Kristel Baele takes the time for the interview. “After this I don’t have any meetings planned.” After which she explains that as President of the Board, she feels it’s important to take time for contact with staff and students of the university.

And because management is about making choices, EM gives her a questionnaire before the interview. The answers provide a guide for the encounter.

You’ve talked about one of three important goals of your tenureship as being engaging with major social issues, which are also regional issues. Tell us more.

“Erasmus University stole my heart due to its involvement with the big social issues facing the world: climate change, digitisation, demographic developments, affordability of health care, etc.

“For decades, universities have only been evaluated on the excellence of their teaching while the so-called third mission got a raw deal. Valorisation was often about starting up businesses: from knowledge to the bank.

“So I’m delighted that people are increasingly looking at the wider task of a university. For me, the question is: what is a university for? What is a university’s soul?”

What do you feel is a university’s soul?

“Making society better through education. If I could put one euro on something, it would be on education. Yes, more than on research. Think of your own life and the effect that education has had on you. It drives your life. If you only publish and do nothing else, nothing will happen.”

But a high H index (which measures the ‘career impact’ of the publications of an academic researcher, ed) is important for an academic, isn’t it?

“If the H was for humane, I’d agree with you. (winks) No, it’s and and. You need both. Without people who bring fundamental research further, we wouldn’t get anywhere.”

More women at the top of EUR is another one of your goals. Did your predecessor, Pauline van der Meer Mohr, tell you of her frustration that she was unable to make a substantial change in this?

“Her frustration was communicated and I was familiar with the theme of the small number of women among professors at this university.

“The cause is a combination of factors. One of the reasons is the Dutch culture of working women, where women are implicitly expected to be with the baby and not the father. In my experience, women from abroad are amazed by this: they hadn’t expected this in such a liberal country.

“How am I going to implement change? You have to focus on introducing that change, otherwise nothing will happen. I’m trying to improve the transparency of the selection processes and organising the so-called pipeline. Ensuring that there are enough female assistant and associate professors, so that there’s a pool of women to choose from. It will obviously be more difficult in some disciplines, but you have to try.

“In the instruments for recruitment and selection, there can also be a gender bias. That may be in the use of language or in the fact that many headhunters are themselves men and their network largely consists of men. I recently sent away a recruitment company when they produced a long list of only men for a managerial position among the staff. ‘Look better and in other places,’ I said, and it turned out they could.”

You chose ‘quota’ over ‘stop complaining about the glass ceiling’. When will it be time to introduce a quota for the number of female professors?

“A quota is certainly something I’d consider and something we’ve been discussing for a while. And of course it would be best if the academic community could resolve this problem itself. But there’s a limit to how long you can address this issue. Incidentally, I’m not thinking of a quota for a certain number of female professors. I’d rather apply a quota for the number of female lecturers and professors, to bring some order to the pipeline. Otherwise all the good women will have found something else when you come to look for a professor.”

When will your mission have succeeded?

“If in eight years’ time 50 percent of all the managers at the university, directors of departments, deans of course, programme directors, education directors and professors are women, I’ll consider that I’ve been successful. I’d still be satisfied with 30 percent.”

Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik

Another important goal you mention is the digitisation of education. You even put it above the further introduction of education programmes in English. Why?

“The introduction of English is happening already. Digitising education is about direction, about what we are educating our students for. Jobs for our students are changing rapidly and that’s new for higher qualified staff. Production line workers encountered robots much sooner.

“Students must be prepared for work where they have a relationship with an intelligent machine. For students, this means that besides a basic knowledge of their disciplines, they must also be given a set of skills to deal with that, as well as the basic realisation that they must constantly refresh their knowledge. This has great significance for programmes and lecturers too. Lecturers must update their knowledge on what it means to be an accountant or lawyer, for example. In the past, you had lots of young lawyers who did nothing but update information. Now computers can do this faster and better. This is still a white area for education as a whole.

“I choose the dual strategy the industry uses. On the one hand continue business as usual, and on the other hand try things out, implement pilots and quickly decide what works and what doesn’t. As a collective, we need to be brave to think things through. If this can be done anywhere, then it’s at a university.”

From the list of leadership styles, you’ve chosen ‘connecting leadership’ to define yourself.

“You don’t always know it yourself, but from the people around me, I often hear that I’m very involved. I see the university as a community and I want to be part of it. I accept lots of invitations, for example for the opening of a seminar or a student association event. It’s not so much important that people know who I am, but that my door is open if they need me.”

You have a reputation among some members of staff as being a hard worker and someone who notices the details, more than the previous President. Is that something you recognise?

“If I ask questions, there’s always a reason. As a board member, you are liable and it’s quite legitimate that I sometimes ask questions. Everyone has their own style of leadership, but I am me. And I understand that if you’re the one being asked questions, it might be annoying. It’s not so much a vote of no confidence, but as a director you can see the bigger picture much better, including the areas related to a subject.”

You say your worst trait is impatience.

“Sometimes I think: that’s how we should do it, this is so logical, and then it takes quite a long time before you get there. That makes me impatient sometimes. But I also see impatience as a strength, as an engine for change. The thing is to balance everything. If someone starts with Adam and Eve again, you think ‘oh well, that happens.’ Incidentally, I find EUR an enterprising university where things go quite fast.”

At the question about the role of the deans, you’ve answered ‘amended’ on our questionnaire. You didn’t say whether the deans will contribute more or less at the end of your tenureship, but that their role will be different. Could you explain that?

“It’s an urban legend at this university that the faculties are very independent and the deans too. Yet I’ve found that a lot is already arranged in laws and frameworks, for example a collective labour agreement (CLA) or the WHW (Higher Education and Research Act, ed). Very different players than the deans also determine the space in which a director can manoeuvre. As I explained to the deans at our first meeting, I see the university as a community. The Executive Board and the deans, we are at the helm together. We share responsibility and we are both liable for the result. If a fellow dean has problems, I expect us to resolve it as a collective.

“People may agree with the approach, but it will take some time before they feel it as well. The challenges at this time are so extensive and are developing so rapidly, that you shouldn’t want to spend your time on issues of ‘us against them’. Then you’ll start to look like the palm court orchestra of Titanic.”

If you could choose, you feel that students could invest more in their own internationalisation.

“It’s increasingly important for an international career that your pallet is broader than Dutch white. By spending some time abroad as a student, you prove that you are able to make a connection between different worlds.

“After I graduated, I spent over six months with my former partner on the Comoros, a group of islands above Madagascar. I learned a lot there. I arrived at the airport and found myself in a sea of black people. I then realised how an African would feel at Zaventem airport. That was a revelation for me.

“The Comoros is a Muslim republic. As I’ve always been interested in other people and cultures, I wanted to visit the big mosque. Friends from the white expat community started saying: ‘oooh, that’s brave’, ‘oooh, why would you want to do that’, and ‘oooh, they’ll say no’, ‘oooh, you might get into an argument’. And I thought, there’s only one way to find out and that’s to go. I asked if I could go in and I could: just needed to wash my hands and feet. All in a very normal, polite way.

“That’s when I learned that my frame of reference is just that. The basic realisation that things can be different and also good, that’s what I learned there. You become more tolerant and open. You meet the other person with respect for their way of working and living. Not: I’m the norm. That’s what I’d like students to learn too.”

Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik

You choose a conversation with the Dalai Lama above a conversation with Bill Gates.

“I think that Bill Gates would come here anyway if Erasmus University invited him. So rather the Dalai Lama. You can always talk about money. This also reflects what I said earlier about the changing role of the university. It’s not just money and performance that are important, but the bigger issues of modern society. I feel that he has some sensible things to say about that.

I wouldn’t call myself a Buddhist, but I’m very interested in eastern philosophy and Buddhism is part of that. The nice thing about Buddhism is that the rules are very easy to understand. Compared with Catholicism – every Belgian is brought up a Catholic – it’s not about ‘thou shalt not do this or that…’, but ‘thou shalt try…’. You should be alert and ask yourself: how have I tried today and how do I look back at my day?

“On my way home to Katendrecht – usually by car, sometimes on my bike or on the tram – I often have a moment when I do that. How did this go, could it have gone differently? That discussion with myself has now become an automatic part of my day. Sometimes you think, that didn’t go well and the next day I consult my colleagues. That’s the nice thing about working in a team.

“What would I ask the Dalai Lama? I know, but I’m not going to tell you…!”

Ghent waterzooi or Rotterdam Kapsalon

The new president of the board chooses Rotterdam Kapsalon above Ghent Waterzooi. She isn’t keen on the traditional Flemish soup of vegetables, fish or chicken. So Kapsalon? “Oh, so Kapsalon is the name of a dish? I wondered about that – I’ve never eaten in a hairdresser’s (kapsalon is a hairdresser’s salon in Dutch).”

After explaining the origin and composition of Rotterdam’s meal – shoarma, fries, lettuce, cheese, garlic sauce and sambal – she passes on this regional dish too. But she does have a ‘nostalgic meal’. “During the first ten, fifteen years that I lived in the Netherlands, the first thing I ordered when I was back in Antwerp was chips. I’m sorry, but Belgium does the best chips.”

President of the Executive Board Kristel Baele lives in Katendrecht, the peninsular between the Wilhelminapier and the Tarwewijk. “Katendrecht is quite a small community, a village in the city, where you often meet the same people. I like going to Verhalenhuis Belvedère, Walhalla theatre, and LantarenVenster is close too. So I get to do some nice things, because in my job it’s important to recharge your batteries.” Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik

Who is Kristel Baele?

Since 1 December 2015, Kristel Baele has been President of the Executive Board of Erasmus University. Before that, the Belgian worked in various executive positions in higher education, most recently as vice president of HAN University of Applied Sciences and interim president of Leiden University of Applied Sciences. Baele (1959) studied politics and social sciences in Ghent and Antwerp and moved to the Netherlands in 1991.