“This stunt is a sign that people feel safe”

Dean Kitty Nijmeijer and Managing Director Mark de Graef of the Department of Chemical Engineering & Chemistry (CE&C) consider the playful stunt organized by PhD candidate Laura van Hazendonk in late August, centered around five paintings in Helix, to be a sign that employees and students feel safe within the department. A respectful debate took place about the replacement of the paintings, and it was part of a complete interior redesign of the building that had been on the agenda for some time, according to both administrators.

photo Bart van Overbeeke

In 2021, when Mark de Graef was invited to Helix for a second interview to discuss his appointment as managing director at CE&E, the entrance struck him as “a dark hole”. It immediately set him thinking about how – if he were to get the job – he would eventually want to tackle this: by revitalizing Helix’s interior. He discussed this with Dean Kitty Nijmeijer at the beginning of this year, and she was also in favor of the idea. The timing was just right too, because an important review was coming up and the entire department was working ‘very hard” to prepare for it.

De Graef: “Extra cleaning was done throughout the entire building, because you want to present yourself in the best possible way if such a committee comes to visit. An essential part of it was putting up the pictures of the lab setups that can be found in our building.” Nijmeijer: “It ties in with what was said last week during the meetings about upscaling: let’s do away with modesty here at TU/e and show what we excel in and what we’re proud of. That is what is now reflected in these photos, which have been put up all over our building, including our main meeting room: the Jan Pieter Minkelers Room.”

Continue reading below the photos.

Playful stunt

In late August, Laura van Hazendonk, a PhD candidate at CE&C, and two students pulled a playful stunt in that very room. Cursor reported on it, and De Graef expressed his appreciation at the time. “I appreciate the signal it sends and I deeply respect your direct approach as well.” He promised to personally raise the issue in the Department Board and get to work on it.

De Graef and Nijmeijer say that a respectful debate took place and that, as a result, it was decided that this room would be included in the complete interior redesign of Helix. In addition, an illustration would be displayed there showing the department’s vision. According to De Graef, not everyone within the department was in agreement about replacing the paintings, “but then again, even when you just hang new wallpaper or repaint the walls at your home, there will always be people who would have preferred something different.”

Middle ground

Dean Nijmeijer says it took her a while, too, to understand the point of Van Hazendonk’s stunt. “You notice that there are roughly two groups of people at our university: those who are over fifty and a younger generation of people in their twenties and thirties. These two groups have different views on certain matters and sometimes, one group may disagree with things that the other group considers normal. As administrators, it’s our job to initiate a dialogue between these groups and find a middle ground. That’s precisely what happened here; the matter was discussed based on arguments. And as far as I can see, the people who are now shouting their opinions from the sidelines are completely lacking them.”

According to Nijmeijer and De Graef, the fact that Van Hazendonk had the courage to execute her playful stunt at the end of August mainly has to do with the sense of social safety that exists within the department. De Graef: “Everyone should feel free to speak out. It’s then up to the board to make judgments.”

The judgments expressed by the outside world about the replacement of the paintings over the past few days, and their vehemence, caught Nijmeijer and De Graef by surprise. “It’s very unfortunate, especially because everything took place in a transparent manner”, Nijmeijer said. “We stand behind the university’s mission: we want to both excel in our scientific research and ensure that this is a place where people matter. In fact, we are proud that these kinds of issues can be discussed openly within our department.”

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