Organisation - December 10, 2015

‘I expected more of an us-and-them attitude’

Albert Sikkema,Edwin van Laar

Arthur Mol looks back on his first six months as rector. He misses the writing and the travelling. ‘Now I am rector, I don’t have as much freedom.’ And yet Arthur Mol does get a kick out of his new job. He is struck by how understanding and realistic staff are, and what confidence they have in Wageningen UR. ‘Broadly speaking things are going well and people feel that.’

Photo: Guy Ackermans

On request, Arthur Mol brought his diary along to our meeting at Vredenburg music centre in Utrecht. We’d like to know how it’s changed since the professor of Environmental Policy joined the executive board. He’s a lot busier, is what we hear from other people.

Mol: ‘It’s more a matter of the way I’m busy. I was busy as a professor too, but more on things I did on my own, such as commenting on the work of my PhD students, and writing. You can do that anywhere and you can juggle with it. Now I’m rector I don’t have as much freedom. I’ve got non-stop appointments in my office. When you write you can sit and think things through on your own and you formulate insights as you write. Now everything is planned and I hardly get out of my office. It’s a different kind of day.’

Would you like to write more?

‘Yes, I miss writing. Writing is nice; it is really research. And it is important that I keep on thinking about my subject area. I had expected to be able to go on spending at least half a day a week on environmental policy and my PhD students but I don’t manage that. Maybe it’s because of the initial pressure when you’ve just started a new job. But I do want to find the space for that.’

Is your door still open?

‘My door is always open, literally. The digital door is open too; I want to be accessible. I haven’t created a shield around me.’

How do you like your new job, actually?

‘It is really nice, but that is partly because things are going so well at the university. There are always little things that could be better, but broadly speaking things are going well and people feel that throughout the organization. Yesterday I was talking to a group of Master’s students who want to do a PhD. I told them they should move abroad but they said no, this is where the quality is. You get a kick out of that. Without any distortion of the facts I can say that it’s going well. We are fed up that the Ministry of Economic Affairs doesn’t fully fund our growth because we almost can’t manage. It narrowly avoids affecting our basic quality.’

The Dutch government puts too little money and effort into agricultural innovation, notes the Dutch Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OESO).

‘We need to develop our own ideas about a good science policy. The Ministry of Economic Affairs’ financial and substantive contribution to DLO is gradually dwindling and there are no indications that that trend will reverse. The Hague subsidies continue to decline and I see that people in DLO respond very realistically to that. Everyone thinks: we’re in a good organization, and the staff and the executive board are doing their best to make something of it together. I hadn’t expected that; I expected a much stronger us-and-them attitude.’

Or do people just agree with the boss?

‘I still have good feelers out on the work floor at the university, and not just in the Social Sciences Group. I get feedback from a lot of people and they are not kowtowers. I do need to watch out that I don’t shut myself away in Atlas too much; I travel much less now that I used to. And I should carry on travelling, to get ideas from all around the world. I was on the trade mission to China and then I visited a small company that develops MOOCs for the Chinese market at the moment, and will soon do so for the international one. It is a young university-based company that is developing a virtual platform where 100 Chinese universities post and find MOOCs. It has received 30 million euros for developing and disseminating online courses. As rector you need to see that sort of thing for yourself. I want to go on looking around.’

I get feedback from a lot of people and they are not kowtowers

What about your plans for more internationalization?

‘We have a lot of agreements with other universities and institutes around the world but what we want now is to collaborate intensively and strategically with a few renowned institutions, so as to get better together. Examples in the US would be Cornell University or UC Davis, which are sterling universities in our field. We are already working well with Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and we should probably also select strong Chinese and Brazilian universities to work with. We are not going to send teachers back and forth but above all develop teaching and research together, in the form of joint degrees with online courses, for instance, with students going on exchanges between the institutions. We are very strong internationally. I get a visit from an ambassador every week at the moment. We should have a policy for this. If we want to make sure we are still good in ten years’ time, we should collaborate internationally more extensively and intensively now, and digitalize. That’s where the innovation is.’

If we want to be good in ten years’ time still we must internationalize and digitalize now

Does that mean an end to the patchwork of project in developing countries?

‘No. At the project level, chair groups and institutes should decide for themselves who they work with. What I’m interested in is the larger strategic programmes. In those you need to make decision about which partners to invest in. If you want good MOOCs with Chinese subtitling, or MOOCs in Chinese, you need an outstanding Chinese partner. And we want to collaborate with universities which, just like us, are working on global issues worldwide. In Africa I haven’t seen a global partner of good enough quality yet; many institutes there focus exclusively on one country. In China there are top universities that are just as internationally oriented as we are.’

Why does a strong university have to beg for funding in The Hague?

‘Wageningen UR gets used as a flagship on foreign missions, but that does not get reflected in more money. And that is strange. The Ministry of Economic Affairs really says: we don’t have any money. We are increasingly admired, in the Netherlands too, but Wageningen UR is not a political priority. Although food and sustainability are increasingly important, the funding from The Hague for agricultural and environmental research is dwindling. We have to compensate outside the Netherlands, such as at the EU, and we are doing so already. I think the foreign funding will increase a lot and that in future we’ll be offering much more digital education to new target groups.’