News - February 7, 2013

Groen: 'Cherish your dissidents'

'Managers become lazy if there's no resistance.'
University consultations with students need to be more meaningful.

Wageningen UR should have the courage to be more open to critical reflection and listen to the 'dissidents' within the organization. That was the key message that education and research director Ab Groen put across in his farewell lecture on 24 January.
Groen was not afraid to reflect on the directors present in the room. For instance, he said it was 'hilarious' that university directors and researchers advocate autonomy and self-monitoring 'in view of the recent failures in self-monitoring in the case of directors' pay and scientific fraud.'
Such contradictions raise the suspicions of the general public. Groen thinks that you can only change this by paying more attention to the individual motivations of students and researchers. He is against the abolition of the basic grant, selective admissions and setting up so-called honours programmes. Such measures are turning the universities into 'Humboldt institutions' - ivory towers - whereas they should be developing into networking knowledge institutions.
Universities also need to make sure they do not lose contact with the students. 'The biggest challenge for universities now is to be aware of the trends among young people.' He mentions the use of IT as an example. 'A lecturer found it irritating that students were messing around with Facebook and Twitter during practicals. I don't agree. Sixty percent of new students have mobile internet. So it should be the other way around - the lecturer should start tweeting with them instead. Wageningen University should invest more in the use of social media in the learning environment so you are giving enough support to the IT trendsetters among the students.'
That is why you need a structural dialogue between the university and its students 'starting with the acknowledgement that young people should have a say,' argues Groen. He feels consultations between the board and the student council are too much of a ' formal exercise' without 'the intrinsic willingness to discuss key policy decisions.'
The university directors should organize such questioning of its policy themselves, says Groen, who acted as an advisor to the board for the past seven years. 'Make sure there is sufficient critical reflection.' He says managers become lazy if they aren't confronted with resistance or dissidents, or else they think they can get away with anything. 'A strong organization is prepared to make room for dissidents because they improve the quality of the decision-making process.' According to Groen, it is those very critics who throw a different light on matters and who can expose the weak points in policy choices. 'We must have the courage to have honest differences of opinion. There needs to be a culture grounded in commitment and creativity in which staff feel safe to take risks and take action. Resistance is about voicing your own views and seeking links with others based on your own sense of worth.'
From Wageningen UR To Helicon
Ab Groen has spent more than 30 years at Wageningen University, first as a student and then as a lecturer in the Animal Breeding and Genetics group and later head of teaching within Animal Sciences. He has spent the last seven years as director of Corporate Education, Research & Innovation at Wageningen UR. As of 1 February, he will be chairman of the board of Helicon, a centre for pre-vocational and vocational agricultural education.