About 10 months ago we had to inform you of the decision by Utrecht University (UU) to close down its 370-year old Astronomy Department. Many of you sent letters and emails, expressing your shock at this arbitrary decision and offering to help. Your support was greatly appreciated by all of us in Utrecht.
In the weeks that followed some of you also expressed surprise at the seeming lack of public actions to fight this decision and to try to prevent the end of astronomy in Utrecht. Now that almost everybody has left Utrecht and found equivalent employment elsewhere, we want to thank you again for your efforts and your support during those difficult days and also inform you of the reasons behind the chosen course of action as well as the final outcome.
In the talks with the representatives of the board of governors (College van Bestuur) of Utrecht University and with the Dean of the Faculty of Science, it became apparent within a few days that any attempt to reverse the decision to close Utrecht Astronomy was doomed to fail. Appeals by high-ranking officials and scientists were ignored. We know for a fact that arguments with regards to the quality of our science and teaching (both recently evaluated as very good), student numbers or our earning capacity in the form of external grants did not play a role. Even though some formal UU communications to the outside world seemed to suggest that such considerations were part of the consideration, the Dean has recently confirmed in a newspaper interview that no quantitative and/or qualitative reasons can be given for the decision. Hence, the decision to close the UU's Astronomy Department was purely political in nature.
Furthermore, events leading up to this fateful decision were such that there was no longer a basis of trust between the staff of the Astronomical Institute on the one hand, and the Faculty of Science and Utrecht University on the other hand. Therefore, spearheaded by Christoph Keller (Institute director) and the directorate of NOVA (the national Dutch Research School for Astronomy), we almost immediately embarked on a course to move most of our staff to the other astronomical institutes in The Netherlands, thereby preventing an immediate loss of research potential for Dutch astronomy as a whole and provide an inspiring work environment. The whole institute staff agreed with this plan. Our immediate concern was, in particular, for the younger Utrecht staff members whose career in astronomy was in jeopardy. Finally, the Dutch government was also considering renewing NOVA's direct funding in a time when drastic cuts are being made. All of these sensitive and sometimes difficult negotiations demanded complete "radio silence", which prevented any of us from talking to the press even when requests for interviews came flooding in.
We are happy to report that we (that is the Dutch astronomy community) have been successful in securing permanent positions for all but one of our Utrecht staff members, who is now on a temporary position. Another staff member has elected to leave astronomy. This outcome has been made possible by substantial financial contributions by UU, NOVA and the Radboud University Nijmegen, and by contributions from Leiden University and the University of Amsterdam (UvA). Between December 2011 and the end of January 2012 people left Utrecht to join their new employers:
- Christoph Keller went to Leiden Observatory at Leiden University;
- Jacco Vink and Maureen van den Berg joined the Anton Pannekoek Institute of the University of Amsterdam;
- Bram Achterberg, Søren Larsen, Onno Pols and Frank Verbunt joined the Astronomy Department of IMAPP of the Radboud University Nijmegen.
All post docs and graduate students followed their supervisor.
As of February 2nd 2012, all astronomy offices in Utrecht are empty. Utrecht University maintains that it will keep astronomy education in its bachelors program, but none of the former Utrecht staff members will be involved.
Motivated in part by the closure of Utrecht astronomy, the SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research, located next door in Utrecht, has decided to move to Amsterdam in the coming years.
From April 2 through April 5 we had a hugely successful conference entitled 370 years of Utrecht Astronomy in Noordwijkerhout. More than 175 scientists from all over the world attended this four-day conference, many of them Utrecht graduates. It celebrated the Utrecht legacy in solar physics, stellar physics, high-energy astrophysics and instrumentation. Closure finally came in the evening of April 5th with public lectures by Kees de Jager and Ed van den Heuvel in the Aula of Utrecht University, which was filled to capacity by colleagues, former staff and the general public.
For all of us this ended a difficult, painful, uncertain and sometimes turbulent period of eight months. Rest assured that we did appreciate your concern and your support that reached us by whatever means, even when this appreciation was often not publically expressed for the reasons outlined above.
By now, we are fully engaged in research and education at our new workplaces and are looking forward to renewed collaborations with colleagues in the Netherlands and abroad.