Sibrand Poppema, the final interview

‘It’s in my nature to look ahead’

In 1968, the year of the student protests, a young Sibrand Poppema first entered the hallowed halls of the RUG as a student. Fifty years later, while WOinActie holds classes outside in protest and angry students occupy the Academy building, the president of the board of directors says a final goodbye.
By Thereza Langeler and Rob Siebelink / Photo by Reyer Boxem / Translation Sarah van Steenderen

Sibrandes Poppema (1949) was born in Emmen and grew up in the village of Mussel, Groningen. He studied Medicine at the RUG from 1968 to 1974, and followed his studies with a PhD in Immunopathology. His research focused on Hodgkin’s Disease: a type of cancer that originates from lymphocytes.

He started his career as a pathologist in Groningen, after which he moved to Canada to work at the universities of Alberta and Edmonton. He gained administrative experience as a head of several departments before returning to the RUG in 1995. Back in Groningen, he became the head of the pathology department at the UMCG and later the dean of the faculty of medicine. In 2008, he became the president of the university board.

Poppema lives in the village of Bunne with his wife and dogs. He has three children and six grandchildren.

He sports a red square on his lapel. It’s the symbol of WOinActie, the organisation is protesting nation-wide this week against high work pressure in higher education. He sits at his gleaming desk in an immaculate suit, wearing his signature good-humoured smile.

Has Sibrand Poppema become an activist in these, his last days as president of the board of directors?

‘I called on students and staff six months ago to support the campaign. I couldn’t do it myself yet, because the Dutch universities were still in negotiation with the minister. But it doesn’t look like she listened; the government has just announced even more cutbacks.’

‘But they’re killing off the gold goose. Our universities and our students are some of the best in the world. And all these countries are investing in education while we’re not, so that’s a tenuous position right now. We need better primary funding.’

How did you feel when Alexander Pechtold with D66 – usually the party that is all about education – said during the Parliamentary Debate that universities should be more efficient—?

He interrupts with a scoff. ‘Oh, everything just has to be efficient!’

He also said universities don’t need costly buildings…

‘I’ll say this: We’re having elections again soon. I’ve voted D66 before, but I don’t think I’ll be doing that again. It’s not that I’m feeling screwed over; this is just how politics works. We all know that. D66 is a popular party with students, but if he keeps going on like this, Pechtold will lose the next election.’

Wednesday is Poppema’s final day in office. On Thursday, the university will give him a send-off (‘I have no idea what they have planned. They’re keeping it a secret from me.’). On Friday, he will wake up in Hotel Schimmelpennick Huys without a single administrative task on his to-do-list for the first time in ten years.

How do you think you’ll feel? Empty? Relieved?

‘Neither, I think. I’ve known for years that this was coming, so I’ve been preparing for it. There were many times last year where I thought: this is the last time I’ll be doing this. But I’m not one for nostalgia. Future opportunities will always be better than anything you’ve done in the past. It’s in my nature to look ahead.’

What are you most proud of after ten years?

‘When I succeeded Simon Kuipers in 2008, the RUG’s academic success wasn’t up to snuff. Only 80 percent of students passed their first year, and only 50 percent finished their bachelor in four years. I asked myself how parents would feel about their children studying in Groningen. The RUG and the UvA were both at the bottom of the list of research universities. We had to do better.’

I asked myself how parents would feel about their children studying in Groningen. We had to do better

‘So we decided to implement the bsa after all, and got rid of the courses that tripped people up, all the while making sure that the quality of education didn’t suffer. Now, 90 percent of students pass their first year, and 75 percent finish their bachelor in time. And we have the highest level of satisfaction of any university, for both bachelor and master programmes. I’m genuinely proud of that, and I’m proud of my staff. Every year, the Lecturer of the Year election is an amazing event. We just keep raising the bar, which is great.’

What did you enjoy most these past years?

‘Working with the people on the board. We had so much fun together. A meeting without laughter was a meeting wasted. But the true highlight was Ben Feringa winning the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.’

A Nobel Prize at the institute that I run? That was just amazing

‘Not that it was much of a surprise. There had been clues that Ben would be eligible that year. But still – a Nobel Prize at the institute that I run? That was just amazing. When was the last time anyone at the RUG got a Nobel Prize?’

‘I went to the Zernike campus as fast as I could. I’d gone to work in my wife’s Mini Cooper rather than my own car that day, so I stuffed the entire board into that tiny car and drove to Nijenborgh 4.’

Is the scientist in you jealous? It’s someone else’s research in the spotlights, not yours.

‘It wasn’t my research, that’s true. The longer I worked as president the more I became a manager, and research became more of a hobby. The board’s vice-president died in 2012 and for a while I was also responsible for finances, facility management, and IT. I had to stop treating patients, and teaching fell by the wayside. Finally, I had to give up research as well. That one really hurt. I miss it.’

Is there anything else you regret? Things that were difficult?

He thinks for a moment. ‘I’ve always hated having to decide whether or not to terminate someone. I often knew them personally, knew their value. And then it would fall to me to decide whether a slap on the wrist was enough or whether someone should be fired. I always tried to act in the interest of the organisation, but on a personal level it was terrible. These decisions affect people, affect their families and their futures.’

So Yantai wasn’t the biggest disappointment of your presidency?

‘No, that’s not how I see it.’

The preparations took three years and the project was supposed to elevate the RUG above all other Dutch universities: University of Groningen Yantai, a joint branch campus of the RUG and the China Agricultural University (CAU) in the Chinese city of Yantai, where the RUG would provide so-called transnational education. A Groningen university in China.

Some segments of the RUG, headed by Sibrand Poppema, were extremely enthusiastic about the idea. Poppema travelled tirelessly between China and the Netherlands, lobbied for the project in The Hague, and argued passionately that the university council should vote in favour of the plan. But the council was not convinced, and in January of 2018 they announced they had no faith in the Yantai project.

Looking back, what do you think went wrong?

‘When we started this endeavour, everyone – including the politicians in The Hague – was very enthusiastic about transnational education. So the first reactions to our plan were very positive. But then Xi Jinping rose to power. China became confident, wanted to grow and become even more powerful; they wanted to play an important role on the world stage. That scared people in the West, made them uncertain. This affected the RUG as well. That fear, that lack of confidence, is what caused the council to lose faith in the project.’

But the council also clearly said that they didn’t feel the business case was good enough.

He responds curtly, a little annoyed: ‘That business case was perfect. Everyone that ever read it properly would know that.’

So you’re saying the council didn’t read it properly?

‘Am I supposed to accept that the university council knew better than the board of the directors, the Supervisory Council, and the Office of the University? The council never looked at the plans with anything but skepticism. They said they weren’t sure if a sufficient number of students would be drawn to Yantai, or whether the project would get proper funding in China.’

‘If that’s how the council operates, they should never have been able to approve of the RUG budget either – but somehow they manage to do that every year. Because you can never know how many students will be coming to Groningen, how much money The Hague will give us, if we can get sufficient funding – that’s just something you have to have faith in. And the university council couldn’t muster up that faith for Yantai.’

Some people only joined the council to put a stop to Yantai. They only  wanted to stop Yantai

He says, a little stiffly: ‘Some people only joined the council to put a stop to Yantai. They weren’t interested in having a discussion or listening to our arguments. They only wanted to stop Yantai.’

Are you angry about that?

‘It was just so pointless. Arguing with people with that attitude is so unsatisfying. It’s so difficult when you’re confronted with…’ – he searches for words – ‘…with something you feel is unreasonable.’

But you were ever the gentleman.

‘Because I was the president of the board of directors. I’m not supposed to yell and scream at people.’

Not even when it was clear that Yantai wasn’t happening? Not even in private?

‘No. Of course I was disappointed; I still am. But I never took it personally, even though people thought I did. It was a setback for the RUG. Yantai was a great opportunity to get ahead of other universities. The fact that that didn’t happen is disappointing. But that’s often what happens in the Netherlands when you stick your neck out. I just moved on and tried to focus on other opportunities.’

Internationalisation will only become more important, Poppema says. The number of Dutch students will begin to decline in 2022. That’s not an opinion, he says, but an established fact. All the more reason to focus more on international students, he emphasises. ‘The 7,000 international students at the RUG yield 70 million euros. That’s equivalent to a thousand jobs. The RUG is very important to the economy here in the North.’

You started studying in 1968, exactly fifty years ago. It was also the year of the student protests –

I was entirely uninterested in the student protests. I came here to become a doctor

‘I was entirely uninterested in those. I came here to become a doctor. I was so happy that I even got to go to the university, and that the government paid for it. I came from a poor family, you see. I felt that most protesters couldn’t even put into words what they were actually protesting.’

How do you feel about the student protests today?

‘They haven’t changed much. And 95 percent of students come here to focus on their studies.’

It’s a form of civil engagement, though. Isn’t that something to respect?

‘Civil engagement is certainly respectable. I’ve always respected the Groningen Student Union and how they’re trying to combat abuse in the rental sector, for example. But why do they take their frustration out on the university? Don’t they know that the RUG is working hard on providing housing for internationals? Or that the enormous influx of students this year wasn’t a part of policy, but a mistake? We even admitted to that. We failed to instate a numerous clausus in the psychology department, which contributed to the problem. What’s the point of protesting by occupying the stairs at the Academy building?’

As for his future after the University of Groningen, Poppema has no intention of slowing down. He has a plethora of work trips planned all around the world and he recently applied for a job at a university in Canada. ‘It’s a really fun job.’

Having to actually apply for jobs is a new experience though, he says, grinning. ‘People have always offered me jobs.’


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