News - December 15, 2011

‘I'll never be everyone's friend'

He was in the limelight rather a lot this year. He was feted as the man behind the ‘golden triangle', but also reviled as an authoritarian manager and the champion of the carnivores. Aalt Dijkhuizen looks back.

Aalt Dijkhuizen: 'I am open to advice but I don't always first go round asking everyone what I should do. Sometimes you have to do your own thing.'
Wageningen UR has a turbulent year behind it. On the one hand, excellent scores in the rankings, and upheld as a shining example in The Hague. And on the other, quarrels at VHL and media criticism of the bee study, the milk research and your communication style.
‘If you ask me there are very many reasons to look back with satisfaction on this year. Our university came out top again in the Keuzegids degree course guide, and Wageningen UR as a whole got into the list of the fifty best employers. In the research field we gained the new algae park, the MRI scanner and yet another ERC grant of 2.5 million - to name but a few of the achievements. A more fundamental gain is the way government appreciates Wageningen's funding model, in which the business world plays an important role. The ‘golden triangle' was held up this year as a model for science in the Netherlands.'
That is true, but Wageningen's links with the business world also caused quite a stir. In relation to the bee business, for example, and the milk article.
‘Yes, and I sometimes think that the two are connected. If you do well, there is always someone in the Netherlands ready to make you feel the down side of your success. Not everyone is happy about the idea of companies co-financing research. Wageningen has become the symbol of that, so it's an appealing target for criticism.'
So have the critics got it totally wrong?
Yes and no. They've got it wrong in that attracting funding for research from the business world really is in the interests of science. That is not just my conviction, you can see it reflected in the Times Higher Education Index, a leading scientific ranking list in which a university is ranked higher the more contract research they do. But looking at the criticism from the public, we don't always seem to have done a good job of explaining this. On that point you should certainly take our critics seriously. We are going to help our researchers to make clear when the talk to the press and the public how the funding and the quality control work in their research, and also what the differences are between the university and the DLO institutes.'
Another issue is VHL. A serious conflict between management and staff in which one stalemate followed another. How could it go so badly wrong?
‘There are all kinds of reasons why the collaboration doesn't go smoothly. I think the investigation by Ten Have exposes the root causes well. In retrospect there are certainly things that could have been done better. Which ones? I'll just pick out one for now. It is precisely the combination of factors that gets in the way of collaboration. In any case, we certainly can't just leave things to run their course. As was clear in the Keuzegids, students at VHL are not satisfied with the quality of the teaching or of the organization. So that must improve and we must pay attention to it as soon as possible.'
The participational council at VHL is extremely critical, including of the Ten Have results. The council seems to be spoiling for a fight.
‘That is why we want to listen to all the staff in the Ten Have investigation. Does the participational council represent the feelings of all staff members? Perhaps it does, perhaps it doesn't. In any case, it is our duty to find that out before we make any decisions.
I still believe in the added value of this combination in the ‘green' disciplines. I myself studied at both applied sciences and academic institutions and I know from experience how well the practical nature of the applied sciences and the analytical nature of university studies complement each other. For this reason, I don't think we should give up too easily. If you separate, it's for ever.'
Aalt Dijkhuizen as a person came under fire at VHL, and in the discussion about the influence of the business world on science. People often seem to have an image of you as an authoritarian technocrat.
‘I don't think anyone who knows me well recognizes me in that image. I am not a technocrat and I am not authoritarian either. Don't get me wrong, I know that in my position I will never be everyone's friend. In order to make progress in an organization you have to make decisions. I was appointed to strengthen and improve Wageningen UR. That requires clear choices. And some people are enthusiastic about what comes out, and others are not. That will always be the case. What has really shocked me is the aggressive language that is used. The way you get called a ‘despot' and ‘authoritarian' by people you have never even met. That hits home. It flouts a norm of common decency.'
But you contact individual staff members when they say something in the media that you disagree with. That can be intimidating.
Hesitant: ‘Maybe. But I have never queried a staff member about the content of a media interview, and I never shall. I do say something if untrue things are said about the organization. Or if we present ourselves to the outside world in an unfair light or incompletely. I think that is only right. I certainly see it as my task to be quite clear about this.'
All the staff were recently given tips about the use of social media. One of them was: don't react too quickly: count to ten. If you had received that tip earlier, would you still have sent the now famous ‘lout' tweet*?
‘Yes, because I had given that some thought. Diederik Stapel's fraud struck at the heart of science; that is the worst thing you can do. The term ‘lout' is one he used himself in his report on his invented research, in order to pillory meat-eaters.'
Did your spokesman agree?
‘I don't know. I am open to criticism but I don't always first go round asking everyone what I should do. Sometimes you have to do your own thing.'
You regularly get involved in public debate, on intensive livestock farming for instance. Is it not more sensible to leave the substantial discussion to researchers?
‘On those subjects I am always fed information by our own researchers. Sometimes it is claimed that I therefore represent a business interest, but that is not the case. My views on putting cows out to pasture, for example, are not in line with FrieslandCampina's policy. So be it. In the debate, I base my views on science.
You keep your private life carefully shielded from view. A little peep behind the scenes: which of your hobbies is the most typical of you?
‘Ha-ha! Well, it has to be football. I played it for nearly 20 years, a team sport. I was goalie and that position suits me down to the ground. You don't have a defence line to fall back on. The buck stops with you. That appeals to me. I wouldn't make a good mid-fielder, no matter how key that role is. I still follow football on the TV, and Feyenoord is my favourite club. Has been since I was six.'
Not a highflyer in the rankings...
‘That's what you think. To me, Feyenoord is still the first Dutch team to win the European Champions Cup. I find the players' hard work and the supporters' loyalty inspiring. The results will pick up at some point, I'm sure. I am a born optimist.'
*@AaltDijkhuizen: 'Turns out the researcher(s?), not the meat-eaters, are the louts. Will Roos Vonk be as critical of herself as she is of others? (Tweet of 8 September)
Gaby van Caulil and Rob Goossens