Interview Spotlight: Theo D’haen, Emeritus Professor of English and Comparative Literature, KU Leuven

Interview Spotlight: Theo D’haen, Emeritus Professor of English and Comparative Literature, KU Leuven

In our latest interview, we ask Professor Theo D’haen MAE, Professor Emeritus at KU Leuven, about his career highlights, the relevance of his research, the role of international collaboration in research and his thoughts on Plan S.

Prof Theo D’haen MAE, Professor Emeritus KU Leuven

About Theo D’haen MAE

Theo D’haen is Emeritus Professor (English and Comparative Literature) at the Universities of Leuven (Belgium) and Leiden (Netherlands). He held the Erasmus Chair at Harvard (USA), and guest professorships at the Sorbonne (France), University of Vienna (Austria), Tsinghua University (China), Shanghai Jiao Tong University (China), the University of Sichuan (China), and the University of the Dutch Antilles (Curaçao). He was awarded the Dr.h.c. by the University of Bucharest (Romania). He is Past-President of FILLM (International Federation for Modern Languages and Literature) and a trustee and Board Member of Academia Europaea. He has published extensively on (post) modernism, (post) colonialism, American, European and world literature.

The interview

Theo, could you give us an overview on the milestones in your professional career?

“Actually, my beginnings were the most difficult part of my career! The first and most important milestone was probably being the first member of my solidly working class family and the first child of my entire Antwerp neighbourhood to finish secondary school in the Greek-Latin stream. At the age of eighteen I was a fully qualified primary school teacher. I had opted for this track because my father had died when I was still in my early teens and apart from going to work as a factory hand, an apprentice such as a hairdresser, or a longshoreman in the Antwerp harbour (which is what my father had been), this was the fastest way to get an education that also guaranteed social promotion as well as job security. I should say, with immense gratitude, that it was my mother’s doing that I could continue school after the age of fourteen, which at the time was the mandatory minimum school leaving age in Belgium, and therefore also the age that most of my friends and relatives quit school. My mother worked in a factory all her life, and I only much later realised the immense sacrifice she must have made to keep me in school on her very meagre wages.

I taught school off and on for the next four years as a substitute teacher in the Antwerp school system, while studying at the highly-regarded School for Translators and Interpreters in Antwerp. I graduated as a translator (Dutch, English and Spanish) in 1972. I was then offered a Teaching Assistantship at Vanderbilt University and moved to Tennessee, but I soon found that the TA-ship was not enough to live on. After one semester I returned to Belgium and re-enrolled at the School for Translators and Interpreters, graduating as an interpreter in July 1973.

By 1974 I was married and had started working as a professional interpreter for the European Commission. My wife and I decided to try our luck pursuing an American graduate education and left for the University of Massachusetts, where my wife completed an MA in Political Science in 1976. My fellowship allowed me to work on my PhD dissertation anywhere I wanted so we returned to Europe, where I did my research and writing while working as a freelance interpreter for the European Commission, Parliament and Court of Justice.

The rest was easy! In 1978 I got a job as an Assistant Professor at Utrecht University, was promoted to tenured Associate Professor in 1980, and then was offered the Chair of English and American Literature in Leiden in 1986. I moved to Leuven in 2002, mainly for family reasons, as my permanent home had always been in the vicinity of Brussels where my wife had risen to a Directorship with the European Commission. I had to mandatorily retire at 65, in 2015, but since then have guest lectured extensively, primarily in China. I also serve on evaluation committees, appointment and tenure committees, etc.”

You are a very active member in Academia Europaea and have wide international experience. What is the role of international collaboration for research excellence in your opinion?

“In the humanities, international research collaboration is a more recent phenomenon than in the natural sciences, and in my particular field – literature – I think there will always be room for individual research, but even here the trend is to larger-scale projects. On the one hand, this is driven by changing funding strategies, with sources for funding shifting from research time allocated to individual researchers at university level to multi-institution projects funded by national science foundations or transnational projects dependent on European Commission funding, although Horizon 2020 has primarily favoured the natural and applied sciences with more limited opportunities for the social sciences and the humanities. On the other hand, the advent over the last two decades of so-called digital humanities, relying on large sets of data and on quantitative – next to qualitative – methods, also underlies this trend.

International collaboration also fosters interdisciplinary approaches with scholars bringing different methods, which in the social sciences and humanities not infrequently issue from different national traditions, to bear on a common problem. In all these cases I think international collaboration promotes excellence by subjecting individual scholars’ results, while the work is still going on, to the scrutiny of peers and colleagues working in different traditions, with different methods and from different starting points, thus leading to more balanced and more verifiable outcomes. In fact, I think that increased international collaboration may now be even more important for the humanities than for the natural and applied sciences, which largely rely on common methods and approaches regardless of location anyway.”

Your research focuses on world literary history. How do you think literature relates to modern society? What contribution can literature make to face present-day major challenges?

In our present age of economisation, the study of literature and the humanities in general has lost much of its luster, to say nothing of its status. In many ways this is absolutely understandable. Our European welfare societies are facing urgent demands caused by ageing populations and increasing health costs. At the same time, and this applies to all of Western society, we have to compete in an increasingly globalised market economy in which many non-Western countries have the advantage of large and youthful populations, low wages, and an abundance of raw materials, all of which we lack. Brains and how to use them for innovation, particularly in STEM-related developments, are our only remaining capital. Not surprisingly in these circumstances, investment of the scarce means at our disposal in more immediately “profitable” courses of study is preferred. Add to this that in our increasingly democratised mass societies, literature in the traditional sense in the eyes of many – including some of our more “populist” politicians – has more and more come to be perceived as elitist, and hence reprehensible.

We should probably admit that this kind of literature – Literature with a capital “L” – indeed probably is the province of a certain elite. If such literature still has an impact it often is re-packaged as popular media entertainment – think for instance of the Iliad as reworked in Troy, featuring Brad Pitt as Achilles. Next to this, all kinds of indeed “popular” literature enjoy increasing success: crime fiction, science fiction, popular romance, fantasy, comics, both in printed form and, increasingly again, via other media. Literature as printed medium, then, is up against heavy competition these days. Yet, even now there is something to be said in its favour. To begin with, and perhaps most basic of all: reading any kind of literature increases one’s verbal ability. Then, as for instance the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum has argued, works of literature allow us to lead vicarious lives that lay out various scenarios that may help us to determine what to do in real life. Of course, there are works that tempt us to ally ourselves with what we may call the “dark side.” Even these, though, may serve as warnings. More often, literary works will appeal to our sense of right versus wrong, and in this sense serve an educational, even a moral, and finally a social purpose.

In these Brexit-shadowed days I here cannot resist pointing out that in recent fictions by three of the more successful British thriller writers, John leCarré, Philip Kerr and Mick Herron, Britain’s (probably) leaving the EU inspires the main characters to come out in favour of “Europe”. John leCarré in A Legacy of Spies, published in 2018, has British secret agents George Smiley and Peter Guillam look back upon what happened in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the novel that sealed leCarré’s reputation in 1963. Guillam now lives in France, Smiley in Germany. Reflecting upon why they did what they did as spies, Smiley muses whether it was all for England? But “Whose England?” he asks, “Which England?  England all alone, a citizen of nowhere? I’m a European, Peter. If I had a mission – if I was ever aware of one beyond our business with the enemy, it was to Europe.

Finally, a word on world literature. As you may deduce from my career sketch, I have never been a great believer in the study of national literature as such. I think that for too long we have concentrated too narrowly on national literatures and, if we ventured further abroad, on European literature. In a globalising world, in which Europe will of necessity come to occupy a less commanding role than has been the case this past half-millennium, it is no more than fitting that we should also give other cultures, and their literatures, their due place. In this fast-changing world I would hope that the study of world literature may contribute to making our students better world citizens. That has been the thrust of the various volumes I have published – often in collaboration with colleagues – on various aspects of world and European literature over the last decade.”

You are Editor-in-Chief of the AE journal, The European Review (Cambridge University Press). Based on your extensive experience as an editor in multiple publications and advisory boards, how do you think Plan S will impact research?

“In principle, I think Plan S is a worthwhile initiative, that will enable researchers everywhere to immediately benefit from publications resulting from public funding. However, as until now only a relatively limited number of European institutions, national bodies, and other foundations have signed up for the initiative, there is risk of a division between those scientists and scholars that receive automatic funding for Open Access publication and those that do not. The work of the former will be disseminated more rapidly and more widely, which will increase their visibility and their impact; greater recognition almost predictably will result in greater chances of success in funding applications comprising Open Access provisions, and this will not only continue but actually accelerate the division I mentioned earlier.

Eventually this may create a two- or more tier research landscape in Europe. For scientists and scholars from non-participating systems, the gain of free access to publications by colleagues from participating systems is undeniable, but as far as their own contributions are concerned they face a severe handicap in what is now no longer a level playing field. This applies to scientists and scholars from particular parts of Europe as well as – and even more so – from beyond Europe, and particularly from the poorer parts of the world. On the other hand, it may well promote contributions from still affluent or newly-affluent parts, such as for instance China. Obviously, what is crucial in all this is that the qualitative selection mechanisms – peer review, etc. –  presently applying to scholarly publishing remain intact for Open Access journals and other publications.

I foresee that there may be some re-alignment of journals, with some of them going for all Open Access and others opting for a hybrid model, which however would disqualify them from hosting Plan S funded contributions according to its present guidelines. Again, this risks creating a two-tier arrangement in scientific and scholarly publishing. I think it may well be particularly difficult for journals in the humanities, and possibly also in the social sciences, to become all Open Access according to Plan S guidelines, simply because there is much less money than in other fields. Many of these journals depend on subscriptions, which in general are not very expensive when compared to subscription prices in the natural and applied sciences, or in the field of medicine, but which cannot easily be offset by possible gains from Open Access fees.

A particularly pressing additional problem, again I think more applicable to the humanities than to the natural or applied sciences, is that of so-called independent scholars, and retirees, neither of whom can draw on any kind of institutional support, and who in a full-out Plan S are left orphaned. In varying degrees some of all this applies to the European Review (Cambridge University Press), which publishes in all disciplines covered by the Academia Europaea – it can function very well as a hybrid type, with some contributions Open Access, and others not, but I cannot see it able to sustain itself as a purely Open Access journal. These issues, and others related to the implementation of Plan S, will be the subject of a “Plan S Event” to be held in Leuven on 5th and 6th November 2019:  “The Future of Research: Assessing the impact of Plan S”, and a follow-up event organized by the HERCulES group of the Academia Europaea at the Wenner-Gren Foundation in Stockholm in May 2021.”

You are on the AE Cardiff Hub Steering Group. What do you see as the Hub’s role in the future?

“I think the Hub has already done splendid work on SAPEA (Science Advice for Policy by European Academies) related issues, such as its leading role in the Food from the Oceans and Making Sense of Science reports, and I would hope – but I am actually very confident on this score – that this will continue in the future, in collaboration and concertation with the other AE Knowledge Hubs in Bergen, Barcelona, Wroclaw, Tbilisi and, it is to be hoped, shortly also Munich. Beyond this, the Cardiff Hub in a very short time has succeeded in securing for itself a vital role in the Welsh research and general academic landscape. As such, it is an excellent example of what the Academia Europaea sees as its mission: to further research and increase knowledge in Europe and beyond, and to do so by bringing together the best researchers across Europe while at the same time not lose sight of the importance of local and national moorings.”

18th June 2019. For further information please contact

Interview Spotlight Series

Interview Spotlight Series

Explore our collection of interviews, featuring Members of Academia Europaea and colleagues connected with the Academy, as they offer insights into critical research topics.

Exploring the bilingual brain: An interview with Professor Li Wei MAE
Published 17th April 2024. Li Wei discusses his groundbreaking research on bilingual brain development, and the significant benefits of language exposure in both childhood and later life.

Bridging science and policy in Europe: Insights from Pearl Dykstra MAE
Published 8th April 2024. Pearl Dykstra discusses her roles within the European Scientific Advice Mechanism, and the importance of collaboration in science and policy.

From the Silk Road to the One Belt, One Road Initiative: an interview with Samuel Lieu
Published 12th March 2024. Samuel Lieu MAE discusses his co-director role in the UNESCO-sponsored ‘Corpus Fontium Manichaeorum’ project, and how his diverse range of scholarly interests led him from the Silk Road to the Byzantine.

AI’s opportunities and challenges: Insights from 2024 Hypatia Prize Winner, Nuria Oliver
Published 23rd February 2024. In this interview, the 2024 winner of the Hypatia European Science Prize, Nuria Oliver MAE, shares her reaction to receiving the award and discusses the opportunities and challenges of Artificial Intelligence.

Building Bridges 2023 Spotlight Series: an interview with Katalin Solymosi
Published 26th October 2023. Katalin Solymosi FYAE, Chair of the Young Academy of Europe, talks about her motivation for taking on the role and her plans for the YAE.

Overcoming barriers in male-dominated world: an interview with Ann-Christine Davis MAE
Published 17th October 2023. Ann-Christine Davis MAE talks about making history as the first female Mathematics professor at Cambridge, the challenges she’s faced, and the positive effect of support from male colleagues.

Building Bridges 2023 Spotlight Series: an interview with Eugene Yeo
Published 10th October 2023. Eugene Yeo, inaugural recipient of the Academia Europaea Sydney Brenner Medal, speaks about his personal connection with Sydney Brenner and continuing his legacy as a mentor.

Building Bridges 2023 Spotlight Series: an interview with Michael Udvardi
Published 10th October 2023. Michael Udvardi, recipient of the The Adam Kondorosi Academia Europaea Award for Advanced Research 2023, shares why this award is special to him and his research into sustainable agriculture.

Building Bridges 2023 Spotlight Series: an interview with Jean-Pierre Changeux
Published 10th October 2023. Jean Pierre Changeux MAE, Academia Europaea’s Erasmus medal winner, shares what the award means to him and discusses key aspects of his research.

Building Bridges 2023 Spotlight Series: an interview with Johanna Ivaska MAE
Published 9th October 2023. Johanna Ivaska MAE shares her passion for cancer research and the challenges faced by female scientists.

A conversation on gender equity and allyship in STEM: an interview with Jeremy Sanders MAE
Published 11th September 2023. Jeremy Sanders MAE talks about his personal inclusion agenda and setting an example as a male ally.

AE’s Annual Conference in Munich: An invitation from Don Dingwell
Published 4th September 2023. Don Dingwell MAE, Vice-President of Academia Europaea, extends a warm welcome to all Members for our 2023 Annual Conference.

Why we need more women in science: An interview with Dame Athene Donald MAE
Published 27th June 2023. Dame Athene Donald MAE talks about her book which examines the modern way of working in scientific research and how gender bias operates within it, drawing on the experiences of leading women in science.

30 years of the European Review: an interview with Alban Kellerbauer
Published 1st June 2023. European Review Editor-in-Chief, Alban Kellerbauer MAE, discusses his ambitions for the journal, and what makes the ER distinctive.

Telling the stories of women scientists: An interview with Magdolna Hargittai MAE
Published 12th May 2023. Magdolna Hargittai MAE discusses her book which focuses on the achievements of female scientists and the importance of role models in promoting and supporting more women in STEM.

Telling the story of émigré scientists: An interview with Istvan Hargittai MAE
Published 3rd May 2023. Istvan Hargittai MAE discusses his motivation for writing his latest book Brilliance in Exile, which explores the lives of Hungarian émigré scientists who have made significant contributions to science after leaving their country of birth.

Interview with Jaume Bertranpetit MAE, AE Barcelona Knowledge Hub Academic Director
Published 20th March 2023. Jaume Bertranpetit MAE, Barcelona Knowledge Hub’s Academic Director tells us about his priorities and ambitions for the Hub.

Changing landscapes in academia: an interview with Susan Wray MAE
Published 7th March 2023. Marking International Women’s Day 2023, Susan Wray MAE shares her passion for physiology, and the people who have had the greatest impact on her work and career. She discusses gender equality in academia as well as her hopes for the next generation of scientists.

An interview with Katalin Solymosi and Linn Leppert
Published 19th December 2022. Katalin Solymosi FYAE and Linn Leppert FYAE discuss Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, their experiences as women in science and the importance of the CALIPER project in addressing the gender balance in STEM fields.

Building Bridges 2022 Spotlight Series: an interview with Carl-Henrik Heldin MAE
Published 27th October 2022. Carl-Henrik Heldin MAE shares his views on the role of science in addressing global challenges, and his work with the Nobel Foundation.

Building Bridges 2022 Spotlight Series: an interview with Sierd Cloetingh MAE
Published 27th October 2022. Sierd Cloetingh MAE, recipient of the Academia Europaea’s 2022 Gold Award, gives us his reaction to receiving the award and tells us about some of his activities on behalf of AE.

Building Bridges 2022 Spotlight Series: an interview with Philippe Aghion MAE
Published 27th October 2022. Philippe Aghion MAE, Erasmus medal winner, tells us about his work on growth and innovation.

Building Bridges 2022 Spotlight Series: an interview with Nancy Cartwright MAE
Published 27th October 2022. Nancy Cartwright MAE, winner of the Hypatia Prize, tells us about her recent work and the role philosophy can play in facing present-day challenges.

Building Bridges 2022 Spotlight Series: an interview with Sir Shankar Balasubramanian and Helga Nowotny MAE
Published 26th October 2022. In this joint interview, Sir Shankar Balasubramanian and Helga Nowotny MAE discuss a range of topics, including innovation, interdisciplinary research, public and policy engagement, and the impacts of technology.

Building Bridges 2022 Spotlight Series: an interview with Moniek Tromp FYAE
Published 26th October 2022. Moniek Tromp FYAE, Chair of the Young Academy of Europe, tells us about her ambitions and priorities for the YAE.

Celebrating physiology: an interview with David Paterson MAE
Published 4th October 2022. David Paterson MAE, President of the Physiological Society, was in Cardiff on 29th September 2022 to mark the life and work of neurophysiologist Thomas Graham Brown FRS (1882-1965).

Mathematics and Planet Earth: an interview with Valerio Lucarini MAE
Published 1st September 2022. Valerio Lucarini MAE explains the role of mathematics in climate science, the importance of interdisciplinary research collaboration and the need to engage with policymakers.

Music as a strategic issue of Ukrainian independence: an interview with Lyubov Kyyanovska MAE
Published 17th August 2022. Luba Kyyanovska MAE discusses her life as a musicologist, from her early studies in L’viv to life beyond the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Life as a Ukrainian scientist: an interview with Yaroslav Shuba MAE
Published 21st July 2022. Yaroslav Shuba MAE charts his life as a scientist, from the Soviet era to independent Ukraine.

Dedicating my next 20 years to climate change: An interview with Sir David King FRS MAE
Published 14th March 2022. AAAS Award winner and former UK Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David King MAE, shares his ambitious plans to tackle the global challenge of climate change.

The rewards and challenges of working in mental health: an interview with Professor Karina Lovell
Published 24th January 2022. Karina Lovell MAE shares insights into her career and research in the mental health sector.

My passion to serve the research community: an interview with Academia Europaea’s new President, Professor Marja Makarow
Published 13th January 2022. In her first interview as President of Academia Europaea, Marja Makarow MAE tells us about her leadership roles and sets out some of her priorities for Academia Europaea.

A life in science with Professor Ole Petersen
Published 8th November 2021. Ole Petersen MAE, winner of Academia Europaea’s Gold Medal 2021 and the Cardiff Knowledge Hub’s Academic Director, speaks to us about the honour of receiving the Gold Medal and the current challenges he sees for science.

Special interview with Sir Roger Penrose, Nobel laureate and winner of Academia Europaea’s Erasmus Medal
Published26th October 2021. This interview with world-renowned mathematician, physicist and Nobel laureate, Sir Roger Penrose MAE, took place following a very special award ceremony in Oxford, on 24th September, at which Sir Roger was presented with the 2021 Erasmus Medal. 

Looking through the lens of good science, by Professor David Allison MAE
Published 15th September 2021. David Allison MAE, expert in nutrition and obesity, tells us about his passion for scientific rigour and evidence-informed policymaking.

A special collective spirit: Reflections on my time as President of Academia Europaea by Professor Sierd Cloetingh
Published 28th June 2021. Marking AE Cardiff’s 5th anniversary, Sierd Cloetingh MAE shares highlights from his role as President of Academia Europaea and reflects on the impact of the Academy’s work.

The role of the Young Academy of Europe by Dr Gemma Modinos, FYAE
Published 26th November 2020Gemma Modinos FYAE, Chair of the Young Academy of Europe, talks about her vision and priorities for the YAE.

From Research to Public Health Policy by Professor Martin McKee MAE
Published 12th May 2020. Martin McKee MAE tells us about his passion for Public Health, his role at the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies and his research on the adverse effects of movement restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Understanding asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease by Professor Peter Barnes MAE
Published 27th April 2020. Peter Barnes tells us about his career highlights and the effect of COVID-19 on his research.

Making decisions at times of uncertainty, by Nils-Eric Sahlin MAE
Published 20th April 2020.Nils-Eric Sahlin MAE tells us about his research on decision-making under conditions of uncertainty, and his contribution to the evidence review on Making Sense of Science for Policy, coordinated by Academia Europaea.

Examining the sustainability of our food systems: By Peter Jackson MAE
Published 9th April 2020. Peter Jackson MAE tells us why he became involved in the study of food, and his role in the publication of a major evidence review on sustainable food systems.

Working at the interface between academia and policy, by Barbara Prainsack MAE
Published 26th February 2020. Barbara Prainsack MAE shares her experiences of the vital relationship between academia and policy.

My research career in big data analysis by Yike Guo, Imperial College London
Published 20th January 2020. Yike Guo MAE discusses the importance of big data analysis, the impact of his international education and his continued links with China.

Priorities for Plan S by Open Access Champion Johan Rooryck
Published 23rd September 2019. Open Access Champion, Johan Rooryck MAE, shares his priorities for Plan S and his passion for Open Access publishing.

Progress at the Academia Europaea’s Tbilisi Hub, Georgia, by David Prangishvili
Published 13th September 2019. The Academia Europaea’s 5th Knowledge Hub launched in Tbilisi, Georgia, in April 2019. In this interview, David Prangishvili MAE, Tbilisi Knowledge Hub’s Academic Director, tells us about his priorities for the Hub.

Interview spotlight: Dr Mangala Srinivas, Chair of the Young Academy of Europe (YAE)
Published 1st August 2019. Mangala Srinivas FYAE, Chair of the Young Academy of Europe (YAE), discusses the impact of being awarded an ERC Starting Grant, her role as the Chair of the Young Academy of Europe and why the YAE became involved in the debate on Plan S.

Interview spotlight: Professor Peter Hegyi, Director of the Centre of Translational Medicine, the University of Pécs
Published 1st July 2019. Peter Hegyi MAE, provides an insight into the importance of Translational Medicine.

Interview Spotlight: Theo D’haen, Emeritus Professor of English and Comparative Literature, KU Leuven
Published 18th June 2019. Theo D’haen MAE, Professor Emeritus at KU Leuven talks about his career highlights, the relevance of his research, the role of international collaboration in research and his thoughts on Plan S.

Interview spotlight: Rosalind L Smyth, Director and Professor of Child Health UCL Great Ormond St Institute of Child Health
Published 20th May 2019. Rosalind L Smyth MAE talks about her work as a clinician and academic at the UCL Great Ormond St Institute of Child Health, her commitment to Open Access and her views on gender equality in science.

Interview Spotlight: Christopher Smith, Professor of Ancient History, University of St Andrews
Published 20th November 2018. Christopher Smith MAE shares his most noteworthy professional experiences, explains how his research relates to modern society and tells us more about Sovereignty: a global perspective held in April 2019.

Interview Spotlight: John Tucker, Professor of Computer Science, Swansea University
Published 2nd August 2018. John Tucker MAE shares his professional highlights and what being a Member of Academia Europaea means to him.

Interview Spotlight: Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal
Published 6th March 2018. Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, The Lord Rees of Ludlow, talks about how to successfully engage the public with science and gives us an insight into his book On the Future: Prospects for Humanity.

Interview spotlight: Professor Ole Petersen, Cardiff Hub Academic Director and Vice-President Academia Europaea
Published 4th January 2017. As the very first in our Interview spotlight series, Ole Petersen MAE shares highlights of his life and career.

Share this page: