Little Rumor in Casa UR

The university’s policy takes shape in the university council. But what does such a meeting actually look like? What are the council members and administrators talking about and what is the atmosphere like? Columnist Clemens van Diek gives a playful account of a university council meeting full of discussion and debate.

Beeld: Univers

A dog is being walked and starts barking at the leaf blower. A member of the University Council (Universiteitsraad, UR) turns to see where that barking is coming from. It’s cold outside. The campus grass is covered with frost. Ice on the pond. It’s pleasant inside. Not just in terms of temperature. The heating is undoubtedly running at full speed, although a degree lower. But there are no heated discussions today. No barking either. By the way, barking dogs seldom bite. An impression of a serious to be taken UR.

There are several sustainability topics on UR’s long agenda. Appropriate in these times with its high energy prices. Buildings are closing earlier, evidenced by the discussion item Energy & Closing Buildings earlier. Advice is given on Sustainable Business Operations, the Health & Safety and Environmental Annual Plan is approved, information is provided about the Elaboration Strategy Memo and the Headlines Budget 2023 also contain the necessary sustainability implications and implementations. This brings us to the important powers of the UR: the right to advise, the right to consent and the right to discuss and initiate. The UR may discuss all matters affecting the university, express its views on them and make proposals to the Executive Board. And so we saw a full agenda on Dec. 15, 2022.

‘Yes, we can be more explicit’

By the way, the Board is not a member of the UR but it sits at the table, nods, listens, explains, defends, is positive, advises against and promises quite a bit, quite a lot actually, also this morning/afternoon. A cross-section: ‘We will come back to that’, ‘We will add to that’, ‘We will more elaborate on that’, ‘Concrete results will coming up’, ‘We will wrap it up’, ‘We are confident’, ‘Steps have been taken’, ‘Further debate next January or February’, ‘We will take your suggestions at heart’ and ‘Yes, we can be more explicit’. The best: ‘We are constantly adapting and cascading down to the workfloor’.

Speaking of sustainability, what stands out is that there is hardly any paperwork in sight. Paper is banned; only your reporter (and apparently the rector) is still using a pen, notepad and a printed agenda to take notes. The laptop reigns supreme, with the digital processing of all documents. Even support staff in the public gallery have laptops on their knees and mobiles in hand. It must be said, the technical and paperless support is efficient and saves a few trees as well.

Perfect English

The UR agenda is full, too full, agrees Chairman Rien Wijnhoven. That should be less next time. There are now 22 items to be discussed. Some take longer (45 minutes) than others (5 minutes). But the planned three hours, allocated for the topics on this wintry day, are not enough. At 1 p.m., it is agreed to continue the meeting until 1:45 p.m. The pace quickens thereafter, the words of the spokespersons rattling faster across the lips, in fine English by the way. Absolutely no ‘Dutchisms’ like ‘different cook’ (once said by Louis van Gaal, in stead of ‘another piece of cake’). Occasionally a Dutch word is mentioned, because an English variant does not bubble up so quickly or simply does not exist.  “I don’t know the word for it,” we hear Paulina Snijders, Vice President of the Executive Board, say once. Without exception, the elected student members, as well as the staff, have a remarkably good command of English, significantly better than some teachers in the lectures, if complaints about it are to be believed.

‘Workload, that word is used pretty much on every agenda item’

When native speakers are at the table then English is spoken. This Thursday, two council members are native speakers. This is done to let the many foreign employees participate in university governance as well. For example, the majority of PhDs are foreign-speaking. And there are quite a few of them. If a (committee) meeting is completely ‘national’, then people speak Dutch. “Meetings in English are a bit duller; making a joke in English is another piece of cake,” says chairman Rien, who has made chairing his profession and also wields the gavel at Radboud University Nijmegen.

Pantsuits

The elected students of SAM and FRONT are certainly ripe for an international business career in this regard. Also in terms of their outfits. Dark pantsuits for the ladies, their hair held up with a simple clip. The two male students in casual suits are the only ones wearing a tie (blue), next to Rector Wim van de Donk who has chosen a bright Christmas red neckwear (I guess he took it out of the closet himself, which he agrees). Some staff members are wearing glittering moody Christmas outfit. Paulina Snijders enters wearing eye-catching black pants with shiny silver patterns. She can go straight to The Christmas Connection employee party in concert hall 013 that evening, where about 1,300 employees, some partly dressed in Christmas outfit, will gather in the main hall. We recall Deputy Board Secretary Carolien Metselaar after her joining the UR: “It is a great place to be here.” This togetherness party in 013, where she too is spotted, no doubt confirmed that.

Workload

A sweltering evening it turns out, with pumping pop music, beautifully performed karaoke, flowing beer taps and happy people. Femke Trommels, one of the new members of the group Onafhankelijken (Independents), is having a great time with her colleagues. And so we see groups of teammates everywhere, in great mood, dancing on covers of The Coronas. Eight hours a week Femke is excused for UR work. Colleague Corine is fine with that, but replacement still needs to be arranged for the day the team is now missing. Because, as in so many places at the university, the workload is high. The time that has been lovingly ’transferred’ to the UR is quite a drain.

Speaking of workload, working pressure or working stress, these words are used pretty much on every agenda item. The high workload, which affects all levels of the university, must be addressed. This is evident from the items Untangle & Unburden (or prevent burnout), the Health & Safety and Environmental Annual Plan, the Dual Career Scheme, the Life Long Development Memo and, of course, the untangle and unburden implementation from Weaving Minds & Characters, the university strategy towards 2027.

The Rector agrees “the work pressure is enormous. It is not a normal job to be a researcher, teacher or staff member.” Vice Rector Jantine Schuit adds: “Staff can help to reduce workload and people can choose their own career path.” 

Elaborate ≠ Startup

The chairman does not have to be strict this afternoon; things are going amiable. Everything goes according to plan, except the duration, and in unanimity. The most thorny issue is that an Elaboration Memo may not be called an Elaboration Memo but is actually a Starting Point Memo. For there is little elaboration in it, it’s better to speak of a start-up story. And starting up is not the same as elaborating, working out. The parties are unanimous in their rejection. Most strongly stated by Bert Willems (Internationals group): “The quality of this memo is low, with a lot of buzz words and vague goals.” A short suspension followed, after which the memo passed as a Starting Memo. Yes, it comes down closely to intent, wording and quality. SAM: “We are glad you guys are listening to us.”

‘The most thorny issue is that an Elaboration Memo may not be called an elaborated memo’

Brief reference is made to some commotion that arose in the preliminary consultations about the allocation of so-called Starting Grants in the budget, following from the Executive Agenda. But that’s it. There is also a maiden speech, by old hand Sebastiaan Vermeulen, so it wasn’t that ‘maiden’. A party colleague had to drop out because of a new position with other priorities, so the experienced Sebastiaan was picked up again from the stable Independents.

37 ambitions in the pipeline

At the agenda item about the implementation of the university strategy,coordinator strategy Rob van Hensberg takes the Chair (“I never thought I would be sitting in this chair”). In a powerpoint, he explains how the Board intends to further ‘elaborate’ the Strategy towards 2027. A list of 37 strategic ambitions has been formulated, one of which has already been realized: the appointment of a studentassessor to the Board. That’s the easiest of all ambitions, according to the UR. The rest are still in the mill, which Rob visualizes, ‘plotted on a timeline’, as a kind of Circle of Life, a pipeline in which the ambition rolls from starting up, to consultation, working fields, towards project, to decision and ticking off.

Rector Wim, well-read and never afraid to recommend a book, had given Rob the book Strategy Safari by Henry Mintzberg as a present at the start of the strategy project. Because “a strategy project is full of surprises and requires adaptability; that is why we speak of a rolling strategy.” As a fan, the Rector firmly tipped the new Mintzberg to be published in 2023: Understanding Organizations…. Finally.

Wim also deserves the Most Catchiest Sentences Award, with phrases like: 

“We do not take a Stalinistic approach. We will need your help too.”

“Money is not always the main object.”

“Lost in translation. Not every academic is able to communicate in the ecosystem.”

“Not everything is equally important and related to the explicit strategy. The Schools also take their own independent initiatives.”

“Are we too ambitious? No. If we don’t dare to take risks, we will never achieve anything.”

We understand this Understanding Society organization even better after this afternoon.

However, the ambition to employ more female professors may go up, says the UR, who itself sets a good example. We count (including secretarial support) 19 women at the table, against 7 men (1 SAM, 1 FRONT, 2 Independents, 1 International, 1 Rector, 1 Chair). Man, – again – Human, that’s a seventies ratio but then the other way round.

‘Jetzt gehts los’

“The good news is…” we hear several times. It’s all constructive. The Board praises its critics: “You’re one of the critical readers, that’s what we need.” No swearing, no British House of Commons scenes. It’s friendly and understanding with a conceding Board. Criticisms are ‘taken on board’, it’s called. 

The good-news show is nearing its end. The UR is positive about an important decision regarding the organization of employee participation at JADS. The Jheronimus Academy of Data Science in Den Bosch now stands on its own feet, “thanks to legal affairs after working on it for three years.” Which makes the Rector remark, “Jetzt gehts los.” What finally also goes loose are the Announcements. They are rushed through like a rocket because time is running out and duty elsewhere is already calling.

Learning School

For students in particular, this council work definitely is an interesting learning experience that looks good on a resume. They seem to be making a real effort, judging by their energetic contributions in perfect English. In doing so, they are standing up for their voters (with 36 percent turnout, Tilburg University is in the top nationally – “that could be even better”) but today also for the staff working under great pressure. After all, a teacher dropping out is not in the interest of those who populate the lecture halls. Still this question: what exactly is the difference between SAM and FRONT? Is it more than just the color green and blue that their voter base face during campaign time? Content-wise, the difference today jedenfalls was not really audible.  

Four hours later it’s done. Rien: “Looking at the clock, are we satisfied? Yes? Okay. Then thank you all for your efforts and we’ll see each other tonight in 013.” Amen.

In Tilburg’s pop temple, people could dance and wash away the managerial jargon, participatory phrases, critical notes and vague promises. In 013 things went inside-up, bottom-up and top-down. Afterwards, the adjacent establishments remained pleasantly restless for a long time.

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