Hanneke Koppers: “I've seen TU/e's pride grow”

A new step is imminent in the career of Hanneke Koppers, head of the Communications Expertise Center. After her summer vacation she will become director of Omroep Brabant. Cursor looks back with her on the six years she has spent at TU/e. “I believe in the importance of masterminding your own ongoing self-development.”

by
photo Bart van Overbeeke

“I can still clearly remember my first introduction to the CEC,” says Hanneke Koppers, who at the time had just come from the water authority Aa en Maas. “Unexpectedly, I saw the whole group and felt their warm welcome. I was impressed by the building in the middle of the campus, with its wonderful glass wall and view of the pond.”

Working for Cursor, I was among those present and it is a vivid memory for me too. Everyone at the CEC, including Cursor, was sitting in Matrix, which hadn't yet been converted to create innoSpace. Almost the entire first floor was one open space; Cursor's six desks occupied a cozy corner by the window. The CEC’s then director Sabine van Gent had her own modest office across the floor and on this Friday afternoon Hanneke Koppers walked out of Sabine's office. Before she had reached the swing door to the stairs, I had hurried over to make her acquaintance. News for Cursor, I sensed. It was a spontaneous conversation accompanied by a quick snap of her in which she is sitting in a vacant office chair, wearing a checkered jacket. She told me who she had just been working for and what she wanted to do. I quoted her: “So I'll be visiting the departments and support services and I'll start by listening to people's wishes."

But she also arrived with a mission of her own, she says now, six years on. “My goal was to modernize the communication content and give people the scope to develop in line with their talent. TU/e needed to raise its profile, work more consciously on its reputation. The Brabant modesty wasn't needed, I felt.”

Limbo path

Today's interview is held in Atlas; if the weather had been good Koppers would have liked us to sit on the steps by the pond. Her other favorite places on the campus are the Market Hall, twice the venue for MomenTUm - but more about that later - and the Limbo path.

“I always felt it was fantastic to walk this path from the train station, where I'd arrive from Den Bosch. Among the students with their TU/e backpacks. Overhearing their conversations, I could pick up a little of what was preoccupying them. Their upcoming exams or assignments they needed to finish. And I'd hear what I found utterly incomprehensible: ‘I'm going to school' or 'I've got homework’. But you're at university! That's something to be proud of! It is the highest level of study at that age. Why play it down?”

Good steps

Looking back, Koppers believes good steps have been taken regarding the university's reputation and profile. At her initiative, student recruitment has been modernized, attention has been paid to research profiling and the communication strategy has been implemented. “We came up with some fun things for recruitment, like ‘Win a trip’ and now we are much more conscious about looking beyond the university. For example, we have used online events and campaigns to show internationals how enjoyable it is to study in Eindhoven.”

With online campaigns, great articles and tie-ins with events, attention for research conducted at TU/e has become more of a fixture. “We also want to help academics raise the profile of their own research." Among other things, the CEC runs training sessions for them on social media use. This past year Koppers has designed the communication strategy, which has included the appointment of two corporate storytellers. “The aim here is to show employees what is going on at TU/e. So that they have something to say - with pride - about the place where they work, at parties and so forth.”

Less paper, more students

Another modernization goal the self-assured director had in mind six years ago was moving ‘from offline to online’. “In Matrix the corridors were full of boxes of folders and brochures. Too many of this one, too few of that one. And it was a lot of work to produce them. I wanted to improve the website and have all our info available digitally.” 

In the years that Koppers has been at TU/e, student numbers have increased from nine thousand to thirteen thousand, due in some measure to TU/e’s 2014 dreams campaign. “We have always had good discussions with the deans of the Bachelor College and the Graduate School about the targets set for student recruitment. What are our target countries, which departments will have decentralized selection?”

Tense times

Tension is an element Koppers likes to have in her work; she thrives in times of crisis. The communication surrounding the corona pandemic is cause for satisfaction. “We very deliberately gave everyone, all the employees and all the students, the same information. We paid attention to getting the right tone and speed. Crisis communication needs to be meticulous and quick. The WhatsApp number is being answered by students on the webcare team, and that is going really well.’

Another tense time was the 2019 launch of the Irene Curie Fellowship program. At least, it became tense thanks to the ensuing barrage of media attention. “I still think it is a good, brave thing that TU/e took the bold step of making a statement like this. We did slightly underestimate the strength of the reaction it would draw from beyond the university, even beyond our national borders. From very positive responses to baseless torrents of verbal abuse; it was overwhelming. The Executive Board did a good job of sticking to their guns, genuinely believing in the quality of the new hires this initiative would attract. For the CEC it was ‘all hands to the pumps’. We had science communicators helping the spokesperson to answer all the phone calls. Likewise, every message on social media was answered, our view being that we are a personal university, one that answers you personally.” 

MomenTUm

For sheer enjoyment, her first experience of a lustrum year exceeded her expectations; “that the university put on such a hip event, it made an impression,” as did the strong sense of belonging evident among the hugely loyal employees. Pride, she reserves for the introduction of MomenTUm. “The academic ceremonies were pretty staid. Why, I wondered, would TU/e, which is, after all, a young university, hold its Founders' Day in a church? Why must it act as if it is steeped in history like Leiden? I am really pleased that we have been able to bring it up to date, and get students much more involved. Really cool that it has changed.”

For her own CEC people, Koppers has always embodied the leadership philosophy that you are personally responsible for the development of your talent and that your search for your strengths should be lifelong. When someone knows what they want, Koppers is the first to help them find a suitable position.

Marvel

As for herself, she is not adverse to taking a new step, although, by her own account, she was not fed up with TU/e. “A headhunter approached me and suggested I apply for my new job. The opportunity to hold a position with ultimate decision-making responsibility in the media world, with a healthy and not too large a company like Omroep Brabant, was one I couldn't pass up. They want me to inspire people and build cohesion, and I think I can do that.” 

She is as keen to meet her new challenge as she is to make people marvel. For years she would write about whatever struck her when she traveled by train, to share in the mini-column ‘Hanneke writes’. That we have never seen her wear the same outfit twice in six years is something that has struck me and no doubt the rest of the department too. “That is not true,” she sets me straight, instantly and with a laugh. “I don't even have a very large closet. It is simply that I'm good at combining. A different combination often creates the impression of a new outfit. For me, clothes are a really fun way to surprise people. My outfit is a conversation starter, or at least it is memorable…it certainly serves a purpose.”

For the CEC, TU/e is now seeking an interim manager who will stay for at least a year. “A period of peace and the opportunity to mark time,” is what Koppers wishes for the department, “with a boss who will make a good job of implementing the SQUAD process (a quality drive within all the support services, ed.).” But once the handover is complete, she will make a clean break of it. The CEC must take its next steps without her.

Share this article