Who takes over for Sibrand?

RUG seeks leader

The countdown for Sibrand Poppema has begun. He will soon cease to have the highest position at the RUG. The search for his successor is well underway. So what kind of person is the university looking for?
By Thereza Langeler / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen


Back in 1871, the RUG was the first Dutch university to admit a woman. And back in 1984, it was the first Dutch university with a female board member, Margot Andriessen. But the RUG has never had a female president.

Groningen is proud of the former, and deservedly so. But the latter contributes to an increasing feeling of dissatisfaction – it’s 2018! Female graduate outnumber male graduates; one company after another is working to right the employee gender imbalance; and the RUG itself promises to increase the percentage of female professors from 19 to 27 by 2020. And yet – the highest authority has always belonged to a man.

Now that Sibrand Poppema’s term is coming to an end, it’s a great opportunity to make RUG history. We might even say that they have no choice. Remember the outrage when it looked like the selection advice committee (BAC) would only present a single woman for the job of president? Or the reactions on Twitter to the English job posting that mentioned a ‘chairman’ rather than a ‘chairperson’, or simply ‘president’?

Research has shown that women and executive functions don’t have a great relationship. The stereotypical explanation is that leadership is a male quality, rather than a female one. But scientific research has also shown that diversity benefits organisations, because it counters group thinking and tunnel vision.

The university council has said it, the Sleutelvrouwen have said it, the vice-president for De Jonge Akademie has said it, and even MP Lilianne Ploumen has said it: the board needs a woman. If the RUG puts another man at the helm, many people will be very angry.

‘I’ll explain one more time’ or ‘I hear you’?

The UK interviewed Sibrand Poppema when he started his second term in 2014. ‘I have quite a few talents’, he said back then. And: ‘I could be accused of being very confident.’ As well as: ‘I may not always listen, but I know what’s going on.’

This is a man who knows who he is. Poppema has ambitious goals and does not second-guess himself. He is convinced of his own abilities – and when he’s right, he’s right.

These are all qualities that can get a board president quite far. Poppema has been praised for the way he did his job. Many of the goals he set, he reached: graduation rates went up, the university domestic and international reputation improved, and education and research became increasingly international.

But there is an important group of people who seem to be done with managers like Poppema: the university council. The council has the right to decide on policy at the RUG; their job is not made easier by a board president who doesn’t listen to them. During the decision-making process surrounding Yantai, it became painfully clear what this can lead to: the board and the council on opposite ends, with the council feeling they aren’t being taken seriously and the board feeling like it’s being undermined.

Perhaps Poppema should be succeeded by someone with a different approach. Someone who listens before making plans. Perhaps it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if that person wasn’t the charismatic figurehead that Sibrand Poppema is, or if they didn’t have such grandiose ambitions. After all, a university that increasingly often asks for a bottom-up approach rather than a top-down one, grandiose plans aren’t the most important thing.

So what is the most important?

Allow us to make a few suggestions: a proper approach to internationalisation, and fighting the extreme work pressure.

No one at the RUG is really all that much against internationalisation, if only because it’s just about as useful as being against digitalisation. But it has to be done right, and even rector magnificus Elmer Sterken admitted that so far, it hasn’t always been.

So it’s a great opportunity for a new president. She can ensure that the RUG’s approach to internationalisation complements the university’s goals for education – increasing academic equality instead of general annoyance. She can stimulate the integration and inclusion of foreign students and staff, and finally do something to prevent internationals from being homeless for months after they’ve arrived.

Possibly even more important combating the work pressure that all RUG staff – those in science in particular – suffers from. The employee survey in February confronted the RUG with the painful facts: employees feel there is a lack of balance between work and their private lives, they’re so busy with education that they don’t have time left for research, and they often work overtime.

University council member Antoon De Baets described solutions for chronic work pressure as ‘long overdue’. It’s high time that something is done, agrees the council – and the rest of the RUG. This board has already taken a first step by making an extra five million euros available to hire more staff. The new president will have the chance to continue on this particular road – by turning those five million euros into a structural fund rather than a one-time expenditure.



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