Former VUB rector Caroline Pauwels died

The former VUB rector Caroline Pauwels has passed away at the age of 58. This is stated by VUB in a press release on Saturday.

Caroline Pauwels had been ill for several years. She suffered from stomach and esophageal cancer. She died on Friday 5 August in UZ Brussel.

Pauwels was appointed Chancellor of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) in 2016, succeeding Paul De Knop. She was re-elected in 2020, but earlier this year she was forced to resign from her position as VUB rector.

VUB loses two of its former principals in one week. Earlier this week there was news of the death of Paul De Knop, principal from 2008 to 2016. Now De Knop’s successor, Caroline Pauwels, has also passed away.

‘Caroline’s death leaves VUB with great sadness’, replies Karsten De Clerck, chairman of VUB’s board. ‘She was a warm and engaging personality. A great inspirer with a clear vision. Her commitment did not only concern VUB, but society as a whole’, says De Clerck.

‘We will miss Caroline enormously at VUB, but we will always carry her in our hearts,’ adds current principal Jan Danckaert. ‘Caroline has transformed VUB into a warm, connected and compassionate university. Connecting VUB with the international, diverse and multilingual character of Brussels was a priority for her.’


After studying philosophy at the University of Antwerp and communication science at VUB in 1989, Caroline Pauwels worked for a while for the then EU Commissioner Karel Van Miert. But the same year she started as a researcher at the department of communication science at VUB. She obtained her Ph.D. in 1995 with a research on EU audiovisual policy and specialized in European and national media policy issues and the economics of the media sector. In 1998 she became a professor. From 2000 to 2016, she was director of the SMIT research center specializing in the study of information and communication technologies, which has been part of the iMinds network since 2004.

In 2014, Pauwels received the domestic Francqui Chair from the University of Ghent, and between 2012 and 2016 she held the Jean Monnet Chair. She also sat on various boards and was a government commissioner at VRT. In 2016, she succeeded Paul De Knop as Rector of VUB, as the second female Rector of the Brussels University (after Els Witte). She then indicated that she wanted to make VUB a ‘very urban but also very multicultural university’, ‘an institution that is truly written on a human scale’. She also advocated more co-creation, breaking down hierarchies and walls.


In the summer of 2019, Pauwels was told that she had cancer of the stomach and esophagus. She continued to work and was elected for a second term as principal starting in 2020. However, on February 23, she announced that she had to stop because she was battling serious illness. She was replaced by vice-chancellor Jan Danckaert.

In announcing his departure, Pauwels emphasized the beauty of the chancellorship. “Serving a university by striving for quality education and distinctive scientific research is undoubtedly a privilege because it is a task that invariably focuses on new generations of students and therefore on the future of society,” she said.

During his second term, Pauwels also had to help the university through the corona crisis. This was ‘experienced as particularly difficult and alienating by our pupils and their parents as well as by all colleagues’.

In late 2021, VUB was discredited after it was reported in the media that a professor of archeology was fired after transgressive behavior had been reported over a period of more than 10 years. There was much criticism of the way the university had handled the situation, and Pauwels himself acknowledged that communication could be improved.

According to VUB, Pauwels remained involved with the university even after she resigned from her position as chancellor, particularly ‘with various ethical and reflective themes’.

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

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