“The best career decision I ever made”

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“The best career decision I ever made”

When he graduated in 1979 from the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Jan Mengelers could never have imagined that at the end of his rich career he would return to TU/e. “It was the best career decision I ever made,” he says in his office in Atlas. On May 15th he officially bids his farewell to the university. During the five years in which he has been Chairman of the Executive Board, the institution that operated modestly in the background has positioned itself more firmly in the foreground without becoming brash. Its regional and national prestige has increased greatly and Europe, believes Mengelers, is where the next step must be taken.

photo Vincent van den Hoogen

Following his graduation, Jan Mengelers, who bids the university farewell officially on May 15th, found it natural to enter the world of business. “At that time I did not aspire to a career in science and for the next forty years I had a highly varied career in all sorts of companies, lastly at TNO where I was the Chairman of the Board of Management. When in 2014 I was offered the position of Chairman of the Executive Board at TU/e and decided to accept, to my mind the circle was complete. I came back to my alma mater, a former student now in the role of administrator. Only since holding this position have I learned what a fine and unique institution this university really is.”


He has in all those years also been struck by the societal engagement of today's students. “By that I mean engagement with their whole being. In my day there were two groups: people who wanted to get on in industry and do-gooders. That often meant shouting a lot of slogans and protesting, but you saw little of their ideals in their day-to-day life, with the exception of a few. Now I see a generation for whom integrating their ideals in their daily life is an occupation they pursue with great intrinsic motivation. A fundamental part of this occupation is their choice of which degree to study. As such, they are growing up in a perfect world: raised in prosperity and without the threat of war, in a world that must be perfect, they must be perfect and everything must be shared with the rest of the world."

Very different from how it was for his own generation, "growing up after the war and working hard to increase prosperity in the form of hearth and home and a car parked outside the front door. The complexity of today's society is much greater. In my youth everything was vertically oriented, it was pretty straightforward (Dutch society used to be divided sharply along religious and political lines and you stayed within the sphere of your own zuil or 'pillar'). Now the world is oriented horizontally and everyone is connected with everyone else, not just nationally but all over the world. In addition, today's European youth have not experienced war or seen what it does to your parents. That is another fundamental difference from my generation, who in their youth were still living with the threat posed by the Cold War. This intrinsic motivation to do good for the planet and society is something I see in almost all our students.”

Making connections

A quote that Mengelers likes to repeat is that in the past five years TU/e has grown from being a promising university into a successful university. And he says he feels it too, but hastens to add that this is certainly not the achievement of a single individual but of the collective, and in a great many areas the seed had been sown long before his arrival.

“When I was appointed, the university was financially healthy, student numbers were on the rise again, though not as sharply as they are now, and the first student teams existed. All the trend lines were, so to speak, pointing upwards. What we have truly achieved in these past five years is a much better positioning of the university in the region, in the province and in the Netherlands. That was something Baptiest Coopmans, the long-standing President of the Supervisory Board, instructed me to do. Make those connections and strengthen them!”

According to Mengelers, the next step for TU/e is towards Europe. “This will be part of the remit of my successor Robert-Jan Smits, who brings with him from his previous position a large European network. In recent years we have set up a fine international collective with five other top-flight European universities, the EuroTech Universities, but within this collective we are still doing too little. The initiatives we have developed to date have been too limited. We must cooperate more closely in the field of education; that means sharing one another's curriculum and students and lecturers. This should be the prelude to a European alliance, so that you could issue all graduates of these six institutions with a certificate for ‘the European Engineer’ diploma. That would be terrific, but it does require decisive action on the part of all the partners. The newly affiliated universities in Paris (École Polytechnique) and Haifa (Technion) are likewise very enthusiastic partners with high expectations, and we must not disappoint them.”

The initiatives that the EuroTech Universities have developed to date have been too limited

Jan Mengelers
Chairman of the Executive Board

Closer to home, Mengelers is very content with all the bonds he has managed to forge for TU/e with the city of Eindhoven, the Brainport region and the province of Brabant. “Look, for example, at the relocation of our three student social associations to the city center, but also at an event like MomenTUm, with which we are strengthening these ties significantly. In the region and in the province we have assumed a pivotal role in a high-tech ecosystem that ranks among the best in the world, in which we are participating in many leading programs in all kinds of areas. This is something we must naturally maintain, alongside our European aspirations. It would be fantastic if all these bonds, national and European, were to coalesce over time.”

Numerous initiatives were already in development before his arrival and were further elaborated by the Executive Board and subsequently introduced. “Those concern our cooperation with Utrecht University, and that city's Medical Center. The strengthening of relations between ‘Eindhoven’, ‘Utrecht’ and ‘Wageningen’ is a later phenomenon. That will really get underway in the coming years. But think too of the stronger profiling of our research achieved through the founding of centers and institutes, such as the Institute for Complex Molecular Systems (ICMS), the High Tech Systems Center (HTSC), the Institute for Photonics Integration (IPI) and the Data Systems Center Eindhoven (DSC/e). And we recently launched the Eindhoven Engine; a place here on the campus where scientists, students, PhD candidates, PDEng students and R&D employees from industry, can collaborate closely on projects. For our Bachelor's education this is something we have already been doing for the past two years in TU/e innovationSpace.”

Also successful in recent years were both the Impuls programs, with which thanks to matched funding provided by industry (50 million euros), the departments (25 million euros) and booster funding in the sum of 25 million euros from the university's central funds, it was possible to create no fewer than 285 new PhD places. These programs managed to compensate for the loss of natural gas revenues in research funding. And, says the departing Executive Board President, they have delivered various multi-year Flagship projects with important industrial partners such as Philips, ASML, KPN, Akzo and DSM.


Two years ago Mengelers became the first chairman to announce intake ceilings for various degree programs that looked likely to be swamped by first-year students. This academic year ceilings were introduced for the first time on four programs and in September another two programs will follow suit. “In the coming years, as we move towards 2030, we want to see controlled intake expansion towards 15,000 students. On the one hand the university has an obligation to train as many good engineers as society demands. Following this line of reasoning we should train twice as many as we do currently. But the prudent father in me says we should not do this, because as the head of this community - of this family, as it were - I don't want to see this community get into difficulties. Regardless of what the outside world expects of us. Bearing this in mind, we have addressed this issue internally and have tried to outline a profile for our university. This has included stating how many first-years can be admitted to each program. For the sake of the quality of the education, we won't exceed these maximum limits.  If it later emerges that I have gone some way to ‘saving’ the university, I will be proud.”

If it later emerges that I have gone some way to ‘saving’ the university with introducing intake ceilings, I will be proud

Jan Mengelers
Chairman of the Executive Board

On the question whether it should be easier to turn internationals away, he is also clear. “I see this group as enriching our community. Many of our academic staff, some 40 percent, already come from abroad. It is good to bring our Dutch students into contact with other cultures and ways of thinking. In the international classroom, of course, they play a vital role. Here, they substantially raise the academic level. We once laid down our view of the ideal situation: when internationals account for one-third of the total number of students, but we are still a long way from achieving that.”

Strategy 2030

The university won't in any sense be orphaned or adrift when Mengelers leaves. The Executive Board has spent eighteen months working on a strategic vision for the coming ten to eleven years (TU/e Strategy 2030). A great deal of input for this vision of the future was collected internally, although the wider field was not neglected and plenary sessions were held externally. This document specifies the direction for education, research and valorization. While he can think of tips and advice for his successor, he would rather not voice them. “Robert-Jan Smits will be receiving from me an envelope containing a blank piece of paper; you shouldn't tread on your successor's toes. All the ingredients for increasing success and a prominent European position are present. The focus should now be on grasping the opportunities. He should forge his own path here, free of my ‘know-it-all’ advice, something I consider him more than capable of doing.”

Jan Mengelers has been President of the Executive Board since 2014. He gained his Master's of Science in Mechanical Engineering from TU/e in 1979. After this studies, he became a researcher at the Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands (ECN). From 1982 through 1984 he did scientific research at Philips Natlab. From 1984 through 1997 he held various management positions at Nedcar, spending his last four years there as Managing Director of Product Design & Engineering. From 1997 through 2001 he was President & CEO of Neways Electronics International. From 2001 through 2013 he was employed by TNO, where on April 1st, 2008 he was appointed Chairman of the Board of Management.

On May 15th he officially bids his farewell to the university and will pass the baton to Robert-Jan Smits. You can follow this farewell on a livestream starting at 15:00 PM.

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