For 12 years, Aalt Dijkhuizen, a farmer’s son from Drenthe, stood at the helm of Wageningen UR. With his no-nonsense mentality he put Wageningen on the map, but that same businesslike approach attracted criticism as well. As his departure approaches, he looks back. ‘I went into it with my eyes open and then you have to take it as it comes.’
He never licks his wounds for long. ‘After an hour I force myself to ask, where do the opportunities lie?’ The kind of remark we have come to expect from Aalt Dijkhuizen, the man who became head of the still rather shaky merger that formed Wageningen UR 12 years ago. Under Dijkhuizen Wageningen grew into a confident scientific organization of international repute. But he also got a name for being tough: his will is law. With the prospect of an end in February to 12 years of leadership, Resource editor Rob Goossens took a valedictory walk over the campus with Aalt Dijkhuizen.
But if you are picturing a melancholy board chairman musing on how time has flown, think again. This board chair still prefers to talk about the future, about all the tremendous possibilities it holds out, and opportunities there for the taking. Aalt Dijkhuizen is still full of the joys of spring. ‘My part in this?’ We are standing outside the Atlas building at the entrance to the campus and Dijkhuizen is surveying the scene. ‘Impossible to say. You always do a job like this together. At the most you could say I helped to draw up the plans.
I can still remember very well the discussion in the supervisory board about building the Forum: ‘Yes, but what if it is half empty later?’ At a moment like that you contribute to the discussion by taking a line and going for it wholeheartedly. In the Forum case, that worked out well, but if at some point it works out less favourably, they can always get back to me. I never duck the consequences. That element of risk is exactly what I like about my job.’
Twelve years ago, Wageningen UR was a very different prospect. A university in decline and a fragmented DLO. Were you doubtful when they asked you to come to Wageningen?
‘No. Once a Wageninger, always a Wageninger, as the saying goes. In my case, it is true. I was very happy as a director at Nutreco and I probably would not have been lured away by any other organization or company. But because of my Wageningen history as a student and later as a professor, I entered into discussion. I immediately saw so many opportunities and starting points that it was soon sorted. And I have never had any regrets about that.’
We arrive at the Zaaier, the famous statue by August Falise, which belongs to the administrative headquarters, thereby also symbolizing Dijkhuizen’s leadership. A leadership that has sometimes been controversial. Critics talk of an ‘industrial approach’ and the discouragement of opposition. Dijkhuizen nods resignedly: he is familiar with this criticism by now. ‘I can cope with criticism, luckily. If I couldn’t I shouldn’t be in this job. But what I wonder is, who have I discouraged? It is so easy to say that, but give me chapter and verse. The same goes for the discussions on more substantive issues. Where are the facts? We owe it to our status as a knowledge organization to provide our evidence. At a party political meeting it might be alright just to grab the microphone and assert: I think this or that. But here we need to base things on facts, on the result of our research. That is our role in the wider discourse.’
Were you not a bit too strict for this free academic environment?
‘I quite understand that not everyone endorses every policy. Twelve years ago, Wageningen UR consisted of a series of separate little clubs. If you want to create some coherence in that, in the area of communication and profiling for instance, it inevitably means affecting the freedoms, the rights acquired over the years, of some of your staff. As an organization you want a certain degree of uniformity, but you also want to provide a sanctuary for initiative and intellect. So there is a tension between these things, but you can’t go on negotiating about it for ever. I was appointed here to get results. Nobody said, make as many friends as you can.’
But the criticism is not water off a duck’s back, because you are quick to engage in discussion with people. You recently responded on the Resource website to a student who criticized you. Odd move for a board chair.
‘I think it is always good to explain what you are doing and what you mean, and precisely to the people who cast doubt on it. In this case it was quite nice that I met the studentconcernedinpersontwoweekslaterinconnection with something else entirely. We then discussed the issue at length and concluded that our positions were not so far apart after all. Feel free to ask her. You’ve got her number, just call her.’
Perhaps I will.
I hope you really will. Because the problem is that everyone is happy to chip in with their penny’s worth when there is a controversy, but as soon as it dies down or turns out to be about nothing much, it all goes quiet. That creates the wrong impression of the atmosphere and relationships in this organization.’
By now we have entered the Forum, where we are overtaken by a lively group of international students. If there is one thing Dijkhuizen has put his all into in the past 12 years, it is international linkages. The ‘fl ying chairman’ was at home with governments and companies in China, the Middle East, the US and South America.
‘That goes with our territory,’ he says. ‘Almost every subject we deal with has an international dimension, both at DLO institutes and at the university.’
But the world you move around in to achieve this is very hard, he found out. ‘Only the fi ttest survive, and those with less to offer get left behind. Why shouldn’t China forge links with an institute from the US or Korea? Luckily the Netherlands has something unique to offer there, namely the combination of our Wageningen expertise, the technology of the business world and the support of the government. That combination, the golden triangle, really does work.’
Did you enjoy your foreign travel personally?
‘I enjoy international contact, but don’t forget that the work here just goes on, so before and after a trip you are always twice as busy. And then I have trouble with jetlag, so I hardly sleep and stay up answering emails in the night. So it is demanding, but you do get a lot out of it too. You always come across something special which you realize you would never have known about if you had just stayed at home.’
In the Netherlands itself the mood is becoming more and more anti-international. Do you see that as a limitation?
‘No, more like a challenge. We show how it can be done: establishing international links, bringing students from lots of countries together here in an atmosphere of collaboration. The best way of getting involved in this discussion is to show that that works. And in the interests of the Netherlands too. The food & agri sector had a record turnover last year. It will pull the Netherlands out of the crisis, and that is partly because it looks abroad.’
Were you never asked, what on earth is going on in the Netherlands these days?
‘Oh no, everyone is far too busy taking care of food supplies at the moment. In that context, decision makers are more interested in cooperation than in emphasizing barriers. There are almost two different worlds: the important but inconspicuous world of research and business on the one hand, and the visible world of the media and politics on the other. By defi nition they do not overlap.’
We walk on. Dijkhuizen talks animatedly about his work at Wageningen UR. About the fantastic synergy he sees between the academic, fundamental research on the one hand and applied research at DLO on the other. About the university’s spectacular growth. All in the present. His farewell still seems far off.
You make a lively, energetic impression. But you did go through a difficult period when you were diagnosed with cancer. What effect did that have on you?
'That was not a period you would wish on anybody. It started in July 2007. Luckily the tumour was in the bowel and it squeezes it so you notice it quickly. I was in China when it got really bad. On 11 July I came back early and was diagnosed, and two days later I went under the knife. The forum was opened in December that year, at which point I had just had my fi rst dose of chemo and I could cope pretty well. I’m just happy it worked out well. It was brief but tough at the time.’
And then? Back to business or does it change the way you look at things?
Back to business. In the old days you would get the diagnosis of cancer and that was the end. It is not like that anymore. To me it is important to show that you are not scarred for life when you have had a brush with cancer. I consider myself lucky, but I am also not the type to dwell on the past for long. I enjoy the present and I look ahead to the future. In fact, you raised it now, but I never think about it anymore.’
You are not easily put off your stroke.
‘Oh, I do have had my moments of disappointment. I still remember being told: it is cancer, we shall have to operate. You don’t just carry on regardless at a time like that. I certainly give myself time to feel sorry for myself but after an hour to an hour and a half I force myself to say: but there are opportunities here too. What can I do?’
So an hour and a half of feeling sad is enough?
‘More like an hour, I’d say.’
An hour… Where does this tough-guy personality come from?
‘Ha, ha. I think your upbringing plays a role. I grew up on a farm as one of ten children. In a family like that everyone has to fight for their place. We were always taught to be independent and that you should look forwards, no backwards. Perhaps that appealed to me. I don’t know.’
Is there anything you regret?
‘There are always things of which you think, if I had to do that again, I would do it a bit differently. But regret? No. you do your best, I went into it with my eyes open and then you have to take it as it comes. That’s life. It’s just the way it is.’
Is that the way you look at the failed marriage with VHL too?
‘Yes. The fact that the collaboration went wrong can be blamed on several factors that worked together in an unfortunate way. Fortunately we were also able to separate again without either of the parties suffering irreversible damage. Altogether, I don’t look back on it with pride, but that doesn’t mean we should never have started it. I am still conscious of the potential value of collaboration with a HBO institution, and I think there will be more initiatives in that direction in future.’
Eventually we return to the Atlas building. There will soon be a new chair of the executive board sitting in Dijkhuizen’s office.
Do you have any advice for your successor?
‘There are many roads to Rome, and everyone picks the one that suits them. What I have noticed is that the public image of Wageningen UR is largely based on the university, whereas as board chair you spend a lot of your time on DLO. The funding for the university has reasonable continuity, whereas at DLO each new project has to be acquired every time again. That takes time and effort, and requires organizations to be continuously adapting. I would say: don’t underestimate that.’
What will our organization look like in 20 years’ time?
‘Given that our scientific fields are well and truly on the map, I think that Wageningen could get two or three times as big as it is now. Although of course our goal must not be to be the biggest, but to be the best. Luckily, we are that too. The international aspect will become more and more important for that and will lead to branches overseas. We are already setting up education in Singapore, and in Chile we lead a centre of excellence in food – and that is not the end of the story. But the headquarters will remain in Wageningen, with specialized education and research. Whatever the case: the time is ripe. The game will be changing in the world in the next few years. And Wageningen is at the cutting edge.’