“Coming to work here is a dream”

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“Coming to work here is a dream”

In six months' time Robert-Jan Smits, currently still serving as the EU's Special Envoy for open access, will take over the helm from Board President Jan Mengelers. The latter refers to this position as the “finest” in his rich and varied career. Smits was immediately impressed by the vibrant and active ambiance prevailing at TU/e. Not having a background in engineering won't stop him quickly finding his feet here, he expects. “In Brussels I was responsible for the implementation of Horizon 2020 and so I visited numerous universities throughout Europe. I have a good idea of their current issues.” That RKC Waalwijk sets his pulse racing rather than PSV is something he can easily be forgiven.

photo Vincent van den Hoogen

The two gentlemen complement each other during the joint interview, during which Cursor devotes just under 45 minutes to getting a better understanding of the man who will become the new chair of the Executive Board in May 2019. The university sector is not unfamiliar to Smits, far from it. From 2010 to 2018 in his position as Director General for research and innovation at the EU he was responsible for the implementation of Horizon 2020, which with a budget of 80 billion euros supports a great many research and innovation projects. Since TU/e is finding internationalization increasingly important, with his huge network Smits is the ideal person to help the university achieve even greater success in this area. Something that Mengelers confirms without hesitation.

Exceptionally good experience

His transition from TNO to TU/e, more than four-and-a-half years ago, Mengelers recalls well. “Having already been at TNO, I certainly didn't plan to do this too. But I discussed it at home and felt it would be a wonderful way to round off my career. It has been an exceptionally good experience. At TNO I had already gained a great deal of experience of research projects and, as a result, a lot of contact with researchers. And naturally I encountered them here, too. But added to that, this position brought me into contact with some eleven thousand smart, energetic and motivated young people. That was an experience I'd not had in any of my previous career steps. And these younger generations keep you young. Robert-Jan is bound to find that too ."

But don't think it is an easy job, says Mengelers with a note of warning. "I have found it to be a challenging governance role. Governance in an industrial environment is more linear and straightforward. At a university it is much more complex, because you are working with a highly diverse group of very intelligent people, who oftentimes can only be persuaded with good arguments, and who truth be told are rather headstrong. The education component was also new to me and fortunately I felt well supported in that area by the rector, who has research and education in his portfolio and who has a deep understanding of them. By comparison, dealing with twenty-eight member states seems pretty tricky to me,” he says jovially, with a nod in a Smits' direction.

As well as enjoying his work so much, Mengelers has been most pleased in recent years with the very collegial university administration of which he has been part. He has enjoyed its spirit of camaraderie on the Executive Board, with members of the Supervisory Board, and when involved in employee co-determination. These very good relations are also an ingredient in the success of the university.


For Smits, his first introduction to TU/e was via Mengelers. “During my first work visit, I was struck immediately by how vibrant this university is; it has a special dynamism. And I am charmed by TU/e's special position in this region, at the heart of the community and working closely with the surrounding trade and industry. That's not something I'd ever experienced before. It was a dream to be able to come and work here. I've spent twenty-five years working in all kinds of jobs in Brussels and I've held the position of director general for the past eight years, that's three years longer than the actual term. I believe I can do a great deal for TU/e. To start with, using the global network I have spent years building, but also on the governance level. In Brussels I was working with big budgets and heading up a complex organization employing some three thousand people. I know how to deal with people from different cultures, including the prima donnas you inevitably come across.”

As it happens, Smits comes from Brabant, born in Waalwijk, and so for him this also feels like coming home. He is currently still living in Brussels, but has already found a home within cycling distance of the university. “At Jan's instigation; he advised me to start getting involved in the corporate social life of Eindhoven at this early stage. So not limiting myself to taking a look round the university, but exploring the whole of Eindhoven, talking to people and visiting the region.”

I know how to deal with people from different cultures, including the prima donnas you inevitably come across

Robert-Jan Smits
Coming Board President

What kind of administrator does TU/e actually need? In his time here, how has Mengelers shaped the administration? “I have learned to bring parties together and to keep the dialogue open. I learned that by trial and error, in particular at TNO, and here that proved more than ideal as an approach. For the rest, using plain speech on topics is a trait of mine. When I say something I don't mince my words and our deans aren't at all likely to characterize me as the eternal seeker of compromise. When I think we are skirting around an issue or things are going too slowly, I keep up the pressure. Occasionally with brusque but revealing metaphors. I do that to force people to adopt a position, because the intelligent interlocutors you are dealing with here are masters in putting forward fact-laden arguments and in so doing they manage to add such nuance that often a homeopathic dilution is all that remains of what was a clear distillation.”

Employee co-determination

Smits asks whether Mengelers has every needed to bang his fist on the table. “Never. Now and again I don't hide my exasperation, but they have never seen me really angry. Luckily.” Smits sees himself as someone who can ably put a vision in place, and who is also highly driven in realizing it. “With the latter step, many administrators have difficulty. I think it is important to get the entire organization on board with change processes; that means a lot of talking and getting people involved. Employee co-determination is a valuable asset, in my opinion, as is giving people responsibility when something needs to change. I know from experience that in this way a great deal can be achieved that comes from within the organization. But cheaters who want to undermine things, on the other hand, I dislike.”

Mengelers is already alerting Smits to the pitfalls that lie in wait for a board president. “When I was appointed, I was given three pieces of wise advice: You think that soon everyone will know who you are, but at most half will have heard of you. You think you're the boss, but you're actually a serving leader. And once you think a decision has finally been taken, you'll notice that's when the discussion starts.”


As the Special Envoy who set up and had to implement the EU plan for open access - Plan S as it is called, Smits is familiar with the latter process. Some weeks ago he had to publicly defend Plan S before a couple of members of the KNAW, who at this late stage foresaw dangers and who wanted more time. “I was keen to be present. Where we are aiming to get to with open access has been established at the highest level in Europe; we are all in agreement. Anyone who still doesn't want to embrace it is having the wrong discussion. There needs to be discussion, as long as it's not below the belt, and flexibility and being open to criticism are important elements of this. As long as it is clear where we need to get to.”

On this point Mengelers can reassure Smits. “No one here works here with a double agenda. At the end of the day, the people here are scientists who respond to good reasoning and they show their true colors. At times quite considerable powers of persuasion are needed to bring people round, but once they are convinced, their support is wholehearted. Everyone has a constructive attitude, no one tries arguing for the sake of it in order to sabotage matters.”

There needs to be discussion, as long as it's not below the belt, and flexibility and being open to criticism are important elements of this

Robert-Jan Smits
Coming Board President

Smits nails his colors to the mast as an obsessive administrator where simplification is concerned. “There's no denying that's what I was in Brussels. At one point I appointed a 'Mr. Simplification' whose sole job was to spot scope for further simplification. While reading the TU/e strategic vision for 2030, for example, I noticed it mentioned no fewer than six ways in which the university is organized; as a newcomer I find that hard to understand. You should be able to explain to anyone, what you do, why you do it, and how you do it. Similarly rules and procedures should be clear and simple.  Two years ago a study revealed that most scientists find the application procedure for Horizon 2020 to be very simple. That pleases me, I'm proud of that. And I'll be continuing this obsession with simplification while I'm here.”

According to Mengelers, his successor can indulge his passion. “You sometimes hear the complaint here that we have made certain processes unnecessarily complex - that's due in part to externally imposed regulations and internally driven over-scrupulousness and over-harmonization. All of which results in a great deal of redundancy.” This is something Smits will no doubt get his teeth into.

Tackling work pressure is also high on the agenda at TU/e. What does Smits plan to do about it and did he encounter it in Brussels? “Absolutely, to answer the second question. Brussels is struggling with a high incidence of absence due to sickness and high levels of burn-out. The budgets and the quantity of budget applications are gigantic and the planning is strictly by the hour. But let's not harbor the illusion that the government will come to the rescue with more money for more staff. That meant we had to look at other ways of working and setting strict limits, as is probably the case at TU/e.”

However, Mengelers does observe that the problem of work pressure is becoming less black and white. “In 2014 I found an organization that was functioning well, and that has only improved in recent years. All the lines have shown an upward trend: growing student numbers, good financial position, more positive publicity and ever better positioning and reputation. At the local and national levels I had to improve and intensify our connections, now we have to spread our wings towards the European and global playing fields and, of course, Robert-Jan is a perfect fit given this ambition.”

The growth will ultimately lead to more funding, says Mengelers, “but the additional fifty million euros that we would like to receive annually from the government really isn't going to materialize. So you have to limit yourself and cut your coat according to your cloth. This means, on the one hand, trying to put a brake on the intake by means of ceilings, in spite of the public debate raging on the topic, and on the other hand, committing to securing educational support, including the mass appointment of student assistants who will take some of the weight off the shoulders of our scientists and lecturers. In addition, we have adjusted our financial allocation model such that most departments receive more money and are once again prepared to take on staff. People had become wary of doing this, you see, due to having insufficient budgetary scope within the department. This really will help to reduce the work pressure and in the organization we are now seeing a certain peace of mind and the belief that we will get this under control. But it requires our ongoing attention, and that attention should also be directed at the student community, where for various reasons students are experiencing stress.”

Work pressure requires our ongoing attention, and that attention should also be directed at the student community, where for various reasons students are experiencing stress

Jan Mengelers
Current Board President

The next problem that comes up is finding talented staff. “Next year we'll need to fill seventy vacancies among our academic staff,” says Mengelers. “That will be an important task for the Executive Board and the deans, and thus for Robert-Jan.” Smits adds that during this search special emphasis will be put on seeking talented women, because during his term in office he will certainly be taking steps to increase the number of women scientists.

Mengelers believes trade and industry can play an important role in solving the pressure on teaching where student numbers are increasing. This will take the form of loaning employees to fulfill teaching tasks, provided they are well qualified as lecturers. He is discussing this matter with large companies in the region. “By visiting companies I have often seen what is possible,” says Smits. “In our education, you'll soon see challenge-based learning playing an increasing role in the TU/e innovation Space. Here, through educational assignments a fusion of industry and students is taking place and for our research the same process will take place in the Eindhoven Engine, where the university, trade and industry and the government will cooperate closely in large programs involving researchers at the same location. This will raise important questions about the independence of the university and the research and whether or not it ties us too closely to industry,” says Mengelers.


As a top EU executive, Smits is naturally charmed by an idea of French president Macron, who in 2017 during his Sorbonne speech argued for a strategic network of European universities. “Just seeing that there's a president who values research and innovation so highly was in itself positive,” says Smits. “First there was the plan to found one large European university, but of course that's not going to fly. Now there is talk of strategic networks, which might have complementary curricula, make use of each other's equipment, and which may have a co-location. The existing EuroTech network, to which TU/e and five other European universities are affiliated, can play an important role.”

Mengelers adds that the first call for that European Universities Network has already been issued. “The cooperation needs to take place not only in the field of education, but also in research and innovation. As of 2021 these initiatives for six clusters of universities will be supported by the EU for five years with a total of thirty million euros. We want to take part with EuroTech and will focus on educating the 'European engineer'.” According to Smits, this is something that the younger generation wants, to be able to learn at multiple institutions within Europe.

Having completed the interview, Smits is quick to reach for this wheeled suitcase; a journey back to Brussels lies ahead of him and he hurries to the waiting taxi. His work for the EU still takes up a great deal of time. Exhibiting the camaraderie in the administration that he so applauds, Mengelers accompanies him to the market hall in MetaForum. The two gentlemen have a good understanding and that would seem to assure the continuity of the university's vision and policy. Although no doubt Smits will soon add his own flair.

Robert-Jan Smits (1958) studied International Law and History at Utrecht, Switzerland and the United States. After that he worked several years for the Dutch Department of Economic Affairs. In 1989 he started working for the European Commission in Brussels and in the period 2010 - 2018 he was Director General of the DG Research and Innovation and active with the EU-program Horizon 2020. At the moment he is  the EU's Special Envoy for open access. In 2016 he received  the EuroScience career achievement award and in 2017 the Akademiepenning of the KNAW.


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