If your ambition in the future is to be “patron de promotion” at the College of Europe, you have to be an outstanding European. You also have to be dead. But it helps significantly if you’re also male, white and from an ‘old’ Member State.
The College has been naming each promotion after outstanding Europeans since 1949. As some promotions have two names, there have been a total of seventy patrons to date. The patrons are nominated by the Rector and approved by the College’s Executive Committee (twelve members, including its President Iñigo Mendez De Vigo and the Burgemeester). A recent innovation is to alternate between the commemoration of those who are recently deceased and those who died a long time ago.
Last year, when looking at the wall of patrons in Dijver foyer, I was surprised at how difficult it was to find a woman’s name. I decided to take a closer look at who the patrons were and how they are selected.
Like me, I think you’ll find the results both interesting and disappointing. Across 67 years, just five patrons have been women, three of whom share the title with a man. Only one hasn’t been white (Richard N. Coudenhove-Kalergi was half-Japanese). The vast majority are from Western European countries. Eighteen countries are represented; one is even an American!
The patrons do not reflect the makeup of modern Europe, nor the College itself. On the Bruges campus, we are 51% female and around 30% Eastern or non-European – a far cry from the male and western patrons. While the College is not very ethnically diverse (which potentially merits an article in itself), we are certainly less of a whitewash than our patrons have been to date.
But why does it matter that the patrons are neither representative nor diverse?
The patrons are surely, in part, supposed to inspire us to become outstanding Europeans ourselves. Simply put, few white men are role models for me, nor I imagine for many of you. I want to learn about and be inspired by outstanding Europeans who I can truly identify with, who reflect my community and the Europe that I live in.
But patrons aren’t just supposed to inspire. It is also a way to commemorate influential people. There are numerous patrons that we are unlikely to become: few College students go on to become prominent scientists or composers. If we are commemorating Chopin’s impact on Europe, then why are we not also commemorating those women, ethnic minorities and other eastern Europeans who have played a significant role? Quite rightly, the College doesn’t only choose well-known household names. I’m sure not many of us had heard of Falcone, Borsellino or Dink before we came to the College. I have no doubt that there are dozens more little known and diverse Europeans who deserve to be known and celebrated by future students of the College.
I have heard rumours that the choice of the patron is sometimes used as a political pawn to encourage influential speakers to come and speak at the College. Was Chopin supposed to appeal to Tusk? If so, aside from the fact that it didn’t work, I would hope that the current leaders of Europe would also be pleased to come and celebrate some of their less well known heroes and heroines.
PATRONS TO MATRONS
You’ll remember that the SAGE group (Students’ Association for Gender Equality) started a poll on this subject earlier in the year. Thanks to your input they were able to propose several options to the Rector, notably Simone de Beauvoir, Hannah Arendt, Olympe de Gouges, Rosa Luxemburg, and Simone Veil. You may not be aware, but we will find out during the closing ceremony who has been picked as the 2016-7 patron.
Here’s to hoping that from 2016 onwards, the selected patrons will be more representative and diverse. As an absolute minimum, the student body should call for women to make up half of all future patrons. For a College that celebrates diversity, we really ought to reflect this in our choice of patron.
*This article has been written before the announcement of the 2016-2017 promotion patron (J.M. Keynes)