Organisation - May 21, 2015

New rector: ‘I believe in generating support’

Albert Sikkema,Rob Ramaker

In a high-speed procedure, Arthur Mol was appointed as the new rector magnificus on 19 May 2015. Who is he and what are his goals? Our first interview with the rector-to-be.

Why did you want to be rector?
‘I am 55 and I wanted to make one more switch in my career. I considered a post at a university overseas, but then this came along. And then people around me starting asking if the job of rector wouldn’t be up my street. That makes you think: why not, actually?’

But why?
‘I have done quite a bit of travelling around the world and when I compare Wageningen with the universities I visit in the US, the UK, China and Malaysia, I think: this certainly is a very good institution! In terms of what it does, but also as an organization. It is less bureaucratic than many other universities. The education and research systems run smoothly, with short lines between management and staff. So I wasn’t attracted to go abroad. The biggest hesitation was: I have to let go of my field, the subject matter. That was the hard part of the decision. I still have 23 PhD candidates. I want to continue to supervise most of them. But the chair group is steaming ahead, I’ve done my bit there and it’s time for someone new.’

Was this career planning?
‘No, this wasn’t planned. I’m a pretty uncomplicated person without many hidden agendas. I merged two graduate schools, Ceres and the Mansholt Institute, to form the Wageningen School of Social Sciences, and I have been on the board of the Education Institute, the Academic Board and on several advisory committees. But that wasn’t part of a scheme to become rector. The big advantage of those committees is that you get to know the organization very well.’

I am a pretty uncomplicated person without a lot of hidden agendas

What is your management style?
‘I am for a fairly open and flat management style and I believe in generating support. In practice that means a lot of consultations and talking, including at an informal level. But a decision has to be taken in the end. In the graduate school we had a lot of discussion about the new name. All the disciplines had to be represented in the name, as well as the fact that we were interdisciplinary. The name ended up far too long. Then I intervened as director. But I do want to be an accessible director and I like to drop in on people to discuss things.’

What will you take from your predecessor’s approach?
‘Martin Kropff’s energy and commitment have done Wageningen UR an enormous amount of good and he was extremely motivating. I would like to copy that, and I hope I can do it too. He also listens well, he listens to all sides and likes to weigh up decisions carefully. You need that in a knowledge institution full of strong-minded people.’

What needs to change?
‘I think the organization is too bureaucratic. Separately filling in leave hours on top of timewriting, for instance, takes up too much of my time. For some time I have been arguing for a committee to reduce the pressure of rules and regulations; I think we should put up more resistance to pressure from the accountants. And I think sometimes we could take decisions faster, on appointing professors for instance. A professor’s retirement is often announced a year in advance and then the procedure takes so long that the new one can only start a year after the old one left. That could be improved on.’

You were appointed as rector pretty fast, though?
‘That was fast-tracked. I talked to four committees in two weeks, and communication went very fast. The executive board and the supervisory board wanted a successor to Martin fast, because you want continuity in management. I will start next Thursday. I am still recovering from the speed of it all.’

Will you be innovating in the education programme?
‘Yes. We are doing well. We have committed teachers and have been number 1 in the Dutch degree guide for years, but there are challenges ahead. The first one is that we don’t get enough money to compensate for the growing student numbers. Secondly, we need to combine digital education with on-campus education. I think direct contact between teachers and students will continue to be very important, but we should supplement it with digital education. Which doesn’t mean I believe that you can economize much by using digital education, because developing and implementing it costs a lot of time and money. And thirdly, we must internationalize more. I think we should invest more in joint programmes with universities in the US and China for example, as we are already doing in Singapore and in the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions. That is one model for the future. We must tackle it strategically: who would make good partners in those joint programmes? I am not in favour of taking over a campus in China, like the University of Groningen is doing.’

Going back to your student days: you were in unitas, with the left-wing students.
‘In my student days I was on the intro committee and a culture committee at Unitas, up the hill. I was also a barman at cafe Troost and was on the Imperialism Collective for a long time. We were a progressive bunch; we cared about the environment and the third world and we argued for social relevance in science. The great thing is that those ideas are now totally embedded in Wageningen UR, in the form of science for impact. I argue for science that makes a difference. I can thoroughly enjoy research that comes out of sheer curiosity, but ultimately it is paid for out of our taxes.’

You come by train from utrecht every day at present. will you go on doing that?
‘I am going to figure that out now. I frequently wait a quarter of an hour for a connection, so I might need to make my journey more efficient. Perhaps I should take the company car more often. I am a systems freak, and I was in Hong Kong recently, where you can use the same card on all public transport and to rent a car, do your shopping and buy a coffee. Marvellous: I am a fan of smart systems. Now I’ll have to work out my own smart transport system.’


Full of curiosity, the researchers of the Environmental Policy chair group gathered last Monday for a hastily convened meeting. ‘I am going to be rector magnificus,’ announced professor Arthur Mol. Once the applause died down he continued imperturbably. What will it mean for the PhD candidates? What needs to happen, and what about his successor? There was no champagne. Colleague Gert Spaargaren thought it was typical of Arthur Mol to announce his appointment like this. Efficiently and without putting himself in the limelight.

Besides ‘modest’ and ‘efficient’, Mol’s colleagues describe him as ‘hardworking’ and ‘accessible’. As professor he does a lot of management. As well as leading his own department, he formed and leads the social science graduate school WASS, and is on the Education Institute board and the PhD council. A committee led by him advised that social science Master’s programmes in Wageningen should be two years long. Op top of all this management work, Mol still teaches and publishes a lot. In his academic work he links the environmental sciences, his degree subject, with the social sciences. For researchers too, Mol is always accessible. The door of his office is open whenever possible and he is not hierarchical in his approach. How does he find the time for all that work, his colleagues sometimes wonder.

In Mol, Wageningen University will have a rector who has internationalization in his DNA. His chair group attracts a lot of foreign students, and studies and compares environmental policy in countries from south-east Asia to Latin America. Mol’s own interest focusses largely on China. Spaargaren still remembers the day when a map of China appeared on Mol’s wall – an aid to learning the names of Chinese cities. Over the years he has built up an impressive network and is even visiting professor at the renowned Tsinghua University. Mol feels totally at home among the Chinese, says Spaargaren. ‘They are often engineers and not afraid of a technical solution. And they like to keep at it.’


1995 – the present Professor of Environmental Policy at Wageningen University
2008 – 2014 Director of Wageningen School of Social Sciences (WASS)
1995 PhD in Sociology at the University of Amsterdam
1985 Graduated in Environmental Science at Wageningen University

Visiting professor at Tsinghua University (2012) in China and National University of Malaysia (2014)

Photo: Guy Ackermans