Pieter van Wesemael, former chair of the AUDE unit, is the author of a leaked secret memo dated February 18, 2023 in which he outlines the unit's future and the consequences for staffing. The document includes some serious personal allegations. Professor David Gianotten: “In his memo, Van Wesemael suggests unilateral action be taken with regard to appointments for an indefinite period and that the work of four professors be restricted to teaching activities. Steps prohibited under labor laws. In Van Wesemael's opinion, the individuals in question lack proper management skills and allowing them to manage in spite of this leads to ‘an endless series of accidents’. Claims he does not substantiate. As an alternative, Van Wesemael proposes that he himself must take on the management role in its entirety.”
On February 18, 2023 Van Wesemael sent the memo to Merle Rodenburg, Built Environment's managing director. Rodenburg, it should be noted, is no longer employed at TU/e and has recently taken up a new position. The memo rubs the professors up the wrong way. Paul Diederen: “Way back on April 1st, 2022 we wrote a first draft of a new vision for the unit, which was rejected at the time by Dean Theo Salet, rejected without any clear substantive feedback beyond the remark that ‘it is not in line with the vision for the department as a whole’.” The Departmental Board acknowledges that communication on this matter could have been better.
The main photo shows Vertigo, the Department of the Built Environment's building. Cursor has been able to see various pieces of evidence that support the claims made by the five professors in this matter.
Creating a unit vision
One thing Dean Salet would like to make clear is that a unit creates its own unit vision. “While the direction and framework are provided by the Strategic Plan 2020-2030, it's important and desirable that units put their own stamp on the vision. It's normal and understandable that in his role as unit chair Pieter van Wesemael got the ball rolling. The fact that he evidently wanted to share his ideas with the managing director, Merle Rodenburg, doesn't make this an assignment commissioned by the Departmental Board. As a board member, I knew nothing of it, nor did the other board members. Consequently, it is a document without any status, let's get that clear. These were his own personal observations.”
For this article, Van Wesemael was asked to put forward his side of the argument. He chose not to respond substantively and referred Cursor to the Departmental Board, which said it could not respond on Van Wesemael's behalf to personal questions directed at him, but could at least state that “Van Wesemael had no mandate to implement the ideas independently.” The Departmental Board also states that “these are Pieter's own personal observations. The board knew nothing of them and nor will the board, now that we do know of them, be implementing them.”
As a board member, I knew nothing of it, nor did the other board members. Consequently, it is a document without any status, let's get that clear
For the professors, Van Wesemael's memo still raises unanswered questions: did the Departmental Board already know of it? They suspect so, partly because of a particular passage in the memo that had been crossed out and under which a comment had been written in response to the crossed-out passage. This suggests that Van Wesemael received someone's feedback written on the document. Nor was a salutation or introduction used when the memo was sent to Rodenburg, the former managing director. Salet reiterates that he didn't know of the memo's existence. “I've also asked Merle, Pieter and Vice-Dean Maarten Hornikx. They all say they neither knew of the memo nor worked on it. But if the suspicion persists, an ICT investigation can, of course, be carried out to establish who worked on the document and how it came to be distributed. I just don't think that will resolve anything. It's alright to voice your suspicion in a conversation but after that you need to let this matter go and focus on the future. Only then can we resolve this together.” The professors, by contrast, indicate that they requested just such an ICT investigation on multiple occasions, but it was always refused by the Executive Board.
Cursor also took the step of asking Merle Rodenburg whether she knew of the memo and/or helped write it. Rodenburg: “I played no part whatsoever in the creation and/or distribution of the memo in question. Accordingly, I bear no responsibility for the memo's content. It is wrongful that this impression is being created and that I am being wrongfully implicated.”
Having returned to work after a period of illness, Salet initially did not wish to read the contentious memo. Why did he make this choice? Wouldn't it have been wiser to know about this document considered so important by the professors? “With hindsight, yes, I'd have done better to read it,” says Salet. “But I'd just returned from a long period of illness and was at work on a therapeutic basis. So much had happened, I thought it better for the process if I took a little time to preserve the distance I had from the matter. Evidently, the professors had different expectations.”
Although this conflict would seem at first sight to revolve principally around the leaked memo penned by Van Wesemael, it should be noted that tensions had already been sparked, Gianotten tells us. “The problems started earlier, right on the heels of the Covid-19 period, when there was a change in the membership of the Departmental Board. This was right after Jacob Voorthuis stepped down as the unit chair of AUDE. The communication changed, policy was implemented unilaterally, orders were issued from above, channels of communication were cut off, and opinions within the unit were no longer valued or heard,” Gianotten tells us, and as the five professors wrote in unit documents seen by Cursor.
The Departmental Board doesn't recognize this picture of events painted by the professors and makes the following statement: “The Departmental Board includes the chairs of our four units in the organizational decisions made within our department. In this way, we communicate with fewer employees than used to be the case when the professors had their own consultative council. The changed atmosphere that is outlined, however, doesn't tally with our own recollections.”
More unit cooperation
Architecture Urban Design and Engineering (AUDE) is one of the four units within Built Environment. Six professors work at the unit. Alongside their university work, the part-time professors, whose TU/e contracts range from one to three days a week, are also closely involved with national and international firms of architects. The new vision for AUDE was thought necessary in response to TU/e's new strategy in which chairs are replaced with the principal investigator model, requiring the professors and units to cooperate more extensively and have a more broadly shared vision.
Vice-Dean Hornikx: “We've been working on a new departmental vision since 2019 and as an extension of that on the unit visions. As a department we need to be multidisciplinary. Not only because it's essential to our ability to respond to societal challenges, but also because it increases our resilience to the effect of the economic climate on student numbers. Architecture is always the first sector to feel the impact of declining expenditure in the construction industry. By broadening the departmental focus to include implementing sustainability measures in the housing stock, the energy transition and other societal issues, you ensure that architects will always be needed.”
External examination of the facts
On February 24, 2023 the five professors abandoned their trust in Van Wesemael. They expected this to be followed by greater action on the part of the Departmental Board to address the situation, but found the action taken to be insufficient, and on March 31 they also brought the matter to the attention of the Executive Board. Discussions with the Executive Board did not produce a satisfactory outcome and an external independent examination of the facts was initiated.
In that investigation the only person not to be interviewed was Merle Rodenburg. Cursor asked her why this was, to which she replied: “While I was working at TU/e I did not know that an investigation had been started. Nor do I know what happened after I left [TU/e] and nor was I approached by the fact-finding committee.” In view of the confidentiality of that report, one can only guess why she alone was not interviewed by the committee.
“The results of that investigation (completed in June, ed.) have given us a strong sense of confirmation,” Rapp states. As all those involved have signed a pledge of confidentiality regarding the fact-finding report no one is now able to say anything more about its contents. Gianotten: “But, let it be said, we are prepared to lift the confidentiality restriction and make the documents available so that everything becomes transparent to everyone. We have nothing to hide. But for us to do that, the Executive Board, the Departmental Board and Van Wesemael must do so too, otherwise it's not legally possible.”
The Executive Board and Departmental Board have been asked whether they too are prepared to lift the confidentiality restriction and have let it be known that they do not wish to do so. On this point the Executive Board says: “We cannot publicly release this report for reasons of the privacy of the persons mentioned in it and quoted in it. On August 22, Rector Silvia Lenaerts invited the Departmental Council to a meeting to explain the process.” In a similar vein, the Departmental Board reports: “Owing to the privacy of the persons who worked on the report and what is said in the report about individuals, we cannot make the report public.”
We are prepared to lift the confidentiality restriction and make the documents available so that everything becomes transparent to everyone
The memo leak has displeased the Departmental Board. “We know that a document written by the then unit chair unintentionally reached some of the members of the unit and became the subject of debate. It is good to be aware that the unit chair makes a number of personal observations in this document. The document does not express the vision of the Departmental Board and nor is it being used in discussions about the future course of AUDE. Therefore, as far as the Departmental Board is concerned, there was not and continues not to be any reason to use this document as the basis for a discussion of the future of the AUDE group.”
Salet: “Since 2019, bringing different groups of people together in a wide range of meetings, the Departmental Board has been working with the department on a revised departmental vision (Built Environment Strategic Plan 2020-2030). This plan gives the units a framework and direction for the future. We, the Departmental Board, then started discussions with the unit chairs and asked them to work with their unit staff to find areas where their work aligns with the strategy. In the other three units this process prompted good consultation, but in the AUDE unit the process was bumpy. Yes, everyone has their own communication style and when a new person takes office – in response to the claim that the change of board membership in early 2022 caused a changed atmosphere, ed. – it always takes some time to get used to the change. What's more, the department was having a difficult time, including financially, which meant that difficult conversations were being had. When the trust was abandoned, we didn't immediately see the link with the memo. The professors didn't wish to enter into discussions with us, didn't want to start a mediation process, and instead approached the Executive Board.” The professors correct this statement by way of a letter they received on March 2 from the Executive Board. It states that the matter was brought to the attention of the Executive Board by the Departmental Board, not vice versa.
In fact, we had explicitly abandoned our trust in Van Wesemael and raised trust issues regarding the Departmental Board, the same board that is now being put in charge of designing the joint way forward
The final straw
To the amazement of the professors, the rector newly appointed in May 2022, Silvia Lennaerts, wrote the following to them on July 14: ‘A significant conclusion that we have drawn based on the interviews is that the parties see sufficient basis for and are sufficiently confident in future cooperation between dean and professors within AUDE.’ Paul Diederen responds, “By no stretch of the imagination is that a conclusion or recommendation of the independent fact-finding report.” He continues, “In fact, we had explicitly abandoned our trust in Van Wesemael and raised trust issues regarding the Departmental Board, the same board that is now being put in charge of designing the joint way forward. Neither is the Executive Board providing reasons why it isn't following up on the very clear recommendations and conclusions of the fact-finding report, which are, in our opinion, completely unambiguous.” Gianotten: “If the findings of an independent investigation are not to a board's liking, they can apparently disregard them without any consequences at all. We (Gianotten, Diederen and Rapp, ed.) then took the collective decision to resign.”
The Executive Board gives no substantive response to Cursor's question whether recommendations in the fact-finding report were adopted, and if so, which ones, or if not, why not. It does say, however, that “it had an investigation carried out into the antecedents of the breach of trust within the AUDE group and interviewed those involved individually. On the basis of, among other things, the fact-finding report, the Executive Board asked the dean to submit a plan to the Executive Board by August 23. This plan has now been approved and the Departmental Board is now starting on its implementation in very close cooperation with the AUDE group. The Executive Board will monitor the implementation process.” Gianotten: “This plan was supposed to be compiled in consultation with the AUDE unit, that was the assignment, and it has not happened.”
Hornikx: “In any event, we want to see AUDE flourish again and we've written a plan to achieve that – at the request of the Executive Board – but to date it has not proved possible to present it to the unit.”
Concerning the fact that Lenaerts concluded that there is sufficient basis for trust in future cooperation and that the professors do not see this at all, the Executive Board says: “In her mail of July 14, in which she conveys to the parties involved her findings and conclusions from the individual interviews, Silvia Lenaerts expressed her trust in future cooperation between a strengthened Departmental Board and the professors within AUDE, but in this mail she also indicated that there was still work to be done. Regrettably, a week later the three part-time professors in the AUDE group submitted their resignations.”
Gianotten is the managing partner-architect of OMA, a large international firm of architects founded by Rem Koolhaas. Gianotten: “We realize that our leaving has a big impact, dozens of students are now unable to graduate with us and a handful of PhD candidates need to be reassigned. But the way we are being treated is intolerable. If we were to accept it, it would put the academic freedom and social safety of all employees at the university at risk. It would mean it's possible to say anything about a person, provide no evidence and get away with it by saying it's a figment of your imagination.” The professors have since reported the matter to the Supervisory Board.
The AUDE unit now has five professors making waves, three of whom have resigned. This step brings to an end not only their professorships but also the many ancillary roles they say they perform for TU/e. For more than fifteen years Rapp has been a member of the steering group Campus 2020 – now Campus 2030 – and in that capacity is also the author of the Master Plan 2040, a vision, currently in development, of the campus. “I regard this task as having terminated when I submitted my letter of resignation,” he lets it be known. Likewise for Diederen, his resignation from TU/e brings to an end his work for the Quality Team (also known as Q-Team), which assesses all the building plans for the TU/e campus. The Executive Board lets it be known that it “finds the resignation of the professors deeply regrettable because with the individual interviews, the investigation and the assignment given to the dean we have embarked on the way forward, but we respect their choice.”
“As the impact on current research projects is minimal, so too is the financial impact,” as the Departmental Board says. “The professors in question have relatively small-scale part-time appointments. Graduating master's students are supervised in groups (‘studios’). They can simply start as per usual; replacements have been arranged. Moreover, students graduate in groups, and even though we have substitutes for those groups we hope to add full professors to them as well. For some students it may mean they don't get their first choice though, but at least they can all graduate. For the rest, Gianotten, Rapp and Diederen were not involved in first-year lectures. Nor are there any research studies involving hundreds of students. They didn't have any PhD candidates of their own, although they did serve as second supervisor for a number of candidates. Here, too, we'll find replacements. Finally, we'll be looking at solutions to safeguard the continuity of the professors' ancillary activities. It should be noted that final responsibility for the campus plan lies with the Executive Board,” the Departmental Board tells us. Salet: “We have worked hard over the summer to ensure that the new academic year gets off to a smooth start. But they will be missed, by both the students and the staff. They are valued colleagues.”
Salet emphasizes yet again the importance of AUDE's expertise – architecture – in solving the many challenges facing society, such as the housing shortage, the energy transition and the renovation work it entails. “We are training genuine system engineers here, that's why bringing together urbanism, building physics, structural engineering and architecture here is such a strength. The projects are so complex that we need each other's expertise, and that's the thinking underlying our department's strategy.”
If the findings of an independent investigation are not to a board's liking, they can apparently disregard them without any consequences at all. We (Gianotten, Diederen and Rapp, ed.) then took the collective decision to resign
Salet continues: “We shall have to regain the trust that has been lost. It can't be imposed top-down, it has to come from both sides. I'm ready and willing to work towards restoring that lost way forward. It starts with self-reflection, something that we as a board have been engaged in. This has led us to realize that we regret the situation and we express regret for what we have done wrong. We have learned valuable lessons.” In the main, he says, these relate to communication. “That really was the key word here in terms of what we could have done better. Things were allowed to build. Had we started talking soon, they needn't have escalated to the extent they did. It's always better to communicate too much rather than too little. Otherwise things can get out of hand,” he realizes.
What examples can be taken from this case of things that should have been done differently? “When the five professors abandoned trust in the sixth, a solution should have been found,” says Salet. “Things like ‘reorganization’ were mentioned in the vacancy posting for an interim solution for the position of unit chair previously held by Pieter van Wesemael. That should not have happened. Unfortunately, at that time I was in the hospital with a severe infection. When I came back after six weeks, the situation had already escalated such that normal communication between and with the parties involved had become impossible.”
The way forward
“I wish I could turn back the clock,” says Salet. “But you have to move forward and I'm someone who looks forward. I'm always happy to talk things over again. And, I'm also hoping for apologies from the professors for the unrest that's been caused in the department by this matter. This is something that needs to come from both sides.” Whatever happens, it is clear that Van Wesemael will not be returning as unit chair of AUDE. “That position has become untenable.”
Salet's main hope is that a way forward will be found. “But that's only possible if no conditions are set. Everyone has to engage in self-reflection. I have done that openly before the unit and I hoped to see it among the professors, but to date, regrettably, I have not. We have to move forward together, for the sake of the department and its students and staff.” Gianotten lets it be known that for the professors the condition exists that the investigation and the conclusions and recommendations it produced are adopted and implemented in their entirety by the boards before there can be any thought of discussing the future.