A reflection on De Universiteit and the Art of Participatory Leadership near Hamburg 2013.

By Marien Baerveldt

From the very start it was clear, if we were going to create a new type of university it should become a space where everybody would be a student and a teacher and where learning happened from intrinsic motivation, free from grades and exams. Referring to the original meaning of Universitas, we’ve honoured it the name De Universiteit (The University).

We learn the most when teaching others, so it made much sense to me to stop learning from others and start learning with others. De Universiteit would become a place where we share the joy of learning together with those who know more and those who know less, and then learn from that. It would be like masters and apprentices working together, not one on one, but learning as a larger community feeding knowledge, experience and wisdom both back and forward from individuals.

This is three years ago and it wasn’t until the last 3 days that I felt the importance of this as clear as I do now. What happened? I apprenticed as a host at the Art of Participatory Leadership Hamburg.


The Art of Participatory Leadership is an Art of Hosting training with a focus on leadership. A training like this is formed and hosted by a Hosting team, which has members with different levels of experience in it. During the training participants are actively encouraged to step up and start hosting a part of the training for the other participants, under the guidance of a coach from the hosting team. This way the participants become hosts themselves during the training already and apprentice host are put I the role of coaches and experts. With someone holding your back you can quickly rise to a height you didn’t imaging before. It’s simple yet effective and empowering.


The day before the training started the hosting team did a check-in: What is it I’m apprenticing to? ‘Learning’, ‘Eldership’, ‘Creating clarity’. Quickly it became clear even Toke and Mary Alice, the masters I first felt I was apprenticing to, were still on a learning journey. I became to realize that I wasn’t necessary an apprentice to these great masters but to the mastery they embodied. It was clear to me, we need to become masters and apprentices, pupils and teachers and students and scholars at the same time. But how do we do this?


After the hosting team check-in I already experienced being in this strongly hold Circle, a powerful form to interact and reflect. Then we did some teachings within the hosting team. Toke spoke about the Four Fold practice, the essence of “the Art of Hosting”. 


These are the four practice that are mentioned in the model, start reading from the lower circle and go counter clockwise:


1)     Host Yourself: being present (Pre-sensing)

2)     Be Hosted: Engaging skilfully in conversations (participating)

3)     Host Others: Hosting conversations (contributing)

4)     Be part of a community of these practitioners: Becoming a community of practice (co-creating). (More information on the Four fold practice on p.20 of the workbook.)


It has been evolved since I last saw it, but it brought me to straight back to our community in Utrecht. I’ll try to summarize how I see it overlaps with how we work.


De Universiteit is for participants, not for spectators, that give shape and direction to their own learning, in co-creation with others. This means that at De Universiteit everyone has to be there (Practice 1) and participate (Practice 2). We’ve developed a tradition that every participant in the community can step up to prepare an evening (it can be any other moment too of course) around a topic or question he (or she!) find interesting to explore, or to share the experience and knowledge he (or she!) have already has. To do this in co-creation two or more hosts team up and work together to make learning available for others and themselves (Practice 3). To ask questions, help in the design or hosting, reflect and share earlier experience in the community a coach with sufficient hosting experience in the community is ready to assist the hosting team (Practice 4). ‘Nice job!’ I thought by myself.


A few moments later Toke started to elaborate on the word practice as a continuous effort and very different from a one-time example. I realized that these practises are not mere steps but rather layers spiralling on top of each other while also being practiced at the same time. I started zooming in at some of the different clouds of words in the model:

·      ‘Helping others host themselves and each other’,

·      ‘Encourage collective wisdom from the field (group)’,

·      ‘Notice and host each others strengths’,

·      ‘Encourage each other to host together’,

·      ‘Harvest learning’,

·      ‘Host what is going on in the community’.


I started to feel happy and excited, seeing how we’re practicing well already and seeing how we still have an entire journey ahead of us.

Then my mind stopped for a second… Do I really want try to practice all of this all the time? What would happen if we as a community would continue to grow into this? Yes, I know I want to practice this and I trust De Universiteit wants this too. And although I’m sure I won’t always know how I’ll keep on trying and keep practicing. I apprentice to practice in general, to these practices in particular and I hope you join me to find ways, new and old, to maybe some day master it.