Difference Day event, initiated by Caroline, VUB brings more attention to World Press Freedom Day in the Belgian media. For Caroline, freedom of journalism equalled the diversity of people and beliefs.  

Something will always remain

Even after her premature resignation in February this year, Caroline Pauwels remained involved with the university on various ethical and reflective topics. 

She may have lost her personal battle against impermanence, but she taught us that something will always remain. “It will pass, but the surplus will remain”, as a good friend of hers once said. VUB will always carry honorary rector Caroline Pauwels and her endless love for life deep in its heart.

Book of condolence

Anyone who would like to share memories, anecdotes and mementos of the warm and engaging person that Caroline Pauwels was, and who would like to leave a word of comfort for her children, close family and friends, can do so in the book of condolence. This is available in the Braem Building on the Etterbeek campus, in the library on Jette campus, and online.

VUB Caroline Pauwels Emergency Fund for Students

Caroline considered it a privilege to work with and for young people as rector of VUB. She had great understanding and admiration for young people and an endless faith in students. To offer them equal educational opportunities, she founded the Caroline Pauwels Emergency Fund for Students. The family therefore asks people not to send flowers, but to continue Caroline’s work by making a donation to the fund through account number BE51 0013 6779 3562 with the message GIFT FO7.

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Sicco Wittermans
Sicco Wittermans Spokesperson Vrije Universiteit Brussel
Sicco Wittermans
Sicco Wittermans Spokesperson Vrije Universiteit Brussel
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