I’m sure you’ve had some long working days these last few weeks. What were they like?
“I’d made up my mind beforehand that I was going to take it easy, but obviously, that didn’t happen. Things were hectic. I obviously had to finalise a few projects and leave things in good order. And I had to draw up a handover folder for Hans Smits, so as to allow him to get off to go a good start. And plenty of people swung by to ask for words of wisdom or advice, or simply to say goodbye.”
What kind of words of wisdom are we talking about?
“Oh, anything, really: people asking me for career advice, or people asking for advice on some complicated issue. I ended up being rather busy.”
Looking back on the past four years, what are your fondest memories?
“The process we used to develop the new strategy. I made a conscious decision to do it together with the organisation. ‘Co-creation’ it’s called these days. That was very inspiring, and I think it resulted in a strategy that is widely endorsed and very ‘now’. We owe the fact that sustainability became such a huge part of the strategy to students and a few young academics. It mattered a lot to them, and they had good arguments in support of their ambitions.”
“The second thing I cherish fond memories of is diversity and inclusiveness. That’s a tough subject that took us a lot of time. We had to do a lot of talking to people about where the bottlenecks were located and what we could do to get rid of them. I think we’ve made a few permanent changes. We didn’t have much of a [diversity and inclusiveness] policy before I came, and now we’re on our second Chief Diversity Officer [Semiha Denktaş – ed.]!”
President Baele is not going for a second term
Kristel Baele does not want to stand in the way of the development of the university that…
Your predecessor, Pauline van der Meer Mohr, said Erasmus University’s lack of diversity was her main source of frustration. She said diversity programmes moved ‘at a glacial pace’. When you took up your position in 2016, you said: “When I leave in eight years’ time, I will consider myself successful if we have got to the stage where 50 per cent of managers are female, and I’ll be satisfied if the percentage is 30 per cent.” The new target is to ensure that 25 per cent of the university’s full professors will be women by 2025, so you’ve had to scale down your ambitions.
“If you look at the managers, you’ll see that 50 per cent of the managers at Professional Services [the university’s support staff units – ed.] are female. The Executive Board and the teams that come under the Executive Board also have quite a few female managers. So as far as that’s concerned, we achieved our target in those four years. As for the full professors, we have a lot of female talent in the pipeline, but so far they haven’t moved up the ranks yet. . We have plans in place that should help us achieve our 30-percent target. It will be harder to get female deans, though, mainly because we never created a proper pipeline of female administrators from which we can pick worthy candidates. So we’ll have to build that pipeline.”
In recent months, the Supervisory Board has explored options to reorganise the Executive Board. You didn’t want to get in the way of that review, and that’s why you ended up leaving. By now the Supervisory Board has decided that the Board will not be reorganised, after all. Do you regret that you had already announced your resignation?
“I’m not sure the review will result in anything changing. That’s not my business! But I have no regrets. It was a decision made at a particular time. I wanted to give the Supervisory Board enough opportunity to make that decision independently. I think that was the most honourable thing to do, and that’s what I’m all about. Perhaps other people would have stayed on. But it gave me some peace of mind, too. Since I was giving others the opportunity to explore those options, I left the decisions up to them, too. That gave me some peace of mind, and enough time to consider my future.”
Of all the issues you’ve had to deal with in the past four years, which one was the hardest for you?
“What I found hard was dealing with situations that would have an impact on students or staff. For example, I had a hard time dealing with the Polak Building having to be closed. I knew that the students would be very unhappy if we closed the building. I had an hour to make that decision, and I had to make it on the basis of incomplete information. Obviously, that’s something all managers are expected to do at some point in their careers, but that didn’t make things any easier. At the end of the day, we decided that keeping our people safe was our greatest priority, and so we closed the building.
“Another thing that never failed to touch me was reciting the names of all the members of staff and students who had died in the previous year during the formal opening of the new academic year. I wouldn’t call that an ‘issue’ per se, but it does make you aware of how small our academic community actually is.”
In your capacity as President of the Executive Board, you had to deal with quite a few people leaving the Board. In all, you had five colleagues on the Board: Bart Straatman, Huib Pols, Eddy Hus, Rutger Engels and Roelien Ritsma van Eck. How did you deal with that?
“I don’t think we’ve had many presidents who have encountered that kind of situation. They are all very different people with different opinions, styles and ambitions. And newcomers always have new ideas and wishes as to how to interact with each other, how to interact with the Supervisory Board, and how to deal with the University Council. When you’re the President of the Board, you want to give others room for manoeuvre, but at the same time, you have stay on track. You don’t want to end up in a position where, every single time a new person joins the Board, you have to change tack. I found that quite hard. There were upsides, too, though – I learned a lot from each of those people.”
Can you give us an example of that?
“Our previous rector, Huib Pols, is great at bringing people together, and a very good listener. He always managed to get everyone’s opinions heard. I think that’s a very special skill. I was very impressed every single time I saw him do it.”
How would you describe your own management style?
“I think I’m fairly good at bringing people together, too. I tried to be approachable, but I also tried to make it obvious in what way I was heading and how I felt about things. Furthermore, I tried to break down the walls between this university’s faculties, as well as the walls between the university and its surroundings, so as to bridge the gap somewhat between the university and the city, companies and civil-society organisations.”
Some people at the university have said that you are a ‘policy wonk’, or a micromanager. Would you agree with that assessment?
“I think it’s important to make sure you’re familiar with all the issues at hand. You must have all the facts at your disposal before making a decision. If I’m concerned about something or have any doubts, or if I’m not certain I have all the facts at my disposal, I will try to get to the bottom of the issue. I think that comes with my position and my level of responsibility, because executives have to take into account different considerations than civil servants. So yes, I’d agree that the devil is in the details.”
Has that ever been a problem for you, your being so much of a micromanager?
“No, I don’t think so. At the end of the day, I’m responsible for what happens. So I think I have to assume that responsibility. If you take an in-depth look at something, sometimes you’ll find there was nothing wrong with it, and sometimes you’ll find that the people who drew up the reports were overlooking things – things that could have come back to haunt us all. In such situations, I think it’s good to have someone who really goes down to the nitty-gritty.”
Chair talks about her departure: ‘An administrator’s work is never done. That’s part of the job.’
Kristel Baele will not be seeking a second term as Chair of Erasmus University’s…
You have known your interim successor, Hans Smits, for a while, because he is on the Supervisory Board. How do you feel about him?
“I’m really happy with him. Being an [Erasmus University] alumnus and a member of the Supervisory Board, he is very familiar with the organisation. Moreover, he’s a very experienced executive and an honorary citizen of Rotterdam, too. And he attended Delft University of Technology, as well, so he’s connected to that university, too. So, yes, I’m confident that the university is in good hands.”
A Delft University alumnus! Erasmus University is working hard to intensify its level of collaboration with Delft University of Technology. Do you think that collaboration will be intensified a lot in the next few years?
[Smiles]: “I certainly hope so. We are currently performing another exploration of the scope for collaboration. People both within the university and elsewhere have responded very favourably to that process. I think Hans Smits is a leader who is very favourably disposed to the idea, and who will be able to contribute to the process.”
Will we merge with Delft University of Technology in the next five to ten years?
“I’m not going to comment on that. I think there will be much more intensive collaboration by that time, but as for the organisational structure in which that collaboration will take place… We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”
What’s your life going to be like after the 1st of December?
“I will continue to live in Rotterdam. It’s a wonderful city, so I can’t see any reason to leave it. I’ll start by taking a few weeks off to get some rest. After that I’ll be going to Portugal for a walking holiday over Christmas. I have no idea what I’ll be doing after that. I’ve had some offers, but I’ve had a lot on my plate lately, and I think I’m entitled to some rest and relaxation. At the very least, I’ll be taking a two-month sabbatical.”