Since September, Hans van den Berg is no longer chair of the University Council, but he had actually changed his job before the summer already. His new office – at a non-government organisation that supports international cooperation in the legal field – has an interesting view: to the left, the new House of Representatives currently undergoing renovation, to the right, the town hall of The Hague and a little further away the ministries. Van den Berg has ambitions in the diplomatic sector, so this is a good place to be.
One might assume that a chair of the University Council would also be at the centre of power (of a university), but it certainly did not feel that way to Van den Berg in his first months in late 2019. “It was really intense. A lot was happening behind the scenes. For a while, we didn’t have a clerk, so I had to do this job as well. And I had no idea what tasks were required for either job. And while I was trying to manage that, ‘Emailgate’ landed on my plate as well.”
During the email investigation in 2018, dubbed ‘Emailgate ‘ by Van den Berg, the mailboxes of several employees were scanned for communication with a journalist of the NRC Handelsblad newspaper. The Executive Board of that time wanted to find out who had leaked information about supposed plagiarism by former dean Dymph van den Boom. Many members of the University Council regarded this investigation as disproportionate, which led to a tough confrontation between the Council and the Executive Board. An inquiry committee later concluded that Van den Boom was guilty of ‘(a pattern of) carelessness’ but not of plagiarism.
“And while all that was going on, we got the news that the Supervisory Board wanted to fill two interim posts without involvement of the Council. We were told: we’ve searched far and wide, but the only person we could find for the post of SB President was Hans Smits.” Smits, director of a large construction company, had actually left the Supervisory Board just a short time before. Shortly after he was appointed as president of the Supervisory Board, an interim president of the Executive Board was required as well. “Although we’d already known for several months that predecessor Kristel Baele was going to leave, we were once again told: we’ve searched far and wide, but the only person who is willing and able to do this is: Hans Smits. Then you know deep down that something’s going on, and you don’t like to imagine that it’s all been plotted behind closed doors, but you do think: my god, what have I got into here?”
“I had a very strong feeling that people were thinking: there’s a new University Council chair, let’s see what we can get away with. But that activated my sense of justice. I decided for myself: nobody is getting away with anything. The appointments procedure for deans and for members of the Executive Board is set down on paper. So we kicked up a real fuss about it.”
Although the customary procedure had not been followed, the University Council ultimately agreed to the appointment of Smits ‘under protest’, because the Council’s objection was not about Smits as a person but about the procedure.
The Council also strongly kicked a fuss about the investigation of employees’ mailboxes.
“Actually, I don’t really think the fuss about this has died down yet. There are still a lot of people who are unhappy about what happened. When Hans Smits took up his post, he quickly expressed his regrets on behalf of the Executive Board and promised to look into it, but there’s never really been a conclusion that would make you say: the issue has now been dealt with.”
What do you expect for the future?
“More rights for the University Council. It was promised at the time, but nothing was ever put down in writing. The Executive Board was supposed to consider how we could avoid an investigation like that in the future and what kind of rules should be issued to support this. And in my view, this process is still ongoing. A few existing regulations have been amended, but there were supposed to be new regulations too, and I’ve never seen those. Only when these have been introduced will employees feel confident that something like this can’t happen again.”
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Do you feel that the Council was able to make a difference with regard to the email investigation?
“That’s a difficult question. For a long time, no one seemed to care what the Council said. At the informal level, the Council told the Executive Board: if you don’t find a solution or reach a compromise with the Council, the situation will take a very unpleasant turn. I think it was the way that Ana Uribe Sandoval (former Council member and Media and Communication lecturer) put this on the table in the last Council meeting that made the difference. She remained very calm for a long time, but during that meeting, she also put some emotion into it and said: enough is enough.”
Another rather dramatic issue was the digital surveillance used for exams during the coronavirus period. Some University Council members were so strongly opposed to the use of two cameras during online proctoring, that they spent thousands of euros on lawyers and considered taking the issue to court. In this issue, you as chair were directly opposed to several student members of the Council. How did this get so out of hand?
“These student members of the Council didn’t communicate transparently, and their actions were based on mistrust of the employee members of the Council, of myself and of some students. It led to other members thinking: are you doing this to gain attention for yourself, or because you really want to help students who are unhappy about that second camera? But they didn’t know any such students. Because so much was done behind the scenes, and because the students weren’t all in mutual agreement either, this led to friction. Moreover, some students were surprised when student member Jasper Klasen said in the Council that he wanted to take the issue to court. The Council was split, and I ultimately followed the advice of the Council and not of a few individuals. Right from the start, I made it clear that I didn’t agree with this approach. I was University Council chair, so I was the only one who was allowed to communicate with lawyers on behalf of the Council. They didn’t agree with that.”
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In your time as chair, you were also a tutor at the Public Administration programme. How does a degree programme department view a double post like that? Did they appreciate what you were doing?
“At the beginning they thought it was great, but then they realised how much time and energy this involved and the impact this was having on the rest of my work. Because it meant I had less time for teaching and was present less often. I remember how I was unable to attend a meeting for a subject I was teaching, and my department wasn’t pleased about that. But at the time, we’d had a data leak at the Council where CVs had accidentally been placed online. That wasn’t okay at all, and I was the chair, so I had to deal with that right away. The reaction I got was: are you trying to make yourself look important? You’re only the chair of the University Council.”
Is the University Council taken seriously enough within the university?
“Not everywhere. Compared to other universities, the employees at EUR simply don’t know what the University Council is working on. Some view Council members as people who see problems where none exist. I’ve experienced that people assumed that the Council wouldn’t make any trouble. For instance with regard to the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus cooperation project, when we were told: you people have consultation rights, so you mustn’t issue a negative recommendation on this project. Well, that’s something we certainly can do! And it’s what the Council did. At other times, documents were delivered too late. This presents us with a problem, because we need time to read everything. ‘You don’t need to read it, do you? You trust me, don’t you?’, is what we sometimes hear. But it’s not about trust, it’s about being able to do our work.
“Luckily, this aspect is improving, also because we as Council have endeavoured to take a constructive attitude. The University Council, the Executive Board, the Supervisory Board and policy staff are now working together much more. If you get us involved in good time and do your work transparently, then the Council can also be a helping hand for policy staff and contribute to a fine policy document.”
So why are you leaving the post now, just when you could enjoy the fruits of your labours in apparently calmer times?
“After all the turbulent times I’ve experienced, we now have a strong Executive Board with an open attitude towards the Council and the university. I think it’s a good moment for a new chair, now that the focus is no longer on solving crises but instead on making long-term policy.”
It there anything you regret about these three years?
“One thing in which the Council didn’t invest enough time and effort is improving life for students with impairments, be this physical or mental. Even in my third year, we were still reading articles that indicated they experience serious hindrances at our university. This is something I reproach myself and the Council for, because it means there are students who for this reason haven’t been able to continue their studies. And this is actually the bottom line for us.”
Have you become a wiser person?
“Yes, I think I have. I’ve discovered that you often simply need to keep your mouth shut, think about things, listen and decide how you stand on the issue. Everything that people tell you sounds logical and reasonable, but if you jump in too soon, you immediately get manoeuvred into a position. But if you let the discussion take place and summarise things from time to time, then you gain a much better overview. Afterwards, you can still decide what you think about it all. When the issue of the email investigation came up, I jumped in straight away with: this is wrong! If that happened again now, I’d remain calm, listen to both sides and take a close look at the regulations. And only then would I make a statement.”
Would the outcome have been different?
“No, but I would certainly have experienced less stress.”