A monument to the Constitution & Strengthening democracy

Presentation of the Societal Impact Award 2023

Winners of the Societal Impact Award Giel Heeringa and Hans Vollaard, with jury chair Mirko Noordegraaf

June 22nd saw the presentation of the Societal Impact Award at Utrecht University's Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance. This award is presented annually, one in the category Students and the other for Staff employees. The applicants and winners have contributed – individually or in teams – to addressing and helping solve an issue of direct societal relevance and importance connected to the faculty's education or research. The student prize went to Marc Hanna and Giel Heeringa for their project on the Constitution, that comes in the form of a giant mural. The staff prize went to Hans Vollaard, and many colleagues with him, who work tirelessly to strengthen the democratic process in, specifically, lower-level governments such as municipalities, provinces and water authorities.

A monument to the Constitution

Students Marc Hanna and Giel Heeringa – with support from the Department of Law and the faculty – launched an initiative to have a work of art made that symbolises our Constitution, and in particular Article 1 on equal treatment and the prohibition of discrimination, on the occasion of the 175th anniversary of the Dutch Constitution.

Inspired by a study programme focusing on the Constitution, organised two years ago by the Utrecht Law College, Marc and Giel started generating ideas, support and cooperation to have a monument to the Constitution created somewhere in the city. A mural was chosen as the ideal form for this project, and for this they sought contact with art collective De Strakke Hand (known for many murals in Utrecht and beyond). A location was subsequently found in Utrecht West. The students worked closely with the municipality, the West District Office and housing corporation Mitros. 

By now, all permits have been arranged and the design is ready. On 14 September, the colourful Constitution painting will be unveiled. A special gathering will be organised in the nearby mosque. Hopefully, the painting, which symbolises that the Constitution belongs to us all, will be on display for a long time to come. The jury is impressed by the strong will, the process and the result, which will leave a lasting mark on our city.

Democracy in motion

Associate professor in political science at the university's School of Governance Hans Vollaard, together with many colleagues*, is constantly developing new projects centered on the democratic process. More specifically, these projects investigate, analyse, discuss and improve the democratic quality of municipalities, provinces and water authorities. Through traditional research (e.g. surveys), through articles and books, including popular books on Municipal Councils, Provincial Politics and Democracy in Unknown Governments (water authorities), through reflection sessions, media appearances, development programmes, knowledge clips and podcasts, Vollaard and others have put democratic developments on the agenda and popularised them.

For instance, members of municipal councils, provincial councils and water authority boards have all received the publication that focuses on the specific democratic institution for which they works as an elected representative. Disseminating knowledge and insights in this manner directly influences the way these representatives conduct their role in decentralised democracy. The impact could reach even wider if the knowledge and insights gathered are also included within existing and future programmes to prepare political representatives for their task. 

The jury sees these projects as clear manifestations of "knowledge circulation": knowledge is co-produced, disseminated, flows back into academia, reaches both students and practitioners, and increases awareness and action potential. 


* Including Harmen Binnema, Lisanne de Blok, Madelinde Winnubst, Ekatarina Rashkova, Herman Havekes, Karlijn Landman and Marcel Boogers

Strong nominations that did not win the prize were: the European Equality Law Network and non-discrimination and the Utrecht Law Clinic.

The jury, chaired by Mirko Noordegraaf (Faculty vice-dean of Societal Impact), said of the winning nominations: "Both nominations show how we as faculty can contribute to an open society, human rights and their democratic foundations. These are important themes that bring our disciplines together and affect us all, as scholars and support staff and as citizens. The vitality of our democracy is crucial for key societal transitions."