EM: There have been a lot of changes amongst university leaders over the past few years. Many people whom we have spoken to think that your departure is damaging to the stability of the executive board. The ombudsperson recently made a plea in her annual report for calmer governance and hoped that with the arrival of a new president in September and a new third member in January 2021, the university would find itself in calmer waters in terms of its governance. Why have you not taken a bit more time before you leave? Is there perhaps a personal reason behind your decision?
“I think that is a legitimate question. I do come across as passionate and energetic. I get up every day full of passion and energy. Let me start by reassuring everyone: there is nothing wrong with me personally. I am as fit as a fiddle, and I’m neither overworked nor burnt out. I made this decision myself. As far as unrest is concerned, Erasmus University is a very solid university, listed 72nd in the Times’ World Universities Rankings. A new direction has been charted and we have done that with the entire university community. I think it stands incredibly firm and I have every confidence in the future.”
Unrest about numerous changes
Although Frank van der Duyn Schouten will be interim-rector as from January Engels understands that the numerous changes – even among deans and directors – can lead to unrest. “The ombudsperson was also right to raise this with us. But I think interim board members are not necessarily bad for stability. On the contrary, Hans Smits, who knows the university inside out, has actually managed to create a great deal of calm. It was partly thanks to him that we got through those first tense months of the corona crisis.”
Still, that doesn’t explain why Engels is quitting after two and a half years. “I started off with the idea of doing this for seven to eight years. But I don’t consider two and a half years to be that short per se, given that so much has been achieved in that time.”
Just as it was for so many other people, the beginning of the corona pandemic was a time of reflection for Engels. “The fact that it then took me a while to make a decision was also due to my enormous commitment to this university and, to be frank, to Rotterdam. I had a couple of days off in the autumn break and then I made my decision. I subsequently informed the Supervisory Board and my colleagues of the Executive Board Ed Brinksma and Ann O’Brien.“
It was not that he was fed up with his position as rector magnificus of this leading university. “In the meantime, I’ve really been working hard for this university.” Although the job is a combination of ‘firefighter and strategist’, he never tired of putting out fires. “It’s part of the job, even though it isn’t always fun.”
Low point but no regret
He cites the management crisis at ESHCC as the low point of his two and a half years as rector. “I am not familiar with the word ’regret’. I make choices and live with the consequences, as well as with the pain that some choices bring with them. In the situation concerning the board’s crisis at the ESHCC, my integrity was attacked, and that hurt. With what I know today, I would have handled things differently, but as a manager you sometimes have to choose the lesser of two evils. I am pleased that there is now an excellent new dean. It is a fantastic faculty.”
The public expression of support that appeared on EM’s website a few days after his announced departure did him a lot of good. He felt it confirmed that he had done a good job in establishing the university’s new strategy to become an impact-driven university at the heart of society.
“I was very moved by that. I was not put in this position to maintain the status quo, but to help shape that impact agenda. And I also think that this is bound to succeed. I have every confidence that the strategy is firmly in place. We have appointed some excellent deans and directors, and our colleagues are also working flat out on the various programmes.”
Disagreement among the senior management?
Meanwhile, discussions held by EM with a large number of insiders within the university have revealed that there is also disagreement among its senior management. Impending cutbacks across faculties on the one hand and investment in strategy on the other are said to have provoked some rancour.
Engels nonetheless stands by his story that he is leaving purely out of personal considerations and ambitions. “Nobody has asked me to leave.”
Of course, he has also noticed that with the major changes within the organisation that resistance has grown as well. In this case, it comes from scientists who do not see any merit in a university that focuses on interdisciplinarity and social impact. “When I came here, I was the first rector who had not come from the university itself. I knew I had to invest in relationships and I managed to form a ‘coalition of the willing.’ Many people have signed the letter that outlines the strategy and want to help implement it. After all, coming up with a strategy is not difficult; implementing it is much harder. You need a coalition like that in order to roll it out.”
“Although I don’t like war metaphors at all, it is certainly true that faculties at this university have a high degree of autonomy, and that accomplishing this cross-over of disciplines involves considerable persuasion, pushing and pulling. This is the shift that universities are currently making, and it is gratifying that more scientists are saying: ‘This is how I see the world and where my career path lies.”
Ease off a little
“As for the suggestion that the strategy might have been allowed to ease off a little in terms of commitment and finances with the advent of the coronavirus, Engels is resolute: “I wouldn’t be worth a cent as a board member if I hadn’t kept an eye on the university’s long-term prospects. Even during a crisis. In fact, I think that it is due to past investments in things such as the Community for Learning and Innovation (CLI) that we were able to completely overhaul our educational system in one weekend in mid-March.”
“Mind you, the strategic programmes only account for 2 percent of the total budget. I appreciate the question as to whether we could not have absorbed the Van Rijn cuts [a €15 million spending cut in the university budget, ed.] differently, but I do think that we are going to see a more rational use of costs in the next few years. For one thing, we will travel less, which will result in savings. I also expect that we shall be looking at what programmes in education attract only a few students or overlap significantly with others. Streamlining will take place there as well.”
No matter how impassioned he speaks about his work as rector now and what Erasmus University has to offer, there is still this surprising choice to do take off his livery collar (his chain of office). He cannot articulate it in any other way than by saying that his heart lies in health, healthcare and well-being. “That is what excites me and appeals to me most, especially when I think of all those students who have been sitting alone in their rooms for months, or young people in the South who are having an even tougher time because of the corona crisis. After all, I am also a professor in a discipline that can contribute to a solution to this. My PhD supervisor, Professor Riet Drop from Maastricht, once said to me: ‘You don’t choose your subject, the subject chooses you,’ and that’s the way I feel about it too.”
“Firstly, I plan to take a sabbatical of around seven months. In January, I will in any case start writing two position papers, one on student welfare and the other on the impact strategy of universities. And after that, I have no idea. I’m 52 now, but I don’t think I will still be a full-time professor by the time I turn 67. As a board member, you can have more scope and achieve something. I don’t see myself spending all those years full-time in a lab.”
No matter what he does next year – if all goes well – he will be sitting in the front row of the Eurovision Song Contest. Even though he is no longer a board member, the municipal secretary of Rotterdam has promised him a ticket for the Ahoy stadium. “I used to watch the song festival with my family. And I still love that feeling of being able to share and judge something together. After all, it’s a very special kind of ‘cabinet of curiosities.’”