Stoter gives us a tour around the sixth floor of the Sanders Building. Surrounded by works of art that are ‘trapped between glass walls’, recycled side tables and table tops, the dean enthusiastically tells us about the history of the building that houses her faculty.
Art in the architecture
“What you’re seeing here is a combination of Wim Quist’s tight, rhythmic style and Jo Coenen’s flamboyant design,” says Stoter, pointing to the straight lines of the stately, nearly nine-metre-tall bookcase and the series of open floors in ESL’s living room library. Architect Wim Quist drew the plans for the Sanders Building, while one of his pupils, Jo Coenen, was responsible for giving the complex a new, fresh look during a large-scale renovation in 2013.
“Professor Piet Sanders, the founder of this faculty, was an art connoisseur and collector. So I felt that a renovation of the building would need to embed art in its architecture,” explains Stoter. “After all, science originated as art – the two are inextricably linked.” That is why the dean invited various young Rotterdam artists to present examples of their work between glass panels in the work areas. The building features work by Mette Sterre, Lisa Blaauwbroek and Marleine van der Werf, among other artists.
The faculty's home
While most deans would leave a renovation to Real Estate & Facilities, Stoter took control of this project herself. “Of course I have an opinion on the matter. I believe academics need a high-quality work environment to take full advantage of their creative potential. So if you’re putting a lot of money into something, you need to make sure it’s a future-proof investment,” she clarifies. “And this building serves as our faculty’s home, so we wanted to make sure that its architecture symbolises our values – transparency, for example, entrepreneurial spirit, light, culture and art.”
Still, Stoter is aware that some users aren’t too happy with the current layout, due to noise nuisance and the bustling open-plan offices. “It takes some getting used to for the staff, of course. If you’re used to working in your own room, switching to an open plan can be a bit of a challenge,” she admits. “But we believe it’s important that you can actually see and meet each other in the work area.”
Working with a small design team, Stoter rounded off the project in five years. “My approach to this renovation was similar to how I manage our faculty: I brought together a team of knowledgeable people, and together we decided what needed to be done.”
Suzan Stoter (50) obtained her PhD and advanced degree at the University of Amsterdam. She started as an EUR lecturer in 2001, combining this role with a position at the Ministry of Transport and Water Management. After five years as a government employee, she decided to commit to science entirely. In this period, Stoter also serves as academic director of the Centre for Law, Art and Innovation. In 2010 she became a professor at Erasmus School of Law (ESL), followed in 2013 by her appointment as dean of EUR’s law faculty.
‘Rotterdam-schooled legal experts are worldly’
Stoter was born and raised in Drenthe, in the north-eastern Netherlands. “I was incredibly focussed on learning from a very young age,” she remembers. Her parents consistently encouraged her interest in science. “Ever since I remember, my mother was always studying. She studied in her free time, next to her work, and now has three academic degrees.” Her uncle and sister are also professors. Stoter: “You could say that science is a common thread that runs through my life.”
Stoter started her academic career at the University of Amsterdam. Here, she was conferred a doctorate for her research ‘on the interface of law, politics and public administration’ with a dissertation about the weighing of different interests by the legislator. “When I went off to study, I insisted on going to Amsterdam. My idea was that that was where everything important happened,” she remembers with a smile. But nothing could be further from the truth. “It was only when I got to know Rotterdam a bit better that I realised: this is the place – this is what I’ve been looking for. Here, legal experts can make a difference, because this is an environment that rewards action, enterprise, movement, risk-taking and guts.”
And in her view, this typical ‘Rotterdam’ profile can also be recognised in her faculty. “At the time of its establishment, Piet Sanders was asked to train legal experts who could hit the ground running in the private sector. Most law students get their knowledge from books, but in Rotterdam they do things differently: here, knowledge is closely connected to developments outside academia.” ESL’s curricula include practical subjects like Professional Career and Legal and Academic Skills. The programmes refer to case studies from lawyers and judges’ own experience, and students are required to draft legal briefs and practice in a court setting. Stoter: “This means Rotterdam-schooled legal experts can bring more to the table and know exactly how theory works out in real-life situations.”
After a career within and beyond academia, in 2013 Stoter was appointed as the first female dean at EUR in the 99 years of its history. “On the one hand, I was amazed by this fact. But on the other hand, it was incredibly cool to serve as a role model in this respect,” she says looking back. Although it did become clear to her that she was something of a pioneer on the Board of Deans: “As a woman, I approached things differently to what people were used to.”
She herself refers to her management style as ‘feminine leadership’. This approach centres on the collective and attention to the organisation as a whole. “Naturally we want to facilitate all the academic talent within our faculty, but it’s no use exclusively investing in these people. Ultimately, the collective is what counts, and how to tap into as many different capacities and competences,” she says. “Generally speaking, leadership is equated with masculine values like dominance and competition. I believe my approach is more implicit and that I don’t mind working a bit more in the background.”
As an example of this ‘implicit approach’, Stoter names the discovery and support of young academics. “When I started out as dean, I emphatically focussed on young talented academics who aimed to contribute to the future of the faculty but were not yet a part of the establishment. For example, I immediately recognised Stephanie Wagener as a talented up-and-comer”, says Stoter. The same applied to Farshida Zafar, Richard Staring and Masis Hakhverdian. “I asked these young people to play a role in the overhaul of our faculty’s educational programme.”
Her talented young academics not only contributed valuable input to the renewal of education at ESL, but they also took on their own coaching roles. “The great thing is that these staff members can train others in turn. This confirms to me that what I’ve set up makes a difference and can be sustained. I feel so satisfied and pleased when I see where my protégées stand today.”
Far from finished
With over 4,800 students, ESL ranks as one of Erasmus University’s largest faculties. According to the 2018 annual report, the faculty comes in third place, after Erasmus School of Economics (ESE) and Rotterdam School of Management (RSM). Nevertheless, the faculty still faces a number of challenges – including financial ones. “After a number of budget cuts, our faculty is actually in dire straits in financial terms,” says Stoter. “And the corona crisis has only made things worse.” Moreover, the faculty isn’t earning top marks when it comes to student satisfaction, according to the past three editions of the National Student Survey (NSE).
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Stoter would like to stay on to tackle these issues herself. Over the past few months, her board has been working to resolve the faculty’s poor NSE results. They now have a number of improvement plans for the education programmes on the shelf, and a new communication strategy waiting for implementation. “I feel a personal responsibility to take on these challenges and guide the faculty towards its next phase of development,” says the dean.
Faculty would also welcome an extension
EUR’s regulations specify a four-year term of office for faculty deans, with the option to reappoint the dean for a second term. Stoter is currently looking at the end of her second term. “Well, if it were up to me, I’d keep going. You’re a dean for life,” she says – half jokingly, half seriously. She goes on to stress how important it is to safeguard continuity in education. “I don’t see being a dean as a job, but as a mission. And I definitely haven’t rounded off my mission here.”
In exceptional cases, regulations allow a dean to stay on for a third term. Still, Stoter emphasises that she wouldn’t be continuing for personal reasons, but in the interest of the faculty. The dean tells us that in November of last year, she met with ESL’s section heads to discuss a possible third term. At the time, the heads announced that they hoped she could stay on and ensured her that this was a wish shared by many within the faculty. “I thought it was wonderful that they asked this. I feel tremendously proud and grateful,” she says. “I answered that I would love to do so. But it’s not up to me, of course.”
A dean’s appointment is usually arranged behind closed doors, but Stoter believes it is important to be open and straightforward when it comes to the faculty’s wishes. “It’s a sign of my loyalty to and confidence in the faculty community,” says Stoter. She’s less interested in the possible risk entailed in her statements if she weren’t allowed to continue for a third term. “I wouldn’t be doing justice to the faculty’s guts if I stayed silent on the matter.”
Now the ball’s in the Executive Board’s court. Stoter: “If the Board decides otherwise, I’m fine with this – as long as they’ve consulted with the faculty. For me, the most important thing is that the faculty has a role in determining its future.”