A farewell interview with a professor who has worked at the university for almost 35 years: surely there must be a nice location within ‘his’ faculty for that? But as he already formally retired two months ago, his room was already empty three days before his farewell speech (even his huge pot plant has gone). Booking a room turns out to be more difficult than expected, so it ended up being a small, untidy meeting room right opposite his former office. “As you can see, I’ve already got nothing more to say”, says Geerlings with a big smile on his face.
A great experience
The situation reflects the mixed feelings with which the professor of Governance of Sustainable Mobility is saying goodbye to the university and the ESSB faculty. Submitting a syllabus on time, the daily concerns within the faculty or the pressure of upcoming exams. When it comes to that kind of thing, Geerlings is happy that it’s over. “The faculty is currently reorganising its education yet again. It’s great that I no longer have anything to do with that.”
At the same time, he will greatly miss his contact with the students and fellow researchers. However, Geerlings also knows that the end of his academic career is secretly inevitable. “It’s hard sometimes, I’m still really in the flow. I’m still involved in acquisition, even now. If you’re not careful, you tend to just keep working. But I realise more than ever that it was a great experience.” The selection procedure for new doctoral candidates was the moment when the penny dropped. “The dean said: there’s no point attracting post-docs if you can no longer supervise them. It was at that point that I knew I had to leave.”
Worked out well in the end
Geerlings’ academic career almost lasted only twelve months instead of 35 years. His very first temporary contract with a research institute was not renewed in the early 1980s because of a round of cuts. At that time, the economy was so poor that there weren’t many job opportunities left for Geerlings. “I was forced to work in secondary education at that point. I had a family and needed an income. It wasn’t my calling, and I didn’t really want to do it.”
So a few years later, when one of the respondents from his graduation research unexpectedly contacted Geerlings to ask if he was interested in a position at the EUR, he seized the opportunity right away. “But it was a big step. I had a permanent position and was paid much more in secondary education. We also had children, and at the university I was only given a modest contract for three months. But this was my chance to make the switch to the university. And it worked out very well.”
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A push in the right direction
Anyone who looks at Geerlings’ CV will immediately see that this statement is no exaggeration. A PhD, a professorship based on a new partnership between the port and the university, a large number of board positions and the supervision of doctoral programmes for the new generation of academics. “I probably shouldn’t be blowing my own trumpet, but all of this succeeded as a result of hard work. And I got a push in the right direction from colleagues at crucial moments. I always appreciated that very much, all this would not have been possible without them.”
One of these crucial boosts came from his supervisor at the faculty of economics. He had just convinced Geerlings to come to the faculty of economics for his doctoral programme when a dispute arose. “I was left orphaned, as it were. I had started my doctoral research just two months previously when my supervisor left, and I was regarded as an extension of my supervisor.” But one of the last efforts of his former supervisor was to give him a push that still enabled him to complete his doctoral programme at VU University Amsterdam.
From day one, sustainability has been the recurring theme in Geerlings’ academic career. Later in his career, he managed to combine this subject and the port of Rotterdam. As one of the five ‘port professors’, in 2011 he became a professor within SmartPort, the collaboration between the university and the port that was set up a year earlier. “SmartPort originated as a response to a question from the port community. They said, “When we need someone from the university, we never know who to turn to.” The former Executive Board president said: if that’s your complaint, I’ll make sure that we change that.”
The EUR researchers that focused on the port were brought together from that moment onwards, and Geerlings became involved in sustainable mobility as a professor from then on. In all these years, the question he has been trying to answer is as follows: what is the future of the port? Because as the city of Rotterdam, what do you do if sustainability is a top priority, but you are simultaneously also hugely dependent on the fossil fuel industry? “It goes without saying that renewable energy is the future, especially in the form of hydrogen and electricity. But the polluters have to take that step themselves, and that makes it difficult because it costs a lot of money. This is also where the resistance comes in. The buck gets passed every time.”
The sustainable noises made by Geerlings during these years were not appreciated by everyone. “I encountered resistance on numerous occasions. Not everyone was happy with my message. For a number of years, I was not allowed to attend the New Year’s dinner of Deltalinqs [which promotes the interests of almost all companies in the port of Rotterdam, ed.]. I approached the companies about their responsibilities, and it was not always appreciated. But it worked out fine in the end, and I’ve invited the chairman to my farewell address. It’s not just down to these companies, though. They need to take the first step, yes, but everyone has a sustainable responsibility. For students, a trip around the world might seem to be part of the curriculum. Now, I can see why people would want to go on that kind of trip, but you have to ask yourself: does that fit in with the world we are trying to create?”
Over the past 35 years, Geerlings has seen a lot of changes. From the doubled size of the campus (“everything south of the parking garage wasn’t there at the time”) to the changed attitude of students (“they no longer even ask whether certain subject matter is compulsory for the exam”). But the last thing Geerlings wants is to become a grumpy old man. So the title of his farewell speech, A port always causes trouble, should therefore not be taken negatively. “If a port with that many players is never in the newspaper, that means it’s not a dynamic port. And if people are concerned about it, that also means they care about it. However, I would like to point out that it’s not just about making a profit. It’s also about employment and the quality of the living environment. These are things that we need to focus on more.”
But farewell speech or not, it doesn’t mean that Geerlings will be disappearing completely from the EUR. He will continue to supervise doctoral candidates and preside over doctoral conferrals. “Certainly, there are times when I will speak up. But I must also be honest, my generation has failed when it comes to the climate issue. It will have to come from the new generation.” Despite all his experience, he continues to amaze himself. To his own surprise, he has been feeling a bit stressed about his last lecture for weeks. “Damn it, I’ve been working here for so long, I’ve given so many lectures. But all the same, I do feel a bit of tension. I really want it to go well.”
And his wife also likes the fact that Geerlings will no longer be working at least three nights a week. That doesn’t mean he will be bored, however. In the near future, for example, he hopes to complete his book on Rotterdam harbour barons. But he needs to put the farewell speech behind him first, and then it really will have ended for the most part. And this also has practical consequences. “As you can see I no longer have a room, I’ve handed in the key. We have a room for emeritus professors on the fifteenth floor. I always thought: those guys, you don’t want to sit up there with them, they’re way too old. But now that’s becoming the reality.”
Harry Geerlings will be giving his farewell speech in the auditorium at 4 pm on Friday. It is publicly accessible and can be followed via a live stream.