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Farewell interview Rutger Engels: ‘I’ve managed to form a coalition of the willing’

The surprise was complete when Rector Magnificus Rutger Engels recently announced his…

A wonderful job for a very ambitious professor, if you read it as such. There is plenty to do at this university to keep yourself occupied for years to come, and all the more now that the crisis is here. Yet Engels is bidding farewell before his four-year term is up. Even now, nobody really knows why. His departure has led to lots of questions and speculation behind the scenes.

The official explanation is that thanks to the corona crisis, Engels has come to realise that he would rather use his knowledge and expertise (as a professor of psychopathology) to help young people who are struggling. Not as a counsellor, by the way, nor as a full-time professor in a lab, as he himself describes it, but over time as director of an organisation more suited to his own field of expertise.


The fact that he is leaving behind friends and foes who are astonished by this choice is also demonstrated by the unusual action of a large group of direct staff members who expressed support for the rector’s decisions and vision in an open letter on the EM website. They voiced the hope that the university will stay on the path it has taken with its new strategy.

Nevertheless, there are few people on campus who think that this is the ‘whole story.’ Of the diverse group of people that EM spoke to about the underlying reasons for the rector’s departure, everyone agrees that Engels is a researcher at heart and that they do understand his decision to devote time and attention to his own professional field.

But why does this have to be so sudden? Within the various fora of the university, those concerned are sincerely – albeit off the record – wondering why the rector is not finishing his first term when he only has a year and a half to go.

No serious misconduct

There seems to be no personal reason for the rector leaving that has been kept under wraps. Nor is there any indication that serious misconduct was the underlying cause of the dissolution of the Rector’s office.

Rutger Engels has not been forced to leave, but he is definitely going. Or as an insider in managerial circles of the university puts it: “People in these kinds of positions are never sent away.” In other words, an executive does the honourable thing when their position is under pressure.


Could this be the case? Because no matter how disappointed one part of the university seems to be, according to the open letter in which people say they ‘would prefer to carry on with the rector as the figurehead,’ for others his departure is a relief.

There is no real sorrow on the corporate and legal side of the campus. With a background in psychopathology but no business qualifications, Rutger Engels was always seen by some as an outsider. Engels was also the first rector of the EUR who did not come from within their own ranks, and his appointment dashed the ambitions of one or more in-house professors who had aspired to the highest office.

Nor was the strategy of creating social impact applauded by adherents of the traditional, monodisciplinary practice of science.

Expensive gimmick

Keen scrutiny of the signatories of the open letter confirms that they consist mainly of colleagues who worked with Engels to accomplish the university’s strategic goals: Increased diversity and inclusion as well as guiding scientific research towards a more interdisciplinary approach. One of the signatories acknowledges this conclusion. “It has been argued for years that the university should focus more on social impact, and this was done under Rutger.”

But the ambitious Strategy 2024, which is committed to Societal Impact, is seen as an expensive gimmick by the business side of the EUR. Engels, who was praised at other faculties for his innovative spirit, was not well understood at the largest and oldest faculties such as the Rotterdam School of Management, the Erasmus School of Economics and the Erasmus School of Law. These faculties had expected the corona crisis to have repercussions for the strategy, e.g., that it would be put on hold for a while. But nothing proved to be further from the truth.

Whipped cream, but no cake

In particular, the fact that cutbacks across the faculties were announced despite the unprecedented work pressure hit hard. With more students but less money, those involved felt that there was money for whipped cream but not for cake.

The substantial investments in a top-notch audio-visual centre and Hilversum-worthy productions centred on the Eureka week, the Opening of the Academic Year and the Dies Natalis were also viewed with misgivings by the already overburdened faculties.

Yet the disaffection on the part of the faculties and deans was not a decisive factor in Engels’ departure either, or at any rate there is no hard evidence to support that. Nor are there any indications of that from anyone we spoke to.

Small circle

The fact that the announcement of Engels’ departure took the rector’s direct work circle so genuinely by surprise suggests that the crisis may have taken place within the smallest managerial circle of the Executive and Supervisory Boards.

When asked, the Supervisory Board (which is effectively the employer of an Executive Board member), was disinclined to comment on this hypothesis.

Everyone agrees on one thing: It does not look good that a university board member is leaving prematurely for the third time in just over a year. After the previous president, Kristel Baele, declined a second term, the third member, Roelien Ritsema van Eck, also announced her early resignation this autumn. And now the rector is not finishing his term, either. In addition to the damage to the university’s image, are the interruptions that the departure of an executive inevitably brings with it – despite the efforts of an experienced interim rector.

Short straw

A university is run by ‘collegial governance’, consisting (usually) of three members who form the Executive Board, namely the president, the rector magnificus and a third member. Ideally, the positions and personalities complement each other, and in order to keep things clear, all portfolios are always strictly defined.

But when it comes to the direction of an institution, when money (after many prosperous years) suddenly starts to play a role and choices have to be made, things become very tense as to who gets the longest straw and who ends up with the shortest one. If you do draw the shortest straw, that may give rise to the question as to whether it might be better for you to use your talents elsewhere. That may well be a reason for an executive to leave.

Bad for continuity

The university, or certainly the large group of not the least significant researchers and supporters who signed the open letter to Rutger Engels, now remains orphaned.

After all the outsiders who have been taken on in recent years, the widely held adage heard in the corridors is that it would be a good thing if the rector magnificus came from within their own ranks so as to re-establish stability. Because whatever the ‘whole story’ is concerning Rutger Engels’ decision to step down, it is bad for continuity, something that friends and foes all agree on.

With the cooperation of Arjan Paans.


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