News - September 29, 2011

The voice of VHL

Van Hall Larenstein is in a mess. Has been for months. The main protagonists in this classic drama are familiar to us: director Ellen Marks, board chair Aalt Dijkjhuizen, the dismissed programme director Hans van Rooijen and of course the joint participational council (MR). But what do the staff think about it all? Resource went round the three VHL campuses and took the temperature in the staffrooms. ‘I won't leave just like that; this is an extremely nice organization to work for.'

There have been numerous clashes between the management and the staff at VHL over the past year. At the end of last year, VHL director Ellen Marks decided to suspend consultations with the MR, saying the working relationship was ‘not constructive'. A little later, the MR returned a vote of no confidence in Ellen Marks. They did not think she had the qualities needed to lead the organization. The executive board supported Marks to the hilt and eventually the MR reluctantly returned to the negotiating table.
‘The air is cleared', was the headline in Resource, but that turned out to be premature. The bombshell came early in July in Velp, when programme director Hans van Rooijen was told to get out. He was accused of disloyalty to the management, but his supporters prefer the word ‘critical'. It was immediately clear that the vast majority of staff in Velp were going to stand right behind Van Rooijen. The opening of the college year in Velp was boycotted by most staff, who attended an alternative opening with firebrand education critic Arnold Heertje as guest speaker. Marks then cancelled the opening ceremony in Leeuwarden.
At this point the board decided it was time to intervene, and recruited management consultant Steven ten Have to investigate the level of support within VHL for Wageningen UR's strategy. If it proves low, then unstitching the merger would be one of the options. Marks and Van Rooijen are going to meet again too, under the guidance of a mediator. 
VHL Leeuwarden
‘It's not collaboration, it's swallowing up'

The conflict
In Leeuwarden there has been ‘an underlying mood of dissatisfaction' for some time. The biggest bone of contention is the strategic discussion about the future of VHL. ‘The process has been badly managed from the start. Members of staff are not involved enough, their concerns are not listened to, and communication is poor,' says an MR member. ‘They haven't got the faintest idea what we are doing here,' says another with a sneer.
It is clear from talking with those involved that there is ‘zero confidence' in the way the management and board function here in the Frisian capital. There is also disappointment with the way in which the merger with Wageningen UR is working out in practice. ‘Instead of collaboration it seems more as though we've been swallowed up and taken over', says a staff member who has been working for VHL for 20 years. ‘Wageningen UR can impose its services and systems almost unchecked, setting the conditions it wants and charging its much higher fees. That happens at the expense of the education budget.'
His Leeuwarden colleagues see the suspension of Hans van Rooijen as a good illustration of the way Marks and Dijkhuizen deal with critical staff: intimidation. ‘But you don't solve conflicts by sacking people, do you?'
The solution
The investigation into the level of support in the organization is viewed with mixed feelings. One member of staff sees it as an opportunity for staff to freely express their points of view and concerns ‘without discrimination or the risk of being sacked'. Another calls it a ‘distraction tactic'. ‘Research is being done into something which is of no interest. It's not about support, but about trust and security.'
Some staff members do not expect the research to be genuinely independent. ‘If the board formulates the assignment, then I know what the result will be.' For one teacher of Animal Management, that is already clear too: ‘Of course there is support, because who wouldn't want an improvement in the quality of education?' There is also concern about the money that is going to the investigators. ‘That could have been spent on education.'
The future
Cutting loose from Wageningen UR would be ‘too drastic', says an MR member. But the option does cause quite a stir in Leeuwarden. One teacher: ‘When that letter came, everyone reacted to that one word. Unstitching. It would mean we would be rid of Aalt.' Even though secretly, it must be possible to set up a nice collaboration within Wageningen UR, she thinks. ‘But then without Ellen Marks and Aalt Dijkhuizen.' If VHL does remain under the WUR flag, it will have to have its own independent executive board, says one of the staff members. ‘The collaboration with WUR should take a form dictated by our own initiative and our needs, within the constraints of the budget. I see no reason to do everything the same way in every part of the organization. The previous management called that couleur locale.'
´External experts told me that it would be good to stay within the WUR', says the MR member. ‘But we don't have to put up with everything.'
Linda van der Nat
VHL Wageningen
‘The resistance has been overcome'

The conflict
The controversy around Hans van Rooijen and Ellen Marks is not the heart of the matter. They know in Wageningen that its roots lie deeper. ‘Merger pain', says one person. ‘The fear of losing autonomy', says a receptionist. This tension is palpable between the VHL branches themselves too. ‘You notice that we in Leeuwarden are actually seen as a bit of a competitor. Wrongly so.'
VHL Wageningen takes a special position on this, staff here believe. ‘In contrast to Leeuwarden and Velp, we see the added value of the merger. A teacher adds: ‘Wageningen UR has a fantastic reputation. Instead of making good use of that, we start squabbling. Isn't that stupid?' A teacher who has been working at the college for 25 years is annoyed by the way some people within VHL think they can speak for everyone. The impression is created that the VHL staff speak with one voice, but that is not the case, he is eager to make clear. ‘Nor do we always agree with what the MR puts forward ‘on behalf of the staff'. It is undignified, some of the things that are being said now.'

The solution

An external advisor is going to investigate the ‘support for the strategy' while a mediator mediates between Hans van Rooijen and Ellen Marks. This choice doesn't get any applause in Wageningen. Bringing in external help is seen as an admission of weakness. 'That means you as management have run out of ideas. Lay the problem at someone else's feet, then you don't have to take the responsibility.'
Nor do the Wageningen staff believe that this investigation will get to the heart of the problem. Because there is nothing wrong with the strategy in itself. ‘More attention to quality, less spending on overheads, more on education: that's great, isn't it? Who could be against that? The problem is that the management does not have the confidence of the shop floor at the moment and then you don't get any strategy off the ground.' Someone else is a bit more optimistic: ‘The investigation won't provide solutions but it could provide some insight. It is a step in the right direction.'

The future

No unstitching, if it's up to the Wageningers. That is a spectre they would rather not contemplate. ‘Then VHL will fall apart. Because Leeuwarden wants nothing to do with us and Velp wants nothing to do with Leeuwarden. For us, as the smallest branch, that would mean the end. What should we do in that case? Join the Arnhem-Nijmegen college? That education factory?'
The expectation is that ‘people will use their common sense.' Eventually that ought to lead to VHL having its right and proper position within Wageningen, ‘but then keeping a certain identity at the various locations. Because for us that is an important way of maintaining our image in the region. At headquarters the importance of that is sometimes underestimated.
Whatever the case, VHL Wageningen sees itself as an inseparable part of Wageningen UR. ‘Eight years ago we were not so positive at all. It was really quite difficult to have to give up a historic building when the added value of a merger was not clear. But the resistance there was back then has largely been overcome.'
Rob Goossens

VHL's kid brother

Up at the top of the Forum in the heart of the Wageningen campus, we find VHL Wageningen. With more than 500 students, it is by far the smallest of the three branches of VHL: the kid brother. It used to be the National Higher Agricultural College for tropical agriculture, located in Deventer. In 1988 it became part of the new international college of Larenstein, but resisted a move to Velp tooth and nail. After the merger with Wageningen UR the historic building in Deventer finally had to be given up, to the sorrow of many of the teachers. In 2005, the whole institution moved to Wageningen and in 2006 it gained a home in the Forum. Besides the Tropical Agriculture programme, VHL offers modules of programmes such as Rural Innovation, Animal and Livestock Sciences, and Business Studies and Agribusiness.
VHL Velp
‘Away with the dictates of Wageningen'
The conflict
‘First bring Hans van Rooijen back; then I would really like to exchange ideas with Aalt Dijkhuizen about the future of the college', says a member of staff at Forest and Nature Management resolutely. Her opinion is widely shared - in Velp the future of the college is not seen as a separate issue from the management conflict. And many staff members assume that Ellen Marks is just Dijkhuizen's ‘messenger girl'. ‘You can collaborate on the content of our work quite easily, but I don't find any content with Marks.'
There are, however, also support staff members in Velp who want to stay neutral in the conflict. ‘Camps have formed and too many people are getting into the victim role. It is too black and white; we should look ahead together.' These members of staff do agree that ‘we have less and less say in what happens, with the bosses so far away. And that is a recipe for mistrust.' But one member of staff comes down squarely on the side of the managers. ‘I think we need a clean sweep. The college needs to change fast, but here things are never followed through.'
The solution
A solution will only come if VHL starts collaborating with Wageningen UR on an equal basis, think most people in Velp. So, no enforced uptake of the expensive ICT services and office space of Wageningen UR. And a management of its own which communicates with staff openly and transparently. A management that acts decisively on the real problems of the college, such as improving the quality of the education. If that is not possible within Wageningen UR, then withdrawing is seen as an option by this group. In order to carry out innovation in education, the (new?) management should get outspoken teachers with an interest in innovation to get to work to make a plan. Without dictates, because otherwise it will just be a procedural game between the management and the MR.
The future
VHL is a management construction without much added value to it. ‘It is shifting sand', says an old hand. It must be improved. ‘All innovations are brought in autonomously within the programmes; everyone has their own little shop. The management has no grip on it, because it is not competent in the field of education. They have an educational model that they want to push through, without knowing the situation.' The top-down policy and the big gap between management and shop floor are the key issues, says another person. Confidence in the management - including Dijkhuizen - has been severely dented. His speech in Velp, when he said staff would either have to accept the new policy or leave, did nothing to increase hopes of a happy ending. ‘My loyalty is to my programme and my students, not to Dijkhuizen', says one teacher. ‘And I won't leave just like that; this is an extremely nice organization to work for.'
Albert Sikkema
1400 students
VHL Velp has almost 1400 students. It has three programmes: Garden and Landscape Desing (T&L), Forest and Nature Management (BNV) and Land and Water Management (LWM). T&L was originally in Boskoop, but moved to Velp in a merger in 1988. Then the training programme for laboratory technicians moved from Wageningen to Velp, but this programme has since been passed on to the Arnhem-Nijmegen college).
The quotations in this article come from a random selection of VHL staff and do not necessarily represent the views of a majority at the three VHL branches. The photos were not taken on the days when the interviews took place, and bear no relation to the content of the article.