At the Opening of the Academic Year Brinksma had already made a laid-back impression when he sang on stage with presenter Wilfried de Jong a verse from the famous song De Allermooiste Rotstad (the Most Beautiful Rotten City). The tone in the room of the president of the Executive Board is clearly more serious, but certainly no less engaging.

It is often the little things that cause a new wind to blow through the university. After a minor renovation on the second floor of the Erasmus building, there is a large glass wall in the board members’ room, and you can peer inside into the room of the latest president of the exec board. There’s a good chance that you will see Brinksma – dressed in a light blue suit – zooming away behind his MacBook.

The first job interviews – held in the middle of the lockdown – were also digital. “I wasn’t looking for another job. When I was approached for this position, however, a train of thought was set in motion. In the end, the challenge turned out to be so great that I couldn’t say no.”

Ed Brinksma

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New Chair of the Executive Board: Ed Brinksma

The former Rector of the University of Twente is to succeed Hans Smits as Erasmus…

What was that like, a digital job interview?

“Digital meetings actually go pretty well if you already know the people. When you speak to people behind a screen, they generally react much more reservedly. Fortunately, face-to-face conversations soon followed the initial digital introduction. Then a conversation quickly becomes more informal.”

Brinksma (who was previously rector at the University of Twente and was also Professor of Computer Science in Eindhoven) has the distinct advantage of knowing the Dutch university world inside out, especially when it comes to the ongoing collaboration with the universities of Leiden and Delft. “I know the mentality at universities of technology and I know how the wheels turn in the academic world, that will certainly have played a role in the decision to approach me. I can remember a headline from an American newspaper that read: ‘If you think running a company is difficult, try a university’.”

Brinksma is still a professor – unsalaried, one day a month – but will leave his gown hanging in the closet on official occasions at the EUR. “That would be the role of the rector, and this would cause a conflict of duties. But of course, it is an advantage that I know what’s going on among the professors.”

While Brinksma is convinced that universities all over the world are very much alike, his time in Hamburg was decidedly very special. “Academic freedom is perhaps even greater in Germany than in the Netherlands: as a result of their experiences of World War II. A German professor enjoys individual autonomy, which is enshrined in the constitution. You cannot – even if you would like to – mandate or insist on a lot of things. Fortunately, it is possible to motivate things.” Not that Dutch colleagues would be more amenable. “But a compromise is not seen here as something negative, as they are in Germany, where discussions are often far more thorough, but also painstaking to get through for that reason.”

That Brinksma’s period in Hamburg is nevertheless seen as a success, he thinks, is because he took the Dutch collective thinking as his guiding principle. “Despite the individual autonomy for professors, as Präsident of a university in Germany, you have considerable decision-making authority, but I laid the responsibility for developing policy specifically with the professors. In this way, I made them co-owners of an issue, and consequently any decision became a joint one. I think that is typically Dutch. This approach was particularly successful because Hamburg, like Rotterdam, holds cosmopolitan and tolerant values in high regard. At a more conservative university in, say, Bavaria, this would probably not have worked out.”

Even corona was different in Germany. And not necessarily because of the face masks that dominate the streets there. “The university I led is one of the more progressive in Germany. We had a very good IT department. However, it was still more difficult to teach online than in the Netherlands. That was mainly due to the lack of adequate internet connections in the German countryside. Broadband is scarcely available there.”

Ed Brinksma, voorzitter van het CvB
Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik

You studied in Groningen, were professor in Eindhoven and rector in Twente and then president of the executive board in Hamburg. How do you view the EUR in the Dutch and international university landscape?

“TU Hamburg is clearly a small university (four times smaller than the EUR, eds.) but does have a major specialisation in engineering. My job was to make the university bigger, and we were well on our way with that. But I will not deny that it is a challenge to be able to lead a university that ranks well in the top 100 of the most important rankings.”

“The red thread running through my career has been to bring together fundamental theory and serious applications. The beauty of this is that this ambition is also printed in bold in the strategic vision of this institution. We need to be a brand that enables our knowledge to have a tangible and positive impact on society. That is something I have been working on my whole life. Naturally, where Erasmus MC and the convergence with the Delft University of Technology is concerned, that opportunities for this are exceptionally high.”

Brinksma sees it as ‘the design problem for the future’ as to how we are going to structure society and deal with the ‘barrage of systemic crises’, such as corona and the climate transition. “Science must be shown to be leading the way there. I cannot say whether the EUR is already playing such a role at present. I’ve only been here for a couple of weeks and it doesn’t seem appropriate for me to say at this stage how things should be done here.”

Brinksma’s first impressions of the atmosphere at the EUR are positive. “Last week we had our first meeting between the Executive Board and the deans and I am really impressed with the cooperative atmosphere between the deans.”

Brinksma is realistic about the pace of the collaboration with Delft and eventually Leiden. “I know that in the past people have dreamed of a merger between the institutions, which should lead to becoming a top 20 university in the world. However, I believe that mergers are a very old instrument that expend an enormous amount of energy and are not necessarily any better. There is also a risk of being more preoccupied with internal processes, whereas today’s challenges demand that we concern ourselves with the world outside us. The future is not up to monoliths, but instead found in networks that demonstrate their success through cooperation on dossiers, all the while remaining adaptive and flexible.”

And then right at the outset you ran into the incident involving Hans Severens, who was forced to step down at the beginning of this year as pro dean of ESHPM following complaints of sexual harassment. What are you able to say about that, given that the case has been going on for a very long time now?

“The report of the independent committee is out, and we now need to follow up on it. I think that this must be done promptly, but prudence is paramount. And that is what makes it so difficult, because you want to treat everyone fairly. If you muck things up, that‘s no use to anyone.”

The university’s strategy is to become more diverse and inclusive. The Executive Board currently has two white male members; we presume that the third member will be a woman of colour?

“I do appreciate the question, and it is definitely under discussion. But we are just at the beginning of the proceedings, so I am not going to commit myself to this yet. As far as the proportion of female professors at this university is concerned, that is really a task for the Rector. But together with him, I see it as my duty to work hard on this over the coming period, because it is a persistent issue that needs tackling.”

Cv Ed Brinksma

Ed Brinksma started his study in Mathematics at the University of Groningen in 1975 and later earned his PhD at the University of Twente. Where he became a professor in 1991. He was dean of the Faculty of Computer Science at the University of Twente (1995-1997) and science director of the Embedded Systems Institute and professor of computer science at Eindhoven University of Technology (2005-2008). Between 2009 and 2016, he was Rector Magnificus at the University of Twente. He also served as a visiting professor in Sweden, Denmark, Singapore and the United States.

At the start of 2018, he became President of Hamburg University of Technology and as of 1 September 2020, he will be President of the Executive Board at the Erasmus University.