We’ve spoken quite regularly these past few years. Usually about slightly complicated matters of policy, scientific integrity or initiation rituals. That’s why this time round we’ll be trying a different tack. An extended bike tour through Huib Pols’s Rotterdam, taking us past places that were important to him as an administrator, scientist, student and Rotterdammer. The first stop: his office at Woudestein.

In our first interview, you argued for ‘room to roam’ for researchers. Do they presently have that kind of leeway?

“I have to be honest: over the past few years, the pressure of work at universities has only increased further. While I’d still love for every academic to have room to fossick around, I haven’t been able to create it. It’s as if we’re increasingly being forced into this mould of efficiency. Today’s academics need to account for every hour they spend on their work. This wreaks havoc on creativity. I used to have my best ideas when I could put my feet up and let my mind run wild. As an academic community, we need to take care that we don’t lose this freedom.”

Did you have enough ‘room to roam’ during your term as a rector?

“I spent a lot of time familiarising myself with the lingo used within the various faculties. When I first came here, I thought all kinds of dossiers would take me two years at most. But some of them have only now been rounded off, after five years. Of course, I used to be the dean of Erasmus MC and knew the other deans well. That’s why I assumed I could also understand the language used in their faculties. But I was mistaken.

“Take the discussion with the Philosophy faculty, for example. They were convinced that I planned to axe them, even though I am sincerely convinced that Philosophy as an academic discipline is of invaluable importance for Erasmus University. I really had to stick my neck out for that one. I’m glad that it all turned out OK in the end. And it’s great to see how well the faculty is doing at present.”

There were also fears within the other smaller faculties that you planned to merge them. For example, one of the plans on the table was for a broad bachelor programme offered by ESHCC, ESSB and the Faculty of Philosophy.

“It’s true: that was one of the options, but it wasn’t set in stone. I wanted to give a number of smaller degree programmes an opportunity to improve their chances of survival among the larger programmes at EUR. The basic idea was a broad introductory first year, followed by specialisations in the second and third years so that these small programmes would gain a bit more mass.

“Except we didn’t have enough momentum because we were still in the growth curve of University College. The plan is tucked away in a drawer somewhere. Not at the back, because I still think it’s a good idea. You shouldn’t let smaller fields of study that are important for the university bleed to death, or keep them on a drip. It’s precisely because you want to maintain them that you need to be open to change.”

Tangible legacy

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Image credit: Levien Willemse

Before we pick up our bikes, we pass by the Polak Building, where they’re building a brand-new studio on the ground floor. It will serve as the epicentre for the Community for Learning and Innovation (CLI): a state-of-the-art recording studio and various other facilities for innovative teaching.

The plan is to develop the CLI into a hub that lecturers can turn to with demands for information and support relating to the innovation of their education programme. Right now, it’s mostly piles of building materials. But by the end of the year, the CLI may well have developed into the current rector magnificus’s most tangible legacy. Pols takes a more modest view: “I don’t have any special feelings about the fact that my name is tied to this project. But I am proud that I’ve managed to convince a lot of people of its importance.”

Sobriety by fear

Once we hit the road – the rector on an e-bike, me on a swapfiets and the photographer in tow on a racing bicycle – Pols tells me he was seriously ill in the autumn of 2016. “I was in a bad state at that point.” He had unexpectedly contracted sepsis – meningococcus – which had caused meningitis. “I saw Erasmus MC’s Intensive Care ward from the inside. Of course, I had already visited this unit, but in an entirely different context,” he says with a smile. Is this the sobriety of a trained physician? “Or a sobriety instilled by fear.”

We ride straight through Kralingen, the centre of student life in Rotterdam. Past the RSC/RVSV society building Walhalla, and – a few hundred metres down the road – The Student Hotel, where many international students set up when they first come to Rotterdam. Two icons of the local student scene. We continue our conversation on the terrace of Grand Café De Dijk.

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Image credit: Levien Willemse

We just passed the society building of the corps and The Student Hotel. There are a lot of similarities between association members and international students: they’re young, in Rotterdam for the first time, they’re enrolled at Erasmus University, they have similar dreams and ambitions. So why is it that they move in completely separate worlds?

“It’s true that their worlds still lie very far apart when it comes to specific mores. In the case of the associations, these norms are so entrenched that they’re difficult to change. I’ve often said: don’t be afraid to take some distance and experiment. When you look at the study associations and sports clubs, you see that they actually offer alternatives to the traditional society activities. The boundaries are blurring, and international students are playing a role in this shift.”

I believe there are other similarities between these two aspects of student life, besides. The outside world is critical of both the associations and internationalisation.

“I originally viewed internationalisation as one of my objectives for EUR, but it has taken such flight that I didn’t have to do anything myself. Internationalisation isn’t just offering your curriculum in English. In an international classroom, you’re expected to discuss recognisable international issues and take a variety of cultures into account. This should be part of a lecturer’s professional development, so my successor needs to keep a strong focus on this trend.

“I agree it does raise questions about how large our university should become exactly. When I consider the current infrastructure and what we aim to convey through our perspective on education, we need to ask ourselves whether we can continue to offer everyone small-scale, activating education if we continue growing much longer. And whether we’ll actually have the physical space to accommodate all these students.”

Field lab

We cycle past Oostplein and Blaak to Coolsingel, where workers are digging up the road. “A typical Rotterdam scene,” says Pols, who moved to the city in the early 1970s. “They’re simultaneously overhauling Coolsingel and the Maastunnel. The whole city has become one big traffic jam. It was already like this when I was studying Medicine here.” It’s rather warm, so we seek out a bench in the shade of City Hall.

We’re not just here to reflect on the Rotterdam passion for building, but also to talk about one of the rector’s ‘hobby horses’: connecting to EUR’s home town, big city problems and issues in today’s society. Pols aims to create added value for society through the establishment of three Erasmus Initiatives.1

“The city isn’t just our field lab – it’s also where we live and work. Let’s open up to the world around us: that’s the basic idea behind Erasmus Initiatives”, says Pols. “It involves more than just a distribution of research funds. I hope it enables us to connect with researchers from a wide range of disciplines, with major societal problems and with Rotterdam.”

No masculine approach

We turn between the trams onto West-Kruiskade, a prime example of ‘diverse’ Rotterdam. Over the past year, it became painfully clear that EUR still has a few things to learn in this area when it came round to appointing new female professors. Only four academics were given a chair under the Westerdijk programme – rather than the funded maximum of nine. Even though when it comes to diversity in its top academic echelons, EUR is still dangling at the bottom of the list. It’s a theme that still gets the retiring rector’s goat.

Over the past few years, you made a strong personal investment in the promotion of diversity at EUR. Are you disappointed that the university failed to use a number of Westerdijk grants?

“You could definitely say so. I had even made a budget available for two extra chairs. Which gives some idea of what I was expecting. In the beginning, I thought: the deans obviously need a bit of time to get used to the idea. But gradually it became clear that they wouldn’t be getting their act together. To nevertheless say something positive about the whole affair: we fortunately did appoint a number of other female professors in addition to the Westerdijk appointments.”

Why is it they were unable to get their act together?

“I’m dependent on our deans’ nominations. So I’m afraid I have to refer you to the deans.”

They’ve said: We don’t need the money, our career development policy is such that it’s impossible, or female candidates themselves don’t want to be appointed to a chair within this scheme.

“Where there’s a will there’s a way.”

Did you put your foot down enough?

“I’m not really into that masculine approach, but I did convey my deep sense of disappointment. I make no bones about it: it didn’t work out, and I think that’s a crying shame.”

Was drawing attention to diversity a thankless job?

“Well I wouldn’t say that. I did something similar when I was a dean at Erasmus MC. I dare say with reasonable success. And I think that’s the crux of the matter: as a dean, you have a closer involvement, and you can achieve a lot more in terms of clout. At some points, it became really clear that I was reliant on the deans’ efforts and willingness to make work of it.”

Auntie Jo

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Image credit: Levien Willemse

At the beginning of Vierambachtsstraat, we turn right onto Burgemeester Meineszlaan. Pols spent a share of his student years in this stately neighbourhood. In 1972, he moved to Rotterdam from nearby Dordrecht to study Medicine. He would have preferred to study in Utrecht but didn’t draw.

It takes a while before we locate the right house on Van Oosterzeestraat. “I lived here with a friend of mine. His father had bought the place, but it was in dire need of renovation. And I come from a family of contractors. So we ended up giving the place a complete overhaul together.” This is also where Pols lived with his wife Lientje for the first time. As husband and wife that is – because the two had already moved in together before that.

With a grin on his face, Pols points to a building at the end of the street. It currently says ‘play therapy’ on the facade, but back in the day it was a greengrocer’s. “Auntie Jo used to work there,” says Pols. “One time, I asked if they had cocktail sticks for a party. Auntie Jo said: ‘Sure, how many do you need?’ A hundred. She started counting them out on the counter – one by one. Every cent counted back then.”

Dr. and prof. dr. Pols

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Image credit: Levien Willemse

On to Erasmus MC, where Pols started as a student in 1972. He earned his doctoral degree in 1988. As did his eldest son David last year. His youngest son Thomas lives and works in Dubai as a health manager for Shell; David is a GP in South Rotterdam. A doctoral degree conferred by your own father, with ‘dr.’ and ‘prof. dr.’ Pols on the same page in your thesis. Pols Sr. is beaming with pride, although he hastens to say that his son got there entirely under his own steam. After arriving at Erasmus MC’s new entrance hall, the photographer takes a bit more time for some shots. He notes a remarkable change in the rector’s presence: “You suddenly seem all pepped up.”

Do you miss Erasmus MC?

Smiling: “No, I still see it whenever I look out of my bedroom window in the morning. But allow me to paraphrase Couperus: ‘If I’m anything at all, I’m an Erasmus MCer.’

“Let it be clear that I also feel a part of Erasmus University. But I can’t deny the roots that I’ve developed, which are firmly embedded in this soil.”

What was your most precious moment here?

“It always gives me great pleasure to look back on the time when I was pursuing a doctorate. It was fun in the lab and they let me work in the clinic occasionally. That felt like a huge luxury. Throughout my career, every five to seven years I seemed to arrive at a fork in the road, with the opportunity to go down a new path. This has kept things exciting and challenging – I feel really privileged by this.”

Do you find it a pity that as an administrator, you are cut off from the day-to-day work of a physician or researcher?

“I tried to combine it in the beginning. When I started out as a dean, I still wore my white coat from time to time, as well as doing some work in the outpatient clinic. The other administrators found it a bit odd. I was something of an old-school doctor, and I also served as a kind of GP for the handful of patients at the clinic. At a certain point, I realised that those patients were basically left there for my entertainment. And when patients are there for you rather than the other way round, it’s time to quit. It was the hardest decision of my career.”

Confined to the garage

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Image credit: Levien Willemse

In the garage below his new house on Westzeedijk, we find his big hobby: a bright red Citroën 2CV that Pols is working on together with his son David. Right now the Tin Snail, which has been in the family for 25 years, is confined to the garage by that blasted new ‘low emission zone’. It isn’t ready to drive anyway – although this is set to change in the months ahead. “My sons would like me to fix up another vintage car after retiring, but I need to think about that.”

We take the lift to the eleventh floor, where Pols’s wife Lientje is already cooking dinner: a macaroni casserole with ham and cheese. Out on the balcony – beer in hand, with a fine view of the Euromast, Nieuwe Maas and from the kitchen even Campus Woudestein – Pols explains that one thing that proved very helpful was the ‘Rectoren College’, the informal consultation platform for the rectores magnifici of each of the Dutch universities. “I have always found it very pleasant to speak freely about what was going on within the university in that setting.”

Bitterballen

And as a rector, you need to keep something of the student mind-set. Because the custodians of Dutch science turn out to have a tradition: whenever they come together, they feast on the small Dutch croquettes called bitterballen. Which includes the Erasmus University Centenary in De Doelen, on the very day Pols became rector. On the menu for the festivities, bitterballen were conspicuous by their absence, however. So the rectors arranged their fix at SSR’s society building, which was just around the corner on Mauritsweg. “Two weeks later, I had to issue a warning to SSR for various incidents during the initiation period. Which of course was a cause for some hilarity among my fellow rectors. They said: ‘You can’t do that to those kids – they were out frying up bitterballen for us in the middle of the night.’”

By now, Lientje Pols has also pulled up a chair. She is talking about the couple’s recent move from Rochussenstraat to Westzeedijk and I ask her if she misses her garden. “The children always used to say: ‘If the lawn is looking flawless, it means Huib has something on his mind.’ You could find him out on the grass, on his knees, picking every clover he could find. He would be brooding on something then.” Pols: “That was my ‘room to roam’.”

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Image credit: Levien Willemse
  1. The three interdisciplinary projects – ‘Dynamics of inclusive prosperity’, ‘Vital cities and citizens’ and ‘Smarter choices for better health’ – are still in their infancy. But ultimately, they’re intended to serve as Erasmus University’s flagships. What does Pols hope will come out of them? “I hope they’ll be so robust that they can serve as the university’s calling cards. Here is a university that makes work of its social responsibility.” ↩︎