“No, it wasn’t a case of looking after the store at all, of course”, Smits concedes. Yet it is not the corona crisis that first comes to mind when summing up the highs and lows of the past six months. Perhaps this is also due to the timing of the interview. Namely, at the beginning of July, shortly after the university proposed the ‘Connecting Our Future’ outreach program to Mayor Aboutaleb at Rotterdam’s town hall. By joining forces and working with Rotterdam’s primary and secondary schools, it should become clear to schools and students that studying is for everyone in principle. The EUR wants to attract a more diverse student population this way over the coming years. No empty promises as far as Smits is concerned, who was in a position to announce that the university will spend 3 million euros on the program up until 2024.
3 million euros for a student population that properly reflects Rotterdam society
“We are currently a high-ranking university, but if we want to remain one, we should…
Diversity and inclusion, the accomplished manager, who has led the Port Authority and Schiphol amongst others over the past decades, senses the spirit of the times. During the period prior to the outbreak of the corona crisis, it was particularly the clear manner in which Smits spoke and acted on issues such as inappropriate behaviour and racism which made an impression. When it became clear that serious complaints concerning sexual harassment had been lodged against Hans Severens, the dean of Erasmus School of Health Policy and Management (ESHPM), Smits did not hesitate to voice his disapproval and held discussions with the complainants. Severens resigned his position and is currently awaiting the outcome of an external investigation.
Smits personally intervened in the case of the spread of anti-Semitic and racist messages within an app group at Erasmus University College. “We find the sharing of offensive material unacceptable”, he said and promised to swiftly put an end to such behaviour. “As members of the executive board, we believe the university needs to be a place where everyone can study and work safely.” He met with the students involved, who subsequently expressed their apologies in a letter. In contrast to the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences, which dropped the matter in the wake of the corona crisis, the university did file charges.
You acted decisively in these matters, which was viewed by many as refreshing and by some as too harsh. Do you think that universities should take a firmer stance on subjects such as racism and MeToo?
“Perhaps not firmer, but certainly clearer. Universities should be able to convey even more clearly what they stand for. As far as MeToo issues are concerned, I think that the level of dependency in the relationships between professors and PhD students, staff and students is so great that a certain vulnerability persists there. The question is whether the internal safeguards that are in place are sufficient. People are often afraid to go to an internal ombudsman or confidential counsellor. Given that this plays out at all universities, I wonder if it might be better to set up an external independent committee for this purpose, which people would be more willing to dare approach.”
To what extent will corona permanently change the way people work at the university?
“There is a distinction between employees and students. Starting with the first group: I think people in general like working from home more often, but they also miss the office. I expect a mixture of a few days at home and a few days in the office to become the norm. I see a lasting change in that respect.”
“In any case, the coming year will be a mixed format for students as well. That means no longer going to campus every day and keeping up with online education. I am expecting that the major transition to digital education, the likes of which we have seen in recent months, will be permanent.”
That Dutch society has gone through such a rapid transformation is a very positive aspect of the corona crisis according to Smits. “If something has to be done, it will be done. The crisis has created an enormous solidarity and cohesion.”
What moment has made the most lasting impression on you in the past year?
“On the 13th of March, I turned 70 and that was the first day of lockdown. I had planned a week’s holiday in South Africa but immediately came back to the Netherlands. My wife stayed another week and fortunately was able to come back before all flights were shut down. The moment the news broke, I started thinking about the impact right away. Of course, the Executive Board immediately began setting up a crisis organisation. But a lot of things came about of their own accord. Over the first weekend, 600 teachers were already preparing online lessons, without us coming up with a centralised idea.”
So, it wasn’t the bureaucracy that you were so afraid of back in January?
“Much to my delight, there was hardly any bureaucracy. All the relevant subjects were decided very quickly. I do believe, however, that a more business-based approach should be taken at the university. The 80-20 rule, as in not working out everything in detail, leads to greater decisiveness. That does require leadership and occasionally making decisions based on intuition.”
“I am very happy to have been able to make a number of decisions in the relatively short time that I had. These included thinking about our positioning in society, but also about branding and appointing a public affairs officer. A report was submitted on this in 2018, but we have finally managed to push this through over the past few months.”
New university’s Chair isn’t merely here to mind the shop
Until the summer, Hans Smits is the interim Chair of the EUR Executive Board. Although…
Initially, one of your most important assignments appeared to be to work out the convergence plans with TU Delft and Erasmus MC. Were these subject to delays because of the corona crisis?
“Yes and no. We continued to work on the content, but because of the corona crisis we were unable to work out the principle agreement for a framework agreement. It has to be in place before the end of the year.”
In the last session of the University Council, you called the Executive Board a winning team. Would you have actually wanted to give it another year?
“Yes, I definitely don’t deny that. If the Board had asked me to stay a little longer, I would have been more than happy to do so. Precisely in order to keep the winning team on board throughout this crisis. During the first phase of the corona crisis we set up a number of things and I would have liked to have seen how they would turn out in the upcoming academic year. On the other hand, of course, I also respect the decision to continue with the application procedure for a new executive board president. I met Ed Brinksma for the first time yesterday. The upside is that he also went through the corona crisis in his previous position in Hamburg.”
And is retirement on the cards next then?
“No, I’m returning as chief-commissioner to the Janssen de Jong construction company, where I was the managing director before my arrival at the university. The word ‘pension’ doesn’t feature in my vocabulary anyway. I think that in the Netherlands, it’s often said too quickly that someone is old. Look at the United States: when you’re in your late 60s, early 70s there, you’re not old, instead you’re seen as an experienced manager. Generally speaking, I think that for managers who have proven themselves, their experience is not taken advantage of enough in the Netherlands.”
Where inclusivity is concerned for you , this also implies more respect for the older employee.
Hans Smits laughs: ” You could say it like that, yes.”