How are you doing? Have you had a chance to recover from the ceremony?

“I’m still overwhelmed by everything that was done, said and shared yesterday. It was a beautiful and heartfelt ceremony. After eight years, it’s really special to hear both the Executive Board and ISS management and colleagues say that I’ve done a good job.”

What do you think you did well?

“I think the most important thing is the integration of the institute into Erasmus University Rotterdam. I only now realise that this integration was anything but easy. When I was hired in 2015, ISS had only been part of the university for six years, after being an independent institute for 57 years. When I started, ISS was in the final stages of a reorganisation that had led to a lot of pain and frustration. It was a challenge, but at the same time it was essential for further integration.”

Inge Hutter (1959) served as Rector of the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) from 1 August 2015. Prior to that, she was Professor of Demography and Dean of the Faculty of Spatial Sciences at the University of Groningen.

After completing her rectorship, she will continue to work as a professor at ISS. She is taking a one-year sabbatical and will also stay on as academic lead for Erasmian Values in relation to leadership and organisational culture. She will explore ways in which Erasmian values can take shape and be supported within the university’s transformation towards creating more positive social impact.

You also experienced times of crisis, such as the student protest about undesirable behaviour in February 2022. Students claimed that the institute failed to protect them. Looking back on this, what are your thoughts?

“The protest started as an individual complaint about transgressive behaviour between students. We dealt with that in a confidential procedure. During the protest, students expressed that the complaints procedures weren’t adequate. They had a point: the procedures had indeed become sloppy due to the lockdowns during the pandemic. While students had been attending in-person lectures since September 2021, we were still working from home, which meant that certain things fell through the cracks.

“It was tough, because we were a pioneer in addressing problems related to unwanted behaviour. But, partly because of this protest, we’ve now improved and professionalised the procedures. I’m glad we took immediate action at that time.”

Have students become more vocal about unwanted behaviour?

“Yes, they have and I think that’s a very good thing. When I was young, staying silent about transgressive behaviour was the norm. This generation doesn’t put up with such behaviour, and rightly so, because everyone has the right to a safe work and study environment.”


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Your decision to join ISS was partly personal.

“My previous partner passed away suddenly in 2012 – at the time we were living in The Hague, but I was working in Groningen. His death made me think about how fleeting life is: about where I want to go and what I want to have achieved by the end of my life. Because, as I saw, life can be over just like that.

“Those questions gave me a sense of direction, including in my career. I wanted to keep working at a university and continue making a social impact. I saw a lot of overlap between my personal idealism and what ISS does, so everything came together quite nicely in the rectorship.”

Being socially relevant and making an impact seem to be the common threads in your career. Turning scientific knowledge into action is very important to you. For example, your research on women’s reproductive health in India was translated into Kannada, a local Indian language, so that the local community could benefit from the findings. You also worked with a local NGO there to set up an education programme on health and nutrition for pregnant women. Where does this drive for social relevance come from?

“I believe part of the reason is that I was a first-generation student. I grew up in a world outside academia and I understand that other skills, competences and knowledge are just as relevant as scientific knowledge. I think there should be an interplay between the academic world and the practical world, and thus between academic and other kinds of knowledge.”

What was the university world like for you as a first-generation student?

“Learning a practical skill was the norm in our family, so the university environment was really new to me. For a long time I felt as if I were living in two different worlds that were difficult to combine. I sometimes wondered: does my family understand what I’m doing? And actually, they didn’t. That made me feel lonely at times.

“There were so many things I just didn’t have. For example, my niece has just graduated as a second-generation student. When she needed to revise her thesis, she called me and my first response was: ‘You don’t have to do everything on your own, you know.’ That’s the difference, I think. If your family has studied at university, there is always someone to help you, someone you can go to with questions. And I didn’t have that.”

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National policy is becoming increasingly unfavourable for international students. Minister of Education, Robbert Dijkgraaf, wants fewer internationals and more Dutch students at Dutch universities. You ran an institute that was created for international students. What are your thoughts on this?

“We do ourselves a disservice in the Netherlands if we no longer accept international students. The Netherlands is a small country with just 18 million people. Mumbai alone has a larger population than that. It’s so easy to ‘blame’ international students for all sorts of issues, when in fact they contribute to diversity and the development of this country.

“Our alumni hold wonderful positions at various international organisations, from government bodies to NGOs. We have good relationships with many of them and sometimes we do joint research. All these alumni are true ambassadors for the Netherlands.

“What also bothers me is the perception surrounding international students. Recently there was a segment on the news about problems with international students in Delft. Most international students are white students from Europe, but the footage immediately showed students of colour. I find this misleading and unfair; it creates unnecessary and unwarranted contradictions.”

The Minister has also called for a recruitment freeze for international students. Does this put ISS at risk?

“We lobbied against that plan because we were founded precisely to spread knowledge around the world, with a focus on the Global South. It took a long time, but this week we received a letter from the Ministry stating that the recruitment stop doesn’t apply to us. So that’s great news.”


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What are your feelings now as you’re leaving the rectorship?

“Mixed feelings. On the one hand, I can’t wait for my sabbatical in the coming year. I’m looking forward to being able to read books and take relaxing walks. On the other hand, I’m really going to miss my team and colleagues.”

‘An important lesson that I’ve learned over the last eight years: if something is urgent, you should sleep on it because the next morning you’ll look at it differently’

Inge Hutter

What will you not miss at all?

She laughs: “The times of crisis, like the student protest. I enjoyed working on solutions to the problems, but of course I would have preferred everything to have been settled beforehand, without protests and media coverage. But that’s all part of the growing pains you go through as an organisation.”

How have you grown personally in the last eight years?

“I’ve learned so much about how to deal with other cultures, but also how to lead an organisation. I feel that I’ve become calmer and wiser. I take time to calmly reflect in times of crisis.

“An important lesson that I’ve learned over the last eight years: if something is urgent, you should sleep on it because the next morning you’ll look at it differently.”