What went wrong with the UGCE
A screwed-up workplace that no one tries to fix
Looking back, Tess realised something wasn’t right pretty soon after she’d started. Too many people had left the University of Groningen Centre of Entrepreneurship around the time that she started working there. Names kept popping up in articles of people who’d worked on projects, but had disappeared since. ‘That was kind of a red flag’, she says now.
Then there was the behaviour her boss, dean of entrepreneurship Aard Groen, exhibited. ‘He was always quick to anger. He’d throw tantrums about the smallest things and always made derogatory remarks about people.’
The situation didn’t feel right, she says, but the work itself was enjoyable. Until a few months later, when Groen unloaded on her during a meeting, telling her she’d been doing everything wrong. Though he wouldn’t actually specify what was wrong with her work, he did say that his wife, Tess’ colleague Olga Belousova, had told him that Tess had criticised her. That clearly hadn’t gone down well.
He puffed out his chest and waved his finger in her face. ‘My heart was beating out of my chest’, she recalls. ‘I desperately wanted to get out of there.’
Groen threw tantrums about the smallest things
She told him she didn’t enjoy his aggressive style of communication, to which he responded that she was the one who was being aggressive.
Other employees report similar experiences. People were blamed for things they hadn’t done, when nobody had told them it was their job. Other people were yelled at, felt bullied.
Tess went to the confidential adviser to tell her story. She wasn’t the only one. Many of the people UKrant spoke to had gone to see confidential adviser Marjolein Renker, although she can’t confirm this because her work is, in fact, confidential.
The UGCE was founded in 2014. It is currently part of the University College and has fifteen staff members. Sibrand Poppema, university president at the time, felt that the UG should focus more on entrepreneurship. It helped that the government was giving out sizeable grants. All over the country, universities started setting up Centres of Entrepreneurship.
The UG wanted in, too, stealing professor of entrepreneurship Aard Groen away from Enschede. In addition to teaching and researching entrepreneurship, Groen was also tasked with stimulating entrepreneurship at the university. Joining the centre should be obvious, the project proposal read. It was supposed to be a natural part of academic life, just like ‘study associations, the ACLO, USVA, or Studium Generale’.
Seven years after its ambitious start, the centre has grown, and it participates in various curricula taught all over the UG. It employs PhD candidates, has partnerships with universities abroad, and students enjoy the VentureLab activities. But it’s still miles away from being the ‘ACLO for entrepreneurial students’.
Additionally, the centre’s finances aren’t in order. ‘The UGCE has been operating at a loss for several years’, the board of directors writes in the 2021 institutional budget. While clear profit and loss calculations are missing, the 2015 UG budget showed an operating deficit of 200,000 euros. By 2017, this had increased to 240,000 euros.
Uncertainties about the centre’s income are why FEB wanted to get rid of the centre. ‘The board had the best intentions in founding the centre, but they didn’t put any proper thought in how to manage it’, says then dean Herman de Jong.
But there was more. Dean Groen refused to be held accountable for his fast-growing, but financially ailing club by the faculty. After all, he reported directly to the board of directors. The board gave him the money, the board provided the staff, and the board issued the assignments. In other words, he had nothing to do with FEB. But the faculty was getting worried. ‘If things went sideways, we’d be stuck with the staff, and that’s not a problem you want to have as a department’, a former colleague says.
We don’t want things to go sideways at our department
The centre moved to the University College Groningen. Since this was a typical educational faculty, ‘it would be better suited there’, says De Jong. The board of directors was responsible for any financial deficits.
Three years later, not much has changed. The 2021 budget still has a deficit of 110,000 euros, but the board of directors wanted to invest another 750,000 euros. The university council isn’t so keen. They say there is no clear report on the profits and losses. Also: what exactly are people doing at the UGCE? Is the money being spent wisely?
Kristina Linke, who represents the Science faction on the council, has her doubts. Other departments at the UG, like FEB and Campus Fryslân, do similar research and provide similar education. ‘We haven’t been able to identify a coordinated strategy’, she says. ‘How much entrepreneurship does a university need? What’s the centre’s vision?’
Besides, Linke has concluded that many of the UGCE’s educational activities are in collaboration with other faculties. How much time do the centre’s employees actually spend on research and education? And how much time do they spend on ‘valorisation’?
Because the VentureLab activities, no matter how important, aren’t actually part of the university’s core tasks of education and research. That means the centre doesn’t get any government funds for these activities.
The university council has been asking the board for clarification, in part because this year, the government has instituted strict rules about spending public money on ‘private activities’, such as courses for non-students.
A UGCE self-evaluation was intended to convince the council to approve of the budget. ‘But that still didn’t explain exactly what the centre does’, says Mariët Hofstee, Personnel faction representative on the council. According to her, the self-evaluation read more like a pamphlet. ‘As though the dean was trying to appeal to a group of investors instead of trying to justify why his centre needed the money.’ She thinks it’s even worse that the centre is supposed to support itself when ‘they can’t even take care of their own accounting’.
No one is asking why the centre isn’t performing
In the end, the university council approved the budget for six months, after which period a plan should be in place to ‘restructure’ the entire centre. That plan will be discussed during Thursday’s council meeting. The idea is to house the centre’s research and educational activities with the Faculty of Economics and Business and its research institute SOM. The valorisation part, aka the VentureLab activities, would fall under a separate foundation, or under UG Ventures.
But, the board acknowledges, ‘a proper business plan is needed’, since ‘the current Lab isn’t breaking even without the help of public funds’.
It’s unclear whether the council will approve of the budget. Both the Personnel and the Science factions say it’s still much too vague, even though back in December, the board promised to have a ‘cohesive plan’ by the start of 2021.
It remains to be seen whether a plan is even the right solution. ‘Everyone is talking about the fact that the centre isn’t doing well’, says former employee Anna. ‘But no one is asking why it isn’t.’
The former employees UKrant spoke to over the past few weeks all say the answer is obvious. The UGCE work environment is absolutely toxic, which is mainly due to its dean, Aard Groen. When you first meet him, Groen comes across as ‘charismatic, a visionary’, they say. ‘He talked a good game when he’d just started. But when the time came to deliver, we realised there was a big difference between what was being delivered and what had been promised’, the former FEB colleague says.
Former employee Anna has bad memories of her time working at the UGCE. Her boss constantly demanded impossible things from her, getting mad when she was unable to do them. When angry, Groen would raise his voice. ‘It was extremely intimidating.’ It took a while for her to realise that it wasn’t normal to be writing emails in tears because she was constantly being berated. ‘I desperately tried to do a good job’, she says, ‘but there was just no way for me to please him.’
Another issue was the lack of trust. She didn’t get access to email addresses and was denied the opportunity to work independently. Groen would always criticise her, even when she’d objectively done a good job. Everything revolved around his interests and his status, she says, not about what was best for the UGCE. ‘Aard’s network belongs to him, not to the UGCE.’
Former employees say he would sometimes deny things he’d said only five minutes earlier. They say he would often roll his eyes and that he could get ‘pretty nasty’. That he would belittle and bully people. That there was a culture of gossip at the centre, and that people would sometimes be found crying in the bathroom. ‘He also had a couple of favourites, whom he did treat well. He pits people on his team against each other, just to create a stir’, says Tess.
He pits people on his team against each other
Nearly everyone mentions the twosome Groen-Belousova. A conflict with the wife led to a reprimand by the boss. ‘He would say that he’d heard things’, Anna says. ‘It was a dangerous game, because he never mentioned any names.’
Belousova also had access to Groen’s email inbox. Tess didn’t like this, as emails to her boss often contained sensitive, private information. She didn’t want other people reading them.
The toxic behaviour was contagious. One former employee says the aggressive style of leadership spread throughout the centre.
Iris tells how she was ignored during lunch time and how her supervisor – not Groen – would yell at her every time they wanted her to do something. Whenever something went wrong, whether she was five minutes late to setting up a training course because of bad weather or if she hadn’t put the cups in the dishwasher, her supervisor would lash out at her. When she heard a participant of the VentureLab get upset about an email she’d received from Groen, she tried to calm her down. ‘I tried to tell her he didn’t mean it that way. That everyone was overworked.’ Afterwards, she was berated for even talking about it.
It was impossible to discuss what was going on, she says. She and her colleagues didn’t feel safe to do so. She remembers how relieved she felt at the end of her last day at the centre.
An employee survey from 2019 confirms that employees at the centre were not having a good time. When asked the question ‘I feel safe enough to talk to my colleagues about their behaviour’, the centre scored a grade of 4.8, while the UG as a whole scored 6.9. The question ‘I can mentally handle my work’ received a score of 5.8. UG-wide, this question scored a 7.7.
In the end, Iris went to the confidential adviser. So did Tess, as well as Anna and other people UKrant talked to. Some of them even went to their HR adviser.
Others didn’t do so. Some of them, undoubtedly, because they did not feel troubled by the situation. Academic staff seemed to be less affected by the problems, or perhaps they’ve got used to them, says Anna. However, others were worried their relationship with Groen would be affected if he found out that they’d said something. Or feared the centre would be closed and they would lose their jobs.
Perhaps they were right to be afraid.
As far as I’m concerned, the UG is a terrible employer
While the confidential adviser keeps getting reports on the centre, nothing concrete has changed. Some former employees are glad they at least got to tell their story, grateful that someone acknowledged that what had happened to them wasn’t okay. Others, however, are sceptical and don’t think it will help much.
They never got any feedback, which means they don’t know what’s happening with their ‘case’. In the meantime, the situation hasn’t changed. ‘It’s so dispiriting. I wondered why no one was doing anything and I thought: what am I supposed to do now? Because I can’t stay here if nothing changes’, says Tess. ‘As far as I’m concerned, the UG is a terrible employer.’
Renker understands that people sometimes get frustrated in situations like these. She can’t comment on this case, but says her options are limited. As confidential adviser, it’s not up to her to intervene. She can report the incidents to the organisation, as long as employees give their permission. But it’s up to the organisation to actually do something.
Council member Hofstee is hopeful that the new ombudsperson, who’s scheduled to start next month, will be able to do something. Right now, she says, employees are left empty-handed. ‘They could submit an official complaint, of course, but they’d better also hire a lawyer and prepare for nastiness.’
Instead, people just keep muddling on, deeply unhappy, says Hofstee, or they call in sick. Some people have left in desperation. That has to change, she says.
‘It’s because he’s never been held accountable’, says Iris. ‘Then things get out of hand and people get hurt.’
Former UGCE employers Tess, Anna, and Iris didn’t want their real names to be used in this article. UKrant spoke to three other former employees about the situation and had access to documents that confirm the stories they told.
Dean of entrepreneurship Aard Groen’s response to this article
I’d like to start by saying that reading this article has greatly affected me. I regret that old issues are being brought back and presented as current. I realise that my particular style of leadership hasn’t always been easy for everyone. I have taken past signs about this to heart.
In discussion with my team and the UG’s HR department, we’ve decided to take action together. Based in part on the results of the 2019 employee survey, we started both a collective and an individual track in an effort to investigate how people collaborate as well as communicate, and to improve this where necessary.
The issues have also been discussed in our annual evaluation with our HR adviser, and everyone was given the opportunity to discuss any problems with HR. No further issues were identified during this process. Quality collaboration is an ever-present topic on our agenda.
Recently, the UCG conducted a survey in which employees in the group expressed their appreciation of the way the UGCE team worked together. Unfortunately, none of the current team members were interviewed for this article, which means it presents a one-sided story. I find this objectionable.
In order to counter what’s being suggested in this article and in appreciation of the good work the UGCE is doing, I propose an independent investigation into the activities of the UGCE. I am more than confident of the results.