He visited the site two weeks ago. ‘There was snow on the ground, and we had an amazing view of the sea’, Bart van de Laar remembers.
Van de Laar is head of University of Groningen Yantai programme team. He has been working full-time in Yantai with a team of eight since the summer. He was tasked with setting up four bachelor programmes for the science faculty and was very enthusiastic about his job. ‘There was a whole framework in place, with a city that was eager to invest in science.’
He not only enjoyed the Chinese environment, but also the energy it had. ‘I was amazed by the spirit of the Chinese, including the students, which was thoroughly enjoyable. They really wanted to contribute to a proper university, in collaboration with Groningen.’
But then, on Monday morning, 29 January, he heard about the press release that the Board of Directors would publish several hours later: the branch campus plans had been cancelled due to insufficient support. ‘I was completely blind-sided. We heard rumours of course, but we didn’t know how true they were.’
Van de Laar realised the project was a risk. ‘Universities always have to work on innovation. You need people to work on it, take risks. That’s what I was paid to do.’
And yet. He is unhappy about the decision. ‘I was certain that the discussion at the university would be more rational than it was. Staff and students should discuss these plans together, but I’m disappointed with the biting way the discussion is being publicised.’
Now the question remains what’s going to happen to Van de Laar and his team, as well as the dozens of others who were so committed to Yantai. For now, they’re continuing their work. ‘A project this large is not something you can just quit’, science faculty dean Jasper Knoester told the faculty council on Wednesday.
But the preparations will change. The Board of Directors has said that they’ll be looking for different types of collaboration. Van de Laar thinks they’ll be successful in finding these. ‘People who don’t see the incredible potential, use, and impetus that China can offer us are blind. Groningen doesn’t boast the international allure of a university such as Amsterdam, so we have to do everything we can to be a part of that.’
There are also financial consequences. The city of Yantai has covered the costs of the University of Groningen Yantai (UGY). Any alternative plans fall under the financial responsibility of the RUG itself. ‘So we have no idea what’s going to happen there’, according to Van de Laar. ‘The Board will have to find a different way to do that.’
He, at least, will do everything he can to find a new purpose with his team. ‘They are a fantastic team of professional, critical, and enthusiastic people. They live to serve the university. Now we just need to find a new purpose.’