In October, professor Jouke de Vries became the new president of the University of Groningen, leaving his position as the dean of Campus Fryslân. The person that De Vries is succeeding, professor Sibrand Poppema, oversaw a transformational decade at the RUG. As his tenure begins, how does De Vries see his own leadership style?
University of Groningen president professor Jouke de Vries is not a woman.
When it was made known last June that De Vries would be leaving his position as dean of Campus Fryslân to lead the RUG, the announcement was mostly met with cheers, but there were a few notable jeers. The Sleutelvrouwen (a group of women affiliated with the university) were dismayed that yet another man had been chosen for a top position. There were reportedly four men and four women candidates up for the job.
“Some people were disappointed about the fact I cannot change that I am a man and not a woman”, De Vries (58) says, seated in the president’s office on the Oude Boteringestraat. De Vries has been on the job now since October, and vacancies for the other two positions in the university’s board of directors – rector and vice president – were posted last week. Current rector Elmer Sterken’s term will conclude in June, and vice president Jan de Jeu’s term is set to end on 1 January, 2020.
Both of the vacancies state that “diversity will be taken into account when constituting the new team” and instead of the traditional “m/w” (man/woman) format for candidates, the job listings flip the script and put women first.
Will the future of the board be female or more ethnically diverse? De Vries sees the benefits of diversity at the top levels of leadership. “It is an issue, of course. I think different people with different capacities within the board can be very healthy, and it may improve the decisions being made”, he says. De Vries also says that the board of overseers, which appoints the board of directors, is committed to searching far and wide for all qualified candidates, especially women.
Too big to succeed
De Vries’ appointment as president of the RUG follows the dynamic ten-year tenure of professor Sibrand Poppema, during which time Groningen made its way into the top 100 in the most renowned university rankings in the world and feverishly pursued a branch campus in China.
“Poppema wanted to transform the university in some way, and he was very successful in that, because Groningen is in the top 100 worldwide. Groningen is a successful university, so that’s part of what he did”, De Vries says. “But I think that the Yantai project was too big to succeed.”
The Yantai project began in 2015 when president Poppema travelled to the northeastern Chinese province of Shandong to visit a massive, largely empty, campus. China Agricultural University was seeking a foreign university partner to take over the campus. Some staff expressed concerns that they were being steamrolled as Poppema insisted that the branch campus was a golden opportunity for a more secure future for the RUG. After three years of fraught internal negotiations, the board withdrew their proposal when it became clear that the university council would not support it in January of 2018.
The fallout from the Yantai plans is ongoing over a year later: a report released last month concluded that the university will need to compensate for 669,000 euros in public funds paying for working hours spent on the project. In a press release responding to the report, De Vries said, “The plans for a branch campus in Yantai have sparked debate and caused turmoil. When I took office, I indicated that we would accelerate the phasing-out of the Yantai project and review our China policy. Any ongoing project team activities at the faculties of Science & Engineering and Spatial Sciences have now been terminated. This is an important step towards closing this file.”
Think globally, act locally not mutually exclusive
While De Vries has made clear that the RUG will no longer pursue a branch campus in Yantai and makes no secret of his desire to cultivate a closer working relationship with institutions closer to home, he is quick to point out that thinking globally and acting locally are not mutually exclusive.
As dean of Campus Fryslân, a more regional focus meant that the RUG faculty worked closely with industrial-focused knowledge institutions such as Wetsus and the Dairy Campus to carry out research on local issues. It also meant building bridges with the universities of applied sciences in Leeuwarden to make the transition from applied sciences to a research university easier.
The recently announced collaborative Mechanical Engineering master’s track Smart Factories with Innovation Cluster Drachten is an example of the types of partnerships De Vries would like to see the RUG pursue more of. De Vries says activities at the chemical factories in the Eemshaven also have potential, as does closer collaboration with a number of German companies. “A lot of companies want to work together with the University of Groningen,” De Vries says. “Of course there will always be fundamental research and interdisciplinary research, but innovation and impact on society is also very important.”
More interdisciplinary research
The addition of Campus Fryslân, which is the eleventh faculty of the University of Groningen, meant that the RUG is home to the most faculties of any Dutch research university. De Vries is naturally pleased to see the progress of the Leeuwarden campus – he expects that he may get “a little bit emotional” when the Beursgebouw officially opens its doors this autumn. But he acknowledges that eleven faculties is a lot, and keeping all of them forever is not set in stone.
“There needs to be a relationship between the profile you want and the organization you have”, he says. “The faculty rooms will always be there [in the Academy Building], but maybe we have to work in a different way.” That may mean moving away from the traditional faculty system. “We are used to the faculties, but maybe for the interdisciplinary research, we need another organizational model”, citing the Aletta Jacobs School of Public Health as an example of what the future of academic collaboration could look like in Groningen.
Stadjers and internationals
Now that he has made the move from Leeuwarden to Groningen, De Vries would like to see stadjers and internationals alike take a broader view of what Groningen is and what the university’s role is in the region.
“Some of the inhabitants of the city and the wider north think that there’s all these students speaking all kinds of different languages here, and they wonder what are they doing here,” De Vries says. “So they have to understand what’s going on, and understand that the university is very important because it’s creating employment all over the provinces – not just for the people who are directly employed at the university.”
De Vries also wants residents of the city and the province to understand that there is room for everyone – at least symbolically. He reiterates that Dutch universities are not responsible for providing housing – nor, in his opinion, should they be – but De Vries does not deny that the university plays a crucial role in ensuring there is enough international student housing. “The convenant is a step in the right direction”, he says. “Maybe we need to improve our planning process so that the other organisations can understand what is needed. But we can’t do anything ourselves, so we have to convince the other parties and we have to give them the right information.”
“We never use the word ‘stop’”
The new university president has the tendency to think out loud, musing over the pros and cons of his own assertions. And he could certainly not be accused of being a man of too few ideas: along with closer collaboration with businesses and stimulating more interdisciplinary research, De Vries says he would like to see the RUG expand even further with the addition of an extension school to teach 21st century skills to current and future employees in the region.
But then, a few minutes later: “Maybe we are doing too many things. Can we make a selection? Maybe we can say that something is not a strong point of the University of Groningen”, he says. But in the academic world, “we never use the word ‘stop’”, he says. “You never end an activity. You are always going further.”
De Vries does not think it is the university’s task to take outspoken political stances, but he acknowledges that every choice that a university makes is inherently political. That also goes for choosing a theme for the university’s 405th anniversary year: De Vries concedes that being “all inclusive” is still more of an aspiration than an achievement. “I think it’s a starting point. It’s not that we are saying the university is very inclusive now, but it’s something we want to be. It’s a goal.” Depending on who is appointed as the new members of the university board, that process may have to start from the top down.
|Higher Education in Action
On the 15th of March, Dutch educators across the academic system will go on strike against a structural lack of funding. The protest on 15 March will be the culmination of a week of local action by educator’s unions. In Groningen, a group called WO in Actie – Higher Education in Action – has organised a number of public activities throughout the academic year. This past autumn, students in support of WO in Actie painted tiles in front of the Academy Building of the University of Groningen red – a red square is the group’s symbol – to protest the lack of support they felt the movement was getting from university leadership.
That same month, the board, under De Vries’ leadership, formally approved of the university structurally allocating five million euros for the faculties to put toward reducing the work load that many staff members face. Is the board supportive of staff planning to participate in the upcoming strike? De Vries says, “I think it’s a real issue and we are supportive of that, and if the unions ask us to, we will help to organise some things with the strike or the demonstration.” That does not include paying for staff to travel to The Hague to participate in the 15 March protest, but De Vries says that university students and staff are free to attend the protest.
Correction: In the box about Higher Education in Action, the original text read that the board of directors announced in November that the university would allocate 5 million euros to alleviating work pressure. In April 2018, the board approved of a one time investment of five million euros, and in November, at the behest of the university council, the board announced that it would allocate five million euros on a structural basis. This has been corrected in the text.