“Never thought I'd be on the Executive Board of TU/e”

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“Never thought I'd be on the Executive Board of TU/e”

Nicole Ummelen (50) has swapped her duties as secretary to the university for the role of vice president of the Executive Board. She has worked for a number of universities in the past and each new posting has offered her new insights. That she is starting her seventh year at our university says something about how much she enjoys working here.

Nicole Ummelen likes to talk and is adept at various styles. At times, she might say, ‘management decisions are driven by chain processes’ or ‘directions in which a solution might lie are being pursued’, but you are equally likely to hear, ‘barriers have been broken down’, ‘the organization chart's is there in outline’, and ‘it was done in no time at all’.

She is an enthusiastic speaker, whether it is her jobs she is talking about or her favorite book. That her series of jobs would bring her to the position of vice president of the Executive Board of TU/e is not something she would have expected as an adolescent. “I wanted to become a journalist but the courses were oversubscribed, so a lottery was held and I missed out on a place in Utrecht. The alternative was a brand new university communication degree program in Tilburg. I was struck by the beauty of doing research and telling the academic story.”

In a nutshell, Ummelen is schooled in technical communication. She holds a first degree and a doctorate, and she enjoyed her training. “The years I spent studying for my PhD, in Twente, were fabulous. I was passionate about the subject; the mix of text, cognitive psychology and the computer science aspect. I do sometimes miss doing research.”

“The common thread running through my career is that I have always done jobs that beforehand I dismissed out of hand. ‘That's something I'd never do,' I'd say and then it would turn out to be really enjoyable. When I was a student, I said, ‘Of course I'll never be a PhD student, I'm not cut out to do research’. But the PhD position in Twente was perfect for me.” In detail and full of enthusiasm, she talks about her research, but when asked which year it was that she received her doctorate, she doesn't have a ready answer.

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University hopper

She has made so many 'career jumps' and worked at so many universities that she finds the dates when things happened relatively unimportant. When asked by which route she came to Eindhoven, Ummelen describes a network of paths that crisscrosses the globe. This native of Limburg was a student in Tilburg, an intern in Cambridge, England, did her PhD in Enschede, spent time abroad in Pittsburg, was an assistant university professor in Delft and again in Tilburg, and the list goes on.

I have always done jobs that beforehand I dismissed out of hand

Her dedication was noticed and she moved easily from one thing to the next. In Tilburg, Ummelen had the chance to develop a new degree program in corporate communication and digital media. Which year that wasn't doesn't spring immediately to mind, but she knows she was thirty-two and pregnant with her first son. “That was where I was drawn into administrative work. I joined the departmental board, holding the education portfolio. It was the first time I had to choose between science and administration. And however much research appeals to me, it is even more important, in my view, to create good preconditions in which scientists can carry out their work. I discovered that I very much enjoy administration.”

All change

After this, she became a senior policy officer at the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. “I was working on the eleventh floor of the Hoftoren, the second tallest building in The Hague, and had a fantastic view of the Malieveld, an open green space. It was almost as lovely as the view I have from my office in Atlas, on floor 1.” She means what she says - she is genuinely happy with her office, which is furnished in part with furniture used by former rector Hans van Duijn. There's a Müller desk and a set of three Gispen chairs.

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After the Hague, she held her first management position, as head of Education and Student Affairs at TU Delft. She was offered the job of university secretary at TU/e during her next career step, which took her to the strategy department of the University of Amsterdam. She laughs at the recollection. “That was another thing I'd thought I'd never do; secretary of a uni, ha ha, a role enforcing protocols, no doubt. But my husband, as he was then, said that they probably weren't asking just for the sake of it, that it would mean we could realize our dream of leaving the busy urban west with our sons - Revi had also been born by then - and so I went along to discuss it.” And wouldn't you know it, the job suited her to a T.

...secretary of a uni, ha ha, a role enforcing protocols, no doubt...

Nicole Ummelen
Vice president TU/e

She moved to Weert, closer to her roots, which lie in Kerkrade. With her mother, Ummelen speaks the Kerkraad dialect and, as it is for many citizens of Limburg, Christmas Eve is an important date on her calendar. Even more so, in fact, than Carnival.


It is, she believes, very important to keep looking at issues from different perspectives. Not only where research questions are involved, but also when making career steps. Ummelen thinks she learned this during her time abroad. “In Pittsburg I was living with two lesbians, women I'm still in touch with. They introduced me to American culture and I saw for myself how difficult it was for them at that time to gain acceptance.” 

She has read the poetry collection ‘The End and the Beginning’ by Wislawa Szymborska countless times. “She excels at shifting perspectives. She might describe a situation from the perspective of a stone. I like to give this book as a present.”

Sports day 2012

“Right away I thought TU/e was a great university. Remember, I came here from the UvA. They do everything very formally there. If I wanted to speak to the rector, I had to make an appointment. So in my first week in Eindhoven when I wanted to ask Hans van Duijn (rector magnificus at TU/e at the time, ed.) something, I went along to his secretary and asked when would be a good time. Hans overheard us and laughed at me. He made it clear that I shouldn't ever go about seeing him like that. Just come right in.”

In the same week she and her predecessor Harry Roumen were walking across the sports fields where the annual sports day for employees was being held. “And Harry was walking along like a mayor, greeting people right and left. People he introduced me to gave me such a warm welcome, it was really kind. And what surprised me most of all was that someone from the Executive Board suggested going to the sports center to have a beer at the end of the day. I'd never experienced that at the UvA.”

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She arrived in the period that Bachelor's education at TU/e was being transformed. “The Bachelor's College was set up in no time at all, just eighteen months, by lecturers and those who supported the idea. I was impressed by the professional approach people had towards their work. But something else that struck me was that it's really a village here. As secretary, I was privy to confidential information, for example when an appointment was made. When I was in discussion with policy officers my lips were firmly sealed on the matter. But now and again someone would say, 'Oh, we've known that for ages!'"

Eindhoven's strength

As secretary, she worked extremely hard making a success of the NVAO's accreditation test, getting Forward-looking Education started and on the introduction of Business Intelligence. Simultaneously, she saw the Eindhoven campus become more and more attractive. “My son Joep is now choosing which university degree he wants to study. He has also been to Leiden and it really makes me proud when he says that it is much nicer here than in Leiden, which he thought was bare, cold and sterile. He may study BMT here.” Her youngest son Revi is not yet choosing a university, he is in high school doing the second year.

Ummelen - who always writes her own speeches - uses elegant sentences to make the most complex material easy to understand. “Working on the quality assurance test taught me something very important, something I hope I can give high priority to in the coming four years: being small and people-oriented is a strength that we have as a university, but the huge growth we are currently experiencing can only be managed if everything is well documented and thus easy to pass on. We need to balance the highly desirable informal aspect with the necessary formal aspect. That is more efficient.”

I saw the Eindhoven campus become more and more attractive

Nicole Ummelen
Vice president TU/e
Work in progress

At the time of the accreditation test, the Bachelor College was a success but the large local differences that remained in the support given to students and lecturers was regarded as a problem. “Each department was still providing support in its own individual way and that needed to change. What I like so much about this whole project, which we are calling Forward-looking Education Organization, which in Dutch abbreviates to TOO, is that the solutions were suggested by people here at TU/e. An analysis was done by KPMG, but after that no external consultancy was involved. Employees sat down together around the table. It is taking time, the program is not yet complete, but the organization chart is there in outline. And now we also have heads of ESA for each program. In July TOO will be evaluated.”

Indeed Business Intelligence is where her heart lies. “In an organization you need all kinds of information and with this system people can retrieve for themselves key figures and other data they need. This too is still incomplete but a BI Cluster has already been formed.”

What now?

Sometimes Ummelen still thinks, “Later when I'm grown up…”. She'd still like to do research and give lectures. In fact, however, she is now the vice president of the Executive Board of TU/e. Her work no longer includes managing large projects. Now it is all about making connections between different groups at TU/e, as she herself says. “This university is a classic line organization. I'd like to change it into an organization in which all the groups are linked. I want to remove obstacles. To start with I'm going to talk to all the directors and I appeal to them to participate with me in the process of generating ideas.”

If there's one thing that annoys her it's when people put their own interests first instead of thinking cooperatively. It's something she'd like to ban. If need be, she will hand out a poetry collection once in a while, one that teaches people to see situations from another perspective.

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