Anthonya Visser is the new dean of arts
‘I want the arts to be representative’
Anthonya Visser (60, professor of German language and culture) is no stranger to overdue maintenance. Until recently, the new dean of the Groningen Faculty of Arts served as the scientific director for an ailing research institute at the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Leiden. ‘I didn’t know it when I accepted the job, but I quickly realised that I was starting with a large financial deficit.’
To prevent reorganisation, the Leiden research institute had to find a solution to the money problems. ‘There were several departments that would not have survived reorganisation, and I didn’t want that. I want the arts to be comprehensive. I also think it’s really destructive to just keep getting rid of the smallest departments. It would never end.’ Under Visser’s leadership, the worst-case scenario many people feared for the research institute in Leiden was prevented.
In 2013, the Groningen arts faculty was not so lucky. To make up for the large deficits in the budget, the faculty had to cut back 2.5 million a year. The faculty not only lost thirty-three full-time jobs and several special chairs, but the language studies Finnish, Hungarian, Danish, and Norse were also cut. The reorganisation came as a bombshell, partly because the board had initially said that drastic measures weren’t necessary.
Fear and resistance
Visser understands why the reorganisation still haunts people at the faculty. They may not be drowning, but the faculty’s budget is still tight. Among the seven hundred staff members, there is still that fear that if you don’t bring in any money, you might just have to leave. Researchers and teachers are at the ends of their tether trying to maintain quality with a slashed budget. Measures by the board to make the faculty more efficient are met with resistance.
People disagreeing with policy decisions are part and parcel of any large organisation, but Visser says it’s important to be transparent and make sure that everyone at least feels involved in the decisions. ‘You have to have a clear strategy, a strict organisation, and clear processes. That might sound quite bureaucratic, but if you get it right, you’ll actually make things less bureaucratic.’
People call for transparency, but what they really mean is that they don’t agree with the decision
She also says there’s a difference between transparency and complete consensus. ‘What I noticed at the research institute in Leiden, and it’s come up in a few conversations here as well, is that people call for transparency, but what they really mean is that they don’t agree with the decision that’s been made. Transparency doesn’t always mean your decisions are based on democracy. Those are two different approaches. But transparency does tell you who makes the decisions, and on what grounds.’
Not an impossible task
In spite of the mistrust within the faculty, Visser doesn’t think her new job is an impossible task. She’s wary to discuss the concrete steps the Groningen faculty needs to take – she’s only just started and is still getting to know both her faculty and the university at large – but the new dean does have a clear picture of what she wants to achieve over the next few years.
‘Practically speaking, I’d like to create an organisation where we make clear-cut decisions about what we do and what we don’t do, supported by clear arguments and decision moments on all levels within the faculty. Who will do the things we do? And why? I want to make sure that person then has the means and opportunity to do those things, as well as a realistic chance of success. I want this for both the research and the educational departments.’
I want an organisation where we use clear arguments to decide what we do and what we don’t do
To free up educational means, the faculty was forced in 2017 to dissolve the various department boards and group the programmes into five clusters, each with its own cluster board. The board said it would save money and make work more efficient, but the staff said it was a bureaucratic decision that would increase work stress. As far as Visser can tell, it was a first step in the right direction.
‘I think it’s a way to get a handle on the finances, but also to involve the people on the lower levels of the organisation in policy decisions. I think that’s a great quality of this decision. Rather than scale everything up, we’re getting the ideas from the people who have the knowledge and the expertise. By linking it to budget responsibility, people understand that there exists a framework within which we can realise our ideas. One of the things I’ve been hearing in my introductory meetings is that people weren’t a fan of the clustering when it was first introduced, but that it does work. So that seems like a successful move.’
When it comes to research, she thinks improving collaboration will be a strategic move that will lead to a better future for the faculty.
‘One of the first steps in our strategic development plan is to better support our researchers when they’re applying for funds. This means we won’t cast a broad net for as many funding instruments in the hopes of catching whatever you can, but pre-selecting the options that actually have a chance of succeeding. This also means that we have to scout for talent at the faculty and figure out how to help that person to ensure that they can hand in a successful application in three years.’
We really have to improve our collaboration with non-academic partners
Her strategic policy’s first courses don’t just revolve around individual researchers. ‘We really have to improve our collaboration with non-academic partners.’ Because, she explains, funding instruments focused on things outside the academic world will in the future have much more money than they did before. ‘Apart from a few exceptions, we haven’t been very good at creating partnerships like that. We have to get more professional at it. We need to help individuals and groups change their contacts into consortiums that stand a chance.’
Visser’s words show that the development of a strategic plan for the faculty, which is not just having a hard time at the university, but has lost some national standing as well, is well underway. She still has to outline the concrete decisions that will be made under her leadership, but one thing is clear: she wants the faculty to have a say in those decisions, and they need to be based on a clear policy.
‘What I want to do as a manager is to take a bit of the load off people. Not by doing everything myself, because I can’t. But by setting a clear structure, by making people jointly responsible for what happens within the organisation and giving them the means and instruments that do justice to that responsibility.’