Annelien Bredenoord is no longer suffering from her corona infection. She has just recovered, even though it took some effort to cycle over the Erasmus Bridge this morning. It was her first trip from her new home in Katendrecht to the Woudestein campus. She and her family moved here from Utrecht a few weeks ago.

Bredenoord is happy to be back on campus, she says, pointing to the Polak building from her office on the second floor of the Erasmus building. “Thankfully, there are also more and more students coming back again.” She had planned to pay a visit to all the student associations in November, but that fell through due to the new lockdown. “In the six weeks before that, I mostly drank a lot of coffee and met people. I tried to drop by colleagues in the different buildings as much as I could. Then you get to move around a bit and see something other than just the administration building.”

What did you notice in those first weeks?

“That the strategy about making a positive social impact is not just on paper. Everyone is really working on how we can contribute knowledge here to major social issues, and what that means for how we set the course of the university.

“And, obviously, the thing that affects everything is corona. It’s a dire state of affairs if you look at the wellbeing of students and staff. I would prefer if everything were open, as it was very briefly when I came in July a couple of times to learn the ropes. The sun was shining, people were sitting at outdoor cafés, and there were plenty of cultural activities. We are not just an online learning factory. We also form an academic community with each other.”

What kind of consequences does the current lack of contact have for you?

“I don’t run into people spontaneously anymore. If I’m not actively doing something, then I spend the entire day behind the computer with appointments that have been set up for me. You are the first people I have seen here in person in weeks.

“Are you familiar with the feeling of having had a really good day, you’ve met some nice people, you feel as if you’ve done something significant, that you’ve come out of a meeting feeling hyper from enthusiasm? Corona has kind of quashed all of that.”

During the handover of the rectorate on 1 October 2021, Bredenoord cited as one of her spearheads, in addition to impact, other ways of acknowledging and showing appreciation. Being able to acknowledge and show appreciation also has to do with making room for different kinds of people. She launches into this after receiving a compliment on her leopard-print trainers. “I am not sitting here as the governor of a royal palace, but of an educational institution. I like to wear sneakers in my spare time, so I wear them here from time to time as well. For me, that also fits in with the diversity amid the various career paths: not everyone looks the same and you can wear whatever you feel like, as long as it is somehow appropriate and smart enough, of course. I want there to be room for a variety of types at the university, not just high achievers. You can choose to build a profile in the areas of education, impact, research, or leadership.”

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Rector magnificus Annelien Bredenoord in her office in the Erasmus building. Image credit: Geisje van der Linden

What other challenges do you foresee for the university?

“More emphasis on the success of students and not only academic success. It’s not just good grades and a speedy graduation that are important, but you also want to educate leaders who show exemplary behaviour. Who are able to reflect on who they are and on the position they want to take in life. In the field of education, as far as I’m concerned, the future is hybrid. There will be more online options, more games. I think these things can unleash a lot of creativity.

“I see the digital acceleration as a good by-product of the corona crisis. It is extremely helpful in terms of knowledge transfer in education. But there are more learning objectives apart from knowledge transfer, so a purely digital approach is not an option. Verstehen – the ability to understand, interact, learn to take a certain position, teach skills – these things are much more complicated in a digital environment. I also see more online options as part of the solution to the growing lack of space on campus.”

The lack of space on campus is not the only problem. Work pressure is high, there is a housing shortage, and student and sports associations are bursting at the seams. While at the same time, the number of students is increasing even more. Is there a limit to this growth?

“We are definitely undergoing rapid growth. There are a lot of international students. We notice from everything that we are really stretched. But I don’t know if you can cap it a maximum number. I’m not going to draw that line, but funding should increase accordingly. Funding per student has been halved in the past 20 years. I’m hopeful that the new coalition agreement will level things out a bit.”

Kralingen-avond-8

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Kralingen residents fed up with anti-social behaviour by students

Students are ‘major nuisance’ in Kralingen, according to residents.

Things have been pretty unsettled in Kralingen for some time now because students are causing a lot of trouble there. Residents are asking why the university doesn’t do something.

“I understand that people are holding me to account about this, but we don’t actually manage the houses in Kralingen. In fact, I can only make a moral appeal to students, pointing out their duty to set an example. After all, they are independent adults who are doing these things in their spare time. But we are training the leaders of the future. If you are out and about shouting on a street corner, then you’re not one of them.”

The new Dutch cabinet has allocated 5 billion euros for education across the board. Are you disappointed that universities will not receive the structural 1.1 billion euros that scientists and administrators have been requesting for years?

“I don’t know yet. We still don’t know how much is meant for universities or how freely it can be spent. But in all scenarios, we will have more room to manoeuvre.”

What would you do with 5 billion euros?

“I would invest a lot in the first 1,000 days of a person’s life. We know from research that was carried out by Tessa Roseboom that the first 1,000 days of life, starting from conception until the age of two, are decisive for the rest of your life. In all kinds of respects, socio-economical and when it comes to mental wellbeing.

“And in my opinion, part of it should be used in any case to improve the position of young researchers and junior lecturers. They should be given permanent positions and their workload must be lightened. The whole idea that you do research in your spare time… ridiculous. Up until three months ago, I was writing one grant application after another. I was running a group of 42 people, but we only had permanent funding for six. It was a challenge each and every time, and it was great when we were able to secure funding. But it is constricting, especially for scientists who are just starting out.”

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The new cabinet wants binding study advice that is less strict. What does that mean for Erasmus University?

“I also read that in the coalition agreement, but it is an extremely vague paragraph. I would like to say to the Minister of Education, Culture and Science: come by and we will tell you all about Nominal is normal’. It is not just a matter of making a harsh cut of 60 points after the first year. It is also about committing to personal guidance and making sure that someone can consider over time: maybe this is not for me after all. Especially for students from non-academic families, it’s helpful to have someone who can keep an eye on things that way.”

So, you are saying: N=N should stay.

“Nobody would want you to have such a subject left to fester in year two. I had a subject like that when I was studying the Old Testament. You had to read and write Hebrew for it and because of the hazing at my student union, I’d only followed half of it. It took me two years to complete my first year of my degree. That’s not so nice.”

You will be staying on as the chair of the D66 faction in the Dutch Senate. There are bound to be issues where the rector of Erasmus University and the party chair have a conflict of interest, such as the binding study advice. How are you going to deal with that?

“That tension is inherent in being a member of the Senate. I bring my experience from the university and hospitals where I have worked to the Senate and look at legislation through those lenses. Bringing science into politics this way is a good thing. As for the other way round, I know how political decision-making works, and that can sometimes be helpful.

“It’s quite possible that, at some point, my party will have a different point of view than my private interest as rector magnificus. But I find it difficult to say right now how I will vote in that event. After all, I was elected as a member of the Senate on behalf of a party. I am not here to represent the interests of my own institution. I will consider each time: which hat am I wearing here? The main rule of thumb is: you do not speak on subjects where you have a direct interest, so I do not interfere with the Language and Accessibility Act that is currently before the Senate1, for example.”

Annelien Bredenoord (42) is sinds 1 oktober 2021 rector magnificus van de Erasmus Universiteit en hoogleraar Ethics of Technologies. Ze is gespecialiseerd in medische ethiek en was voor haar aanstelling in Rotterdam hoogleraar Biomedische ethiek bij het UMC Utrecht. Sinds de zomer van 2019 is ze fractievoorzitter van D66 in de Eerste Kamer, waar ze het woord voert over volksgezondheid en algemene politieke zaken. Ze woont met haar vrouw en zoontje op Katendrecht.

  1. The Language and Accessibility Act (Wet taal en toegankelijkheid in Dutch) is about more means to regulate the number of international students and the language of study programmes ↩︎