Interview with Jacquelien Scherpen
‘Black-and-white choices are rare’
What made you make the switch from being director of the Groningen Engineering Center to rector at the university?
‘My own research focused mostly on developing our engineering profile. In Groningen, as well as nationally and internationally, I’ve always championed seeking out partnerships with other faculties. I apply that same vision to the big transition themes: you have to look at them in their entirety and try to solve them, developing things that have a real impact.’
‘Another factor was a certain loyalty to the university. The institute is really close to my heart, and I want to contribute to the quality of its reputation.’
At the same time, you’re a high-ranking woman in the hard sciences, specifically engineering, and there aren’t too many of those. Did you ask yourself if maybe you, a woman, should have stayed an engineering director?
‘If I’m honest, I hesitated for a long time. But I did feel like I already had some accomplishments under my belt. I’d made certain strides in my research and I felt I’d reached a certain maturity in what I was doing. When this opportunity came up, I felt it was a logical step to start doing something for the university as a whole.’
What are your ambitions as rector?
‘For me, it’s important to find that balance between good disciplinary research and multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary research. The latter means collaborating with the region. I think that we as a fully classical university are in a really good position to work on these social transitions.’
The best way to measure your reputation is peer acknowledgement
Basically, I want the university to be everything it can be. I want our reputation for disciplinary research to be excellent, since that provides a solid foundation. At the same time, we have to collaborate and integrate, both with disciplines and society. That’s another way to grow our reputation.’
You mention our reputation a lot, but how can you measure that? Not everyone in academia agrees on that.
‘It’s true that it’s difficult. Rankings aren’t everything. The best way to measure your reputation is peer acknowledgement. When people and their teams are held in high regard in their field, or when we as a university are held in high regard in certain fields.’
You’re inheriting a few issues here and there. For example, the university is in a financially precarious position. How will you combine the financial restrictions with improving the UG’s reputation?
‘I think that’s something we’ll have to continuously assess. The way I see it, we’ll have to make those assessments in such a way that people still feel like they have room to be creative. Sometimes we have to make choices that are difficult for certain people or groups. But I promise we’re trying to make those choices affect the primary processes of research and education as little as possible. Those processes have the highest priority, for the university itself and for our reputation.’
Is there anything pertaining to the financial situation that you’re worried about as rector?
‘I think we’ve got a good handle on the current situation. The only thing I’m concerned about is what’s going to happen in terms of politics and how that’s going to affect the Netherlands’ reputation to the rest of the world. That’s worrying to me, because other countries are wondering what’s going on in the Netherlands.
Lumping asylum seekers and internationals together can’t be good for the country
That sounds like a fear that’s mostly based on the as yet unknown consequences of the upcoming law on internationalisation.
‘Not just that, but also on the current political formation process. Some parties talked about curbing migration during the elections, and they lumped asylum seekers and international students together. That can’t be good for the country. I hope this doesn’t deter talented people from coming here. They’re important for the development of education and research.’
Do you think the university will be able to show people how an international university can contribute to society?
‘We’ll definitely try. I do want to point out that it’s important to strike a balance between Dutch and international students. After all, we function in a society, and that society is Dutch. We don’t want the majority of our students to be internationals. But they do have a positive impact on the Netherlands and the region.’
‘We have regional partners, but also national and international ones. That’s all connected. An international reputation attracts talent. That in turn affects the opportunities you get regionally. It also impacts the stay rate. That goes for Dutch people as well, since students have the tendency to think that everything important happens in Amsterdam and its surroundings. We, as a region, have to show that we’re developing things that are worth staying here for. That together with businesses and social partners, we’ve created an ecosystem that makes this place interesting enough to stay.’
The academic community increasingly often wants the university to take a stand in certain things, be it the war in Ukraine, the Israel-Palestine conflict, social safety, or climate change and partnerships with the fossil-fuel industry. They’re basically telling the university to stop pretending it’s impartial, because it isn’t. How do you see that, as rector?
‘As a university, we possess knowledge, and what we can do is use that knowledge to clarify these matters. That’s what we’re trying to do, but the world isn’t black and white. It’s really quite complex, evidently. But people do expect us to make a choice between just two things, between black and white. That’s not always possible, so we try to use our knowledge to point that out.’
Do you think universities should be politically neutral? Right now, that’s the impression that people get; that the university wants to be neutral.
‘I don’t think neutrality is the right word. Just because we don’t specifically pick a side doesn’t automatically mean we’re neutral.’
The university obviously stands up for human rights
What’s the difference?
‘Well, the university obviously stands up for human rights. The violence that innocent people in the conflict zones are suffering is devastating. That’s something we all stand for.’
Looking at Dutch politics, there’s a clear need for more administrative transparency. Do you think the university has room to improve here?
‘I think it’s very important for us to be transparent, for people to contribute their ideas and for good ideas to really be heard. It’s also important that everyone actually feels heard, and I’ll definitely keep an eye on that. But it’s not like I think we’re currently not doing well in that regard.’
What’s your greatest wish for the next four years?
‘Right now, my greatest wish is to have a university that’s in balance. I’d love for the negative connotation plaguing internationalisation to go away and hope that all of us, including internationals, will be able to continue to show how strong our university is.’