The ones who are oiling the wheels at the university

Joint interview with Harry Roumen and Susanne van Weelden

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The ones who are oiling the wheels at the university

A secretary is invaluable to any Executive Board. They regularly gauge the temperature within the organisation, offer gentle persuasion in corridors, and ensure friendly contacts remain so. They combine extensive administrative knowledge with intuition and tactical manoeuvring. Harry Roumen has been the board’s much-praised secretary since 1988. In his 24 years as secretary, he became one of the TU/e’s most flamboyant figureheads. Susanne van Weelden, who started in February 2019, feels rather more comfortable behind the scenes. Yet despite these differing approaches, they are in complete agreement regarding their roles: “We set the scene, and the Board gets to score.”

photo Bart van Overbeeke

Heroes Past and Present

The theme of this lustrum year, which marks TU/e’s 65th anniversary, is ‘Heroes like you.’  In keeping with this theme, Cursor will publish a series of double interviews throughout the year with the motto ‘Heroes Past and Present.’ TU/e employees with proven track records, still working at the university or no longer under employment, are matched with their counterparts from today. In all possible fields: science, policy, or student life. This time we give the floor to former secretary of TU/e's Executive Board Harry Roumen and current secretary Susanne van Weelden. 

Exchanging an academic career for an administrative function, Susanne explains, was not a surprising turn of events. “I really like the position of secretary within the organisation. You sit in the helicopter and oversee the whole thing. You bring everything together. From your role in close proximity to the Board, you have the opportunity to give direction. I feel very comfortable with that.”

She was no stranger to the University of Eindhoven. As a staff member of UMC Utrecht, in 2011, she helped shape the strategic collaboration between Utrecht and Eindhoven. “I have a background in the sciences, so I soon felt at home on the campus in Eindhoven. Moreover, I had the opportunity to start afresh with an almost entirely new Board. For me, this was a good moment to step in. We set out on this journey of discovery together, not knowing that this pandemic would happen to us. Whilst this does make it very challenging at times, it has also brought about great things. For example, it has certainly accelerated my acquaintance with the TU/e. Because there is pressure on both people and processes, the soul of the organisation is really exposed. You see very clearly how things run and how people are involved.”

Permanent Employment

Harry Roumen did not experience an extensive application process, like the one Susanne went through. “It just came naturally to me. I graduated in Eindhoven and ‘stuck around’. The Computer Centre, chairman of the staff association, Prince Carnival—you get to know a lot of people that way. I was asked to become the chairman of the University Council. It was customary for the chairman to move on to an external position, such as mayor, as indeed did all my predecessors. That was also my intention. However, when a member of the Executive Board passed away, I was offered the opportunity to become his successor. I decided not to accept the position, as I did not really feel like a director and was keen to find job security. When the then-secretary moved on to a position on the Board, his post became vacant. I felt honoured I was asked to replace him. I seized this new challenge and accepted it, also because it offered permanent employment.”

When he says permanent, Harry is in no way overstating the point. In 24 years, he has seen a long succession of chairmen and administrators pass by. “I have been given opportunities by the Board that exceeded my role as secretary. For example, I was allowed to represent the university in the city of Eindhoven: in the municipality, the manufacturers' association, and the student world. So I was a totally different secretary than Susanne is now, or indeed her predecessor, Nicole Ummelen. My position has developed over the years. I was seen as a kind of additional member of the Board.”

Susanne: “It is indeed true that such a role develops, but it does also very much dependent on the person who fulfils it and the Board that you work with. They each have their own character, their own approach, and things they consider important. As a secretary, you have to take these dynamics into consideration. In addition, as you say, Harry, you have to see where there is room to jump in and seize opportunities. I think that very much remains the same. Of course, I have not been in Eindhoven for that long yet. Personally, I want to take a little more time to get better acquainted with the organisation. This year, the corona pandemic has largely determined my focus. However, the Board has the ambition to realise its new vision ‘Strategy 2030’, in consultation with the departments and services. It is my role to make sure that the right processes are in place to ensure we have the right conversations about this. In addition, I am definitely someone who is more comfortable in the background. Although, if it is necessary, I am sure to make myself heard,” she adds with a laugh.

You have to see where there is room to jump in and seize opportunities

Susanne van Weelden
TU/e's current secretary

Harry: “That is precisely how I started. I was also modest—something that suits the role of secretary. I was lucky with the teams I was able to work with, although not always. Once, I was actually on the verge of quitting. However, a new chairman asked me to stay and finish the job together, and that is what I did. After that, they could not get rid of me, so to speak. So it all depends on the Board members you are dealing with and on how that relationship unfolds. I do not know how you experience this, Susanne, but I was definitely more orientated towards the chairman and less towards the rector. If you are given enough room, you are able to do your own thing, but it is also a lonely job. You only have a few people to spar with when things get really tough. I have always found a lot of support amongst my national colleagues. We got together every so often and were able to speak freely and in confidence. I assume this is still the case?”

Susanne: “Yes, fortunately, that is indeed still the case. I experience it as a very valuable group. There are a number of new secretaries who are also still searching for the right direction. It is nice to be able to share your dilemmas. I recognise what you say about the role of secretary being a lonely one. However, that is definitely something you know in advance.”

Gauging the Temperature

Maintaining existing contacts is more challenging due to the pandemic. The informal tools have been taken out of Susanne's hands. “Those corridors are very important for a secretary, providing opportunities to take the temperature and to speak with someone either before or after a meeting. You are constantly assessing the temperature, so to speak, and as soon as it begins to deviate, you need to act. Now that we primarily hold meetings online, this is made a lot more difficult. As a secretary, you have to offer insights into the different perspectives and interests of each party. You have to ensure that everyone is represented, so that the Board can address them in a very considered way. This also applies to the different interests amongst the Board members, because of course, they are there too. Ultimately, you do want to present yourself as a single, united board. Do you recognise that?"

Harry: “Absolutely. I really admire the way Susanne has acted during this difficult period. I am glad the whole corona crisis did not happen in my time. Because I really needed that face-to-face contact, to be able to talk to them in private—that is precisely the role you have to fulfil as a secretary. Whilst a screen is of great help, when things get tricky, you do pick up on other things in real life. I would miss that enormously and I cannot imagine not being able to come to the campus for a year.”

Talking about the campus, the conversation quickly turns to one of Harry's passions: student life and Eindhoven as a student city. These were themes that only had the interest of a few Board members, so he jumped in with great enthusiasm. For thousands of students, he continues to be remembered as the spontaneous pacer at many a cantus, the closing event of the introduction week which used to be flooded with beer. “Yes, I will be honest with you, that was great fun to do. Once you are known to the student associations, they always know where to find you. I still think that Eindhoven is not visible enough as a student city. Whilst there are now three student societies located in the city centre, I still think they are not visible enough, compared to other university cities.”

Susanne: “What do you think causes this, then, or why do you think it is like that?”

Harry: “Well, what is the reason? The municipality definitely plays a role in this, because they hardly facilitate anything and are not generous with permits: ‘This is not possible, that is not possible’, etc. For example, at the moment there is a difficult ongoing discussion about student accommodation. I think the municipality could be much more active towards the university. Take last year's King's Day and compare it to fifteen years ago, when the TU/e celebrated its 50th anniversary. On that day, we marched through the city with a cortege and awarded honorary doctorates in the church, all in a single day. There were large concerts on the Markt, which attracted over ten thousand visitors. The university showed itself to the city during the visit of Queen Beatrix. Now, the university celebrates its 65th anniversary: The king does visit, but the TU/e is hardly in the picture—a pity, as it was definitely deserving of greater attention. This is certainly not only the university's fault. In the years that I have been able to observe, the Municipality of Eindhoven has shown too little interest in the university. We have taken steps, but often received more opposition than cooperation.”

Susanne: “I think the adjusted program due to corona left less room than usual. We managed to give the student teams a role. We would have liked to do that more broadly, so I do understand the feeling that Harry is left with.”

Village Campus

Harry: “I used to describe the university as a village within the city, and now that really has become true. Just look at the campus, where many students live these days. That offers a lot of challenges and opportunities, of course. How do you improve the quality of life? What can be organised for the international students who are also here during the weekends? What kind of entertaining events can you offer?”

Susanne: “Definitely, I also think it is a fantastic campus. Lovely and green, now still with only a few shops and restaurants - it is truly lived in. You describe it very well as a village in its own right. If you add more facilities, you reinforce that image. Then it will become a place where people also enjoy being during the weekends because it is pleasant and fun. We are not there yet, but it is definitely a nice ambition. Of course, if you want to improve the quality of life, it also has to be a safe place.”

Since I left, the number of students has increased significantly, and especially the number of female students. They should have got rid of me much earlier, haha!

Harry Roumen
TU/e's former secretary

Harry: “Absolutely! Of course, one should never say that things were better in the past. Every era has its strong points. I have been away for nine years, but I am still very proud of the university. I still follow its development with great pleasure, such as the growing number of students, and the whole process of internationalisation. These days, everything is in English—something that would have taken time to get used to. You are probably completely integrated already, Susanne."

Susanne: “Precisely the developments you describe make this work so much fun. For example, we have really stuck out our necks to increase the number of female scientists at the TU/e. When that pays off, it inspires a lot of confidence. You really need that if you want to be the university of the future: not to stand still, but to dare moving forwards and being open to innovation. I see that creativity in this organisation. It is brimming with ideas—ideas that are often realised, because everyone puts their shoulders to the wheel. I think other universities can be jealous of that.”

The interviewees

Harry Roumen was born in 1947. Aged 17, he left the small town of Horn in the province of Limburg to move to the city of Eindhoven. In 1964, he began studying electrical engineering and graduated with a study on the subject of parabolic antennas. In 1986, he became director of the Computer Centre of the TU/e. Previously, he worked as chairman of the University Board. In the 1980s, a job as a mayor beckoned, but in 1988, he took on the role of secretary of the university. In 2012, he retired after 42 years of service.

Throughout his working life, Roumen also held various social positions. From 2004 to 2011, he was chairman of CityDynamiek. For its first ten years, he was chairman of the light festival Glow. In his hometown of Heeze, he devoted himself to sheep herds and the foundation Behoud Kempisch Heideschaap (Preservation of Kempen Heath Sheep). He was also chairman of the glass fibre cooperative HSLnet and of the supervisory board of a youth welfare organisation. For his complete CV, we refer both to his farewell special edition of Cursor and the TU/encyclopaedia.

Susanne van Weelden was born in Utrecht in 1977. She has a background in biochemistry and holds a PhD from the Department of Veterinary Medicine, Utrecht University. She has an extensive academic background. Until 2017, she was head of research at UMC Utrecht, whilst previously active as a research policy officer at the Faculty of Science of Utrecht University. She also worked as a programme manager Chemical Sciences for NWO. Before coming to the TU/e, she was promoted to the position of director of Internal Affairs at Utrecht Life Sciences. ULS focuses on stimulating cooperation between educational and research organisations, and companies and institutes, all of which are aimed at promoting human and/or animal health. Since February 2019, she has been secretary of the TU/e.

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