Appointments in tertiary education rarely cause as much of a commotion as Duisenberg’s did. A petition was actually begun against Pieter Duisenberg’s appointment as President of VSNU. It has already been signed by 4,800 people from all strata of academia, ranging from students to full professors.
However, the governors of the universities stand by their decision, and Duisenberg himself will not budge either. He can’t wait to get started in his new job, he says. Straight away, he will go on a tour of all Dutch universities in October in order to discuss matters with the institutions’ academic staff, support staff and students – and yes, with his opponents, too.
You used to talk to all these people when you were an MP, as well. How will these conversations be any different?
“It’s true, I used to visit the universities a lot. I did so when I was still part of the business community, as well. But this time, I will be visiting in a different capacity. I think it’s hugely important that I get to know the universities even better. Listening, listening and more listening. That will be my motto as far as I’m concerned.”
This is a good thing, because there are a lot of people who have an awful lot to say to Duisenberg. The petition against his appointment was signed by quite a few scientists, ranging from PhD students to full professors.
Did that come as a shock to you?
“We were kind of expecting it. But it’s not such a bad thing. Actually, it’s good that people are voicing their concerns. That’s why I will be having all these conversations. I will be straight up with everyone. In my new capacity as the Association’s President, I will go about things the way I like to go about things: I will listen and try to find the things we have in common, and ways in which we can connect.”
Not everyone will be prepared to believe this. What his opponents fear is that his appointment will curtail their freedom of speech. After all, wasn’t Duisenberg the politician who forced the government to investigate political diversity at Dutch universities? And who felt universities were too much of a leftist bastion?
Of course not, says Duisenberg. “That was not a discussion on leftism and rightism. Academic freedom of speech is absolutely crucial to me. What I asked for as an MP – with the majority of the House backing my request – was an investigation of whether academia actually provides such freedom as a matter of course. I wished to know whether academics ever feel the need for self-censorship. Scientists must be able to ask whatever question they wish to ask. Allowing diverse opinions to flourish… that is what I think is great about universities. That is what moves me. So essentially, it’s about the freedom and independence of science. That is the angle the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences will be adopting in its investigation, as well.”
You have held strong views before. Did you discuss those when you applied for the position?
“Well, I happened to have a lot of opinions that matched the universities’, as well. Take, for instance, our views on digitisation, internationalisation and investments in higher education. Or take the performance agreements between the Ministry [of Education] and the universities. I felt the Cabinet had to keep its end of the bargain with the universities, and I have always pushed for it to do so.”
But these performance agreements were not exactly popular, either. The universities are not happy with them, and critics say they are a product of an over-the-top focus on usefulness and efficiency.
“The performance agreements were drawn up when I was not yet an MP. I didn’t come up with them. I, too, have seen in the last few years that there is not a high level of support for them, and if you were listening carefully, you may have heard me say that the performance agreements should be introduced bottom up. It is vital that students, lecturers and scientists feel like they are in charge of the agreements.”
In association with his colleagues representing PvdA, D66 and GroenLinks, Duisenberg abolished student grants. He later said that universities of technology should perhaps be granted a larger share of the money the government thus saved, since they were having such a hard time coping with the enormous influx of students. That, too, made his opponents angry. We have all lost our grants, said the students. So why should some students profit more than others? That is not what we agreed to.
And then he went and criticised ‘fun degree programmes’. Why, Duisenberg asked, should we support degrees that are no longer required by the job market? This question, too, proved unpopular, particularly with academics working in the humanities. Don’t just look at the economic returns, they said. Look at the social and cultural value of such degrees, as well.
Do you understand why some disciplines feel you are not the right person to represent them?
“What matters to me, first and foremost, is that all young people must be able to pick a degree programme that is in line with their passions and talents, regardless of whether these are in the field of humanities, science and technology or social sciences. However, I do think it’s problematic that the government has gone out of its way to encourage kids to choose STEM subjects, since these are in line with specific social objectives. How can you do that, then tell these kids that they can’t take those degrees because intake numbers have been capped? It continues to be very important that we get rid of such sticking points. Together, we will have to come up with a solution that is supported by all Dutch universities.”
“But listen, it’s not true that I’m only interested in STEM subjects. My son studies psychology, my daughter economics and law. My children aren’t STEM kids. The Netherlands is a rich society – both financially and in the broader sense of the word – because it offers such a wide variety of degrees.”
Diversity is tremendously important, he emphasises. He noticed that, too, when he was still working at Shell. “If they only listened to engineers, they would get a purely technical solution to all of their problems. You don’t just need technology, but finance, human resources, sales… It’s good to have people from several types of background. This is no different at universities.”
How much influence does VSNU’s President actually have?
“Universities make their own decisions and have their own profiles, but they also recognise that they have certain shared ambitions. Financing is one of the things we agree on. We will take that up with The Hague. But many of our ambitions don’t require politicians to be realised. We can do an awful lot on our own. I actually find it interesting that people hold so many different views on where we should be heading. But if we can channel these differences and create win-win situations… that energises me. This was the case in the Lower House, as well, regardless of which parties the MPs I was working with represented – PvdA, SP, CDA, GroenLinks or D66. It all starts from listening properly and finding out what you have in common.”
The Association of Universities in the Netherlands is sometimes criticised for being an administrators’ club rather than a scientists’ club. Take, for instance, discussions on workload and flexible contrasts. Clearly, Duisenberg does not want to be on the receiving end of that kind of criticism. He says he would like to shadow a university employee a few times a year – say, an associate professor. “I have already scheduled my first appointment. It’s essential to me that I keep on doing that after my introduction tour, as well. Just being a fly on the wall and seeing what people are dealing with. I really want to find out what’s going on. That is very important to me.”
But some of the people who applied for the VSNU presidency may already have known all of these things. How did VSNU end up with you? Did they simply give you a call?
“This may be a question for the selection committee, but they did give me an assignment that suits me. The universities seek to strengthen their high-ranking positions, both in relation to society and in an international context. I have a great deal of experience of working in various types of jobs. I have done more than just be a politician. But of course I do know The Hague rather well. Clearly, the committee saw that what I have tried to do in the last few years was in line with what the universities will have to do in the next few years. Lastly – or really, first of all – they looked at my methods. They chose a president who wishes to know what is going on, who wishes to know what effects certain decisions will have in lecture theatres and on the work floor, and what all the pros and cons are.”
As for the criticism the universities received when they appointed Duisenberg, they are acting on it. The initiators of the petition, the ReThink UvA action group, have already been invited to come and discuss Duisenberg’s appointment with VSNU’s vice-presidents.
Duisenberg himself expects the level of opposition to decrease once people realise that he is now playing a completely different role than when he was an MP.
Interview written by Bas Belleman, Hoger Onderwijs Persbureau