How were your first six weeks?

“Very enjoyable! I’ve read a great deal, had a lot of introductory meetings and gained new impressions. What struck me most is how incredibly enthusiastic and committed people are. It’s very important to them that their decisions and considerations are balanced and substantiated. Of course this is also what you’d expect at a university, but I can confirm that it’s the case.”

You’ve had a long career working for various Ministries, the Port Authority, Schiphol, Rabobank, KLM. In which sense does university culture differ from your previous employers?

“It’s difficult to make generalisations, but one thing I have noticed is that decision-making goes a bit slower. There are a lot of stakeholders, and there’s extensive consultation. While decisions are taken with more care, occasionally I do feel the level of detail is somewhat excessive.”

Bureaucratic?

“Yes, sometimes I believe things could be handled more efficiently. But it’s also part of the organisational culture, and it’s something you’re aware of beforehand. If you dread that kind of thing, this isn’t the place for you.”

The Supervisory Board determines who will be Chair. You were yourself a member of this board at the time of your appointment. Isn’t that a bit strange?

“It’s not as exceptional at it sounds. As a member of the Supervisory Board, you may run into situations where a seat on the Executive Board needs to be filled. At that point, it’s quite normal for the Supervisory Board members to look across the table and ask: Who could do this? Who has the time for it? Whom can we trust with this job? The same thing happened when I was working for the Port Authority. My term at the construction company was winding down 1, so I was available. If this had cropped up six months ago, I would have said no.”

What do you see as your main task over the next half year?

“I haven’t been assigned a specific task, but we do need to take a number of important decisions in the period ahead. Make a start on the execution of the strategic plan, for example. And of course, we also need to flesh out the plans for the convergence projects with the Erasmus MC and with Delft and Leiden. That’s something we will be focussing on as an Executive Board.”

Convergence projects?

“Yes, the triptych of EUR’s partnership with the Erasmus MC and Delft University. Starting with our collaboration in the field of health and technology.

“Secondly, in the area of artificial intelligence, data and digitalisation. This is becoming incredibly important. We want to set up an institution on our campus for applied research in this field. A kind of specialised science faculty. Why? Well, we’re sitting on a mass of data, gathered in a range of different fields. In the near future, this information can be processed via all sorts of new technologies, allowing you to formulate new predictions or conclusions about a variety of phenomena. 85.000 students2 will get artificial intelligence in education.

“The third part of the triptych deals with the Rhine-Maas Delta region. Questions relating to sustainability and climate, for example, or health and social issues in metropolitan areas. EUR has a number of assets in this context, of course. In these projects, we want to team up with Delft, since they have expertise in the area of urban development, infrastructure, etc.

“In the near future, EUR will need to invest FTEs and funds in this triptych – new buildings, for example.”

Hans Smits voorzitter college van bestuur 4 – Aysha Gasanova
Image credit: Aysha Gasanova

It sounds like a major, long-term project.

“Last Monday, we agreed to really maintain pace and round off a number of important decisions well before the summer. Indeed, I see this as one of the Executive Board’s key tasks in the months ahead.”

Which important decisions are we talking about?

“What will we be doing exactly over the next few years? Which assets do we need for this? We’ll be drawing up business plans for each of the three projects. Of course, we were already working together with other institutions via LDE and Medical Delta, but this is a bigger step by far. For example, it could mean that the medical faculty is jointly managed by Delft University of Technology and EUR. We’ll be looking into this option.”

So we can definitely say that you aren’t merely minding the shop?

“No, I wouldn’t even be here if that were the case.”

You were a student at EUR yourself in the 1970s. What were the main differences with today’s university?

“Yes, I studied Business Administration. But I actually didn’t spend that much time here on campus. My programme was at the Business Administration inter-faculty, a joint faculty of Delft University of Technology and Erasmus University. Most of our lectures were in Delft. Except for Architecture and Construction Engineering, Delft was a very male environment. I studied Civil Engineering and whenever a woman showed up, you could see people’s heads turning in her direction. That has changed for sure. And of course, another striking difference is the number of international students. In the 1970s they were quite rare.”

You have managed all sorts of large companies and complex organisations. Is heading a university a soothing dessert before retirement?

“Don’t talk to me about retirement – I’ve really started to dislike that word. When you’re around 65, everyone keeps asking: so when will you be retiring? I hate that. As long as I still have my health and a challenge to sink my teeth in, I consider myself a very lucky man. I really enjoy working with other people, and this is definitely a job you do together.”

You plan on pursuing a doctorate too, correct?

“That’s right. I’ve already been in touch with an ESSB professor about an issue that I find very intriguing: how can hybrid organisations that operate on the public-private interface, but whose main task is serving the public interest, actually promote that common good? Power companies, for example, or infrastructure, Schiphol airport, the port. It can be quite tricky to operate on this interface. Sometimes, you see organisations swing too much in one direction, acting as if they’re a regular corporation. Other companies remain stuck in a non-profit mentality. How does this work out with major projects like the realisation of a fifth runway at Schiphol, or the construction of Maasvlakte 2? And which guarantees can we come up with to protect the public interest? This is something I’m very interested in researching – although I’ve put it on hold until after the summer.”

In an interview with Eindhovens Dagblad, you mentioned your ‘home front’ has asked you to take things a bit slower, but you’re planning otherwise?

Laughs: “You hit the nail on the head.”

hans-smits-foto van de eur-janssen-de-jong-big-2_uitsnede

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Hans Smits interim chairman of the Executive Board, University Council agreed ‘under protest’

Former Supervisory Board chairman Hans Smits becomes interim chairman of the Executive…

  1. Until 1 January, Smits served as CEO of the construction firm Janssen de Jong Group ↩︎
  2. The student numbers from Leiden, Delft and Erasmus combined ↩︎
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