“Challenging.” That’s the word President of the Executive Board Robert-Jan Smits uses to describe his first months at TU/e as successor of Jan Mengelers. He showed Smits the ropes in early 2019 so that the latter could get used to the transition from Brussels - where he had been responsible for research and renovation program Horizon 2020 for a number of years - to the university in Eindhoven and the surrounding Brainport region. Smits: “That was a nice way to start, there were many existing policies for the board to build on, but it certainly took some time before I was accustomed to the mores of the academic world and to all the written and unwritten rules.”
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Talking about the rules of academia, don’t mention the OER, the Education and Examination Rules, to him. “What a complicated issue, what an elephant-sized policy document that was.” Rector Frank Baaijens, laughing out loud, agrees with Smits’ criticism. “Yes, the OER seems to become more complicated each year, and all attempts in the past to simplify it have failed unfortunately.”
Robert-Jan is good at flattening things, to express myself in a crude way, so that you quickly get to the essence
Baaijens certainly appreciates that quality in his colleague, “Robert-Jan’s drive to get a clear picture of things. To him, it’s important that things can be explained in a single sentence, and he believes that the way in which an organization functions should be immediately clear, including our own institution. He is good at flattening things, to express myself in a crude way, so that you quickly get to the essence.”
Vice President Nicole Ummelen adds: “Frank and I have been part of the academic community for quite a number of years now, and without being aware of it you can become a bit encapsulated. But when I made the move from the UvA to TU/e in 2012, I too needed to get used to how certain things were done here. Robert-Jan brought a fresh eye to the university when he was appointed, which in turn made Frank and me think about certain issues. This is beneficial to all of us.”
Naturally, Smits also brought his extensive European network to Eindhoven, Baaijens says. “We want to invest even more in European research projects in the coming years, particularly within the EuroTech alliance, which includes five other European universities besides TU/e. And all the experience Robert-Jan gained at the EU has taught him that it’s impossible to exactly predict everything, both in Brussels and at our university. Of course, the budgets he worked with in Brussels were significantly larger, but that doesn’t fundamentally change the unpredictability of certain processes, both at the EU and here in Eindhoven.”
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Smits says he still discovers something new at TU/e every day and that he is surprised by the creative power he sees at the university. “I see it everywhere: within our labs, or when I walk around in Bert Blocken’s wind tunnel for example. But I also see it when I visit one of our student teams. And now that we find ourselves in the midst of this crisis, you see how quickly and flexible lecturers and members of the support staff manage to communicate together and adapt, so that the educational processes can continue. That’s something Frank, Nicole and I admire very much.”
Ever since the start of the current crisis, they talk to each other practically on a daily basis. Smits: “We needed to get that up and running just after I was appointed. Of course, you talk to each other every Thursday evening and go over the dossiers and make decisions, but perhaps we should have talked to each other a bit more often in the beginning. Our discussions can be quite fierce as well at times, but that keeps us on our toes. Just think: an engine won’t run without friction. This crisis also proved to be a formidable teambuilding course, in which University Secretary Susanne van Weelden plays a very important role as well.”
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Ummelen: “All three of us needed some time to get used to each other at first, but that happens every time the composition of a board changes. Who exactly is this person whom I’ll be working with during the next four years? How will he or she go about things differently? And when he asks a question, how am I supposed to interpret that? What precisely is the question that lies behind the question? We went out to dinner several times in the beginning and we spent an away day in the country. That has led to an excellent mutual understanding with an open atmosphere at all times. We also laugh a lot together and share a certain sense of humor. But Robert-Jan differs from his predecessor Jan Mengelers, and I’m sure I go about things differently than my predecessor Jo van Ham did. That took some time getting used to. And make no mistake: we make decisions unanimously and convey those decision in the same way at several different levels. We will always be on the same page as far as that is concerned.”
Ummelen doesn’t really think about whether she, as the first female Executive Board member, adds something extra to this board. Smits and Baaijens said earlier that Ummelen is mostly the one who keeps insisting that the university should not forget about vulnerable groups during this period of crisis, and that it should make sure it’s employees won’t suffer from stress due to workload. “No, I wouldn’t directly link that to the fact that I’m a woman, that’s just my nature. It’s not as if Frank or Robert-Jan have no concern for this. I should also say that TU/e is a pleasant organization to work at for a woman. Many of our support services are run by women, and we’re currently accelerating the increase in the number of women on our scientific staff with our Irène Curie Fellowship program.”
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Baaijens is very content with that program and its success - and a survey showed that people university-wide believe that the program can meet its expectations. “The three of us are also extremely proud of the fact that the NVAO committee lavished TU/e with praise after its Institutional Audit Quality Assurance (ITK) in late November. The NVAO recently definitively confirmed that we passed the audit. The accompanying report showed that our university is greatly appreciated, and everyone who worked on this has every reason to be proud.”
The three of them are equally proud of the speed and willingness with which departments seek out and find interdisciplinary collaboration within the new institutes that were set up last year. AI institute EASI, for example, was established alongside the pre-existing ICMS, and EIRES, which facilitates the development of new technologies in the field of renewable energy, was founded recently. Smits: “We are truly impressed by the diligence with which this was tackled, and we confidently look forward to the other institutes that will follow.”
Concluding, they look back on a successful year, but naturally, they too remain very much in the dark when it comes to expectations for the future. How much longer will the university need to offer all its education online? To what extent can research resume? What will be possible again on campus in the long term? Can members of the support staff return to their workplace? What will the impact be on collaboration with industrial partners in the aftermath of the crisis?
Tentative first steps have been taken as the new academic year approaches. Sound collegial governance is paramount, all three of them realize. Ummelen: “We will have to reevaluate, and take a closer look at our Vision 2030 once again.” Smits trusts that if everyone continues to commit themselves with the same energy as before, the university will be able to provide quality education and conduct research after the summer holiday as well. “But I urge everyone to take some time out regularly and to actually go on vacation in the summer months,” Ummelen adds.