Throughout her academic career, she has been very socially engaged and is a keen promoter of minority rights. She was a member of the EUR diversity council and obtained a PhD from the University of Münster in 1998 with a thesis on Conflicts in the context of social and cultural diversity”, at a time when the word diversity was rarely heard in Dutch political debate.

Gabriele Jacobs (1967) has been appointed the new dean of Erasmus University College (EUC) as of 1 January 2020. The Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Culture obtained her PhD from the University of Münster in 1998, after which she spent a year as visiting professor at the international business school HEC Paris. In 2000 she joined Rotterdam School of Management, where she stayed until 2019. Jacobs specialises in public security and has worked on various research projects funded by the EU, also in collaboration with the police.

“I think that my German background has a lot to do with my academic passions,” says Jacobs. “I feel an obligation to contribute to peace. In fact, this was also due to my school years.” She grew up in Stolberg, a small town near Aachen. “I’m from a generation that, from the age of thirteen or fourteen, was shown lots of films at school about Auschwitz, antisemitism and the Second World War.”

Jacobs comes from a Catholic family that has some Dutch roots. “My Dutch grandmother married a German just before the war. He died as a prisoner after the war.” Both her parents were young children during the war and spent much of the time fleeing from the bombing on the German town of Aachen. “Hearing stories from my parents and family, I learned about the traumas of war. That has an impact on you and on how you live.”

Cold War

At school, Cold War tensions made a huge impression on Jacobs. It was the reason why Jacobs decided to study psychology and sociology in Cologne. “I wanted to know: what is the origin of the horrors of war? I definitely don’t think it’s about where you come from, so I feel that you have a responsibility to study social systems and do something about it.”

To promote peace, cooperation, getting to know each other and helping each other are the key things, she feels. “How do people find themselves pitted against each other and starting wars? Very simple: if you know each other, that will become less likely. At school, we went on student exchanges to a school in France. Germany and France, they were archenemies until the 1960s. The EU has helped forge a deep friendship between our two countries.” After secondary school, she worked as a volunteer in Israel, on a kibbutz for mentally disabled people, and was also a volunteer in Nicaragua at the beginning of her studies. “I’m also a strong believer in cooperation between countries in the European Union. For me, it was a logical step in my career to focus on EU projects.”

'No anti-German jokes'

She is still regularly confronted with prejudices towards Germans. “In Paris, for example, I was once sitting in a restaurant chatting to a German friend. People asked the waiter if they could move because hearing German made their food taste bad.” A similar incident happened to her after her arrival in Rotterdam when she went to a concert by the Rotterdams Philharmonisch Orkest. People went to sit somewhere else saying that they couldn’t enjoy the music if they had to listen to German. And then there were two irritating students during a seminar in Paris. “When I separated them, one of them said: ‘So have the deportations started already?’ When I applied to work at the RSM, I made one condition: I don’t want to hear any anti-German jokes. And particularly no silly jokes about the war.”

What is a psychologist whose studies were ideologically based doing at a business school like the RSM?

Follow the money! The private sector offers very many responsibilities and very many possibilities. Business is a very important player in the field of sustainability.”

But the private sector is also about compromising, because ultimately, business is about profit.

“That’s right. At the same time, businesses recognise that you can’t place all the social responsibility with the government, but that this is a shared responsibility. As a researcher in the field of public security, I see a lot of innovative strength in the private sector, because it can manoeuvre more easily and transcend national borders.”

So how do you view the criticism at the RSM, for example about the ties with companies like Shell?

“I think that as a university, we make ourselves more vulnerable for ethical issues the more socially relevant we want to be. That’s a learning process. Ultimately we need to become smarter in that. And we’re getting better at it. You can see that in the increasing alertness with respect to ethical issues. Compare it with the diversity discussion: that’s taught me that I also have a racist and sexist bias. It’s important to create an environment in which you can say to each other: ‘I don’t like what you’re saying or doing.’ It’s not nice to hear, but you learn from it.”

For the last couple of years, EUR has had a Chief Diversity Officer with a team and office, but the number of women professors is still low compared with other universities. What do you feel about the current diversity policy at Erasmus University?

“I’m delighted that diversity is on the agenda at least. When I arrived here twenty years ago, you couldn’t have a discussion about having more women at the top. So we are making great progress, but we need to be even braver. What I find interesting is that people grumble a lot about the lack of diversity. That’s because we can finally discuss these subjects. People dare to broach the subject. I hope that the discussion will soon become broader, so not just based on gender but also culture and orientation. Not just sexual and religious, but also about ways of looking at science. It must be possible for people to be themselves at work. Ultimately, that’s the best way to excellence.”

Is EUR doing the right things, despite it lagging behind?

Jacobs laughs: “I notice that the older I get the more impatient I am. I see that young women struggle with exactly the same problems as I did twenty years ago: can I get pregnant? Can I breastfeed? What does that mean for my career? Will I get a research voucher? Can I say certain things out loud? It makes me really angry; it shouldn’t be like that anymore. At the time, I often thought: never mind. But when I see these problems, I think: this just isn’t right anymore.”

What exactly do they experience?

“For example, during their maternity leave colleagues saying: ‘Oh, you’ve been off for a long time, couldn’t you just help set up this course?’ Hello! You’re at home looking after a baby. I also worry about the number of burn-outs, among women and men. There are lots of reasons for that. Not being able to be yourself makes people ill. The only way in which everyone can be themselves is by creating more diversity. But you can’t become a diverse organisation whilst staying exactly the same. So that’s a painful process.”

According to Jacobs, it’s important to facilitate dialogue. “I really worry about increasing polarisation in society. Because in a polarised environment, you can no longer make mistakes. Then people just shout and you can no longer learn, think or develop.”

For that reason, she likes to seek connection, also with people she wouldn’t normally connect with. For example in Delfshaven, where she lives with her family and has a boat. “When we moved there, we noticed that many people who work in the harbour have a boat there. We weren’t boat people at all, but we felt that buying a boat was a good way to integrate into the community.” They got their boat five years ago, a fifty-year-old motor boat, ten metres long and with six bunks. “And that worked very well! It immediately generates really nice conversations. Most people there are very handy, and we aren’t really,” says Jacobs enthusiastically.

Image credit: Aysha Gasanova

The boat has introduced her ‘typical German migrant family’, as Jacobs describes it, to the Netherlands. The family regularly travels around the country. “When you arrive in Brielle or Haarlem by boat, you see how these cities are built in such a way that you can reach them by water. We loved this new way of discovering the Netherlands.” The children, now 10, 14 and 17, still love travelling on the boat, as do parrot Happy and dog Snoopy.

Gabriele Jacobs

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Gabriele Jacobs new dean of Erasmus University College

Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Culture leaving Rotterdam School of Management…

You’ve been associated with the RSM for twenty years, and for ten of those years you were director of the Centre of Excellence in Public Safety Management (CESAM). What will happen to that institute now that you’re going to the EUC?

“It will be dismantled. Working for the CESAM was one of the best things I’ve done in my career, but the logics of such a centre is unfortunately different than that of a faculty. I started the CESAM because I’m convinced that science must be at the heart of society. So we addressed relevant themes, like the migrant crisis, polarisation, radicalisation. The problem was that I noticed that my younger colleagues landed up in an exceptionally difficult situation, because their work on important projects did not correspond with what my faculty expects of an academic career.”

Why was that?

“An important career criterion is that you fulfil certain publication requirements. We worked on international security and social peace, but that often produced publications that were not relevant at RSM.”

Because they weren’t published in a top journal?

“For example. And then the faculty would ask whether safety and security is a relevant theme for a business school like the RSM. Honestly, I was constantly amazed by that question. Of course it’s relevant! Security is an important sustainable development goal. And all big companies nowadays have a security officer. Security is a crucial subject for every company. Even the city of Rotterdam puts security high on its agenda and particularly the port.”

Isn’t an interdisciplinary approach and creating societal impact exactly what the university wants?

“Yes it does. But the problem is: these are projects of the Ministry or the city of Rotterdam, for example, which are not purely focused on top research. You can publish about them and we do, but a large part of the work also involves giving presentations to public authorities, talking to people, giving workshops, understanding and serving people’s interests. That’s difficult to combine. For that reason, I agreed with the RSM not to acquire any more funds for CESAM and to take a sabbatical, to think about how our research could be organised differently at the RSM.”

She won’t get that sabbatical, because she encountered Erasmus University College. A position that relates well to the research that Jacobs is already doing. “I study new forms of education to prepare students for the complex world. In fact, the organisational form of the EUC is already an answer to much of the research that I do: in the field of safety and security, seeking connection with the city and grand societal challenges. I would like to integrate the EUC as much as possible with the research that is already taking place and also with my new academic heimat at the ESSB.”

You start as dean on 1 January. Do you have any time to relax before that time?

“I had hoped for a peaceful transition, but at the RSM we need to complete a couple of projects properly. We will be celebrating Christmas with friends and family in Cologne. Our children have the impression that only fantastic people live in Germany, because everyone cooks five-course meals for us.”