science

Adventure shrouded in silence

The fog surrounding Yantai

A year and a half after RUG president Sibrand Poppema announced the plans for a campus in Yantai, the mood among the staff is little changed. China will greenlight the project soon, but Groningen is still wary.
By Peter Keizer / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

The RUG will make a definitive decision about going to China at the end of next month. But almost no one dares to talk about it.

When Poppema publicised the plan in March of last year, most of the faculties were curious above all else. ‘But we have yet to receive satisfactory answers’, say those involved.

Poppema has been criticised from various sides. Neither the University Council nor the Faculty of Economy and Business were happy with how things had gone. The RUG president called the criticism ‘petty’ and the critics ‘know-it-alls’.

Socialist Party MP Jasper van Dijk will do everything in his power to stop the plans. He calls the explanation that the campus is needed to compensate for the decreasing number of Dutch students ‘ridiculous’.

Attempts to improve communication have done little to help. The Yantai website is not up to date, progress meetings are confidential and dissemination of the business plan is closely monitored.

Those involved say that the lack of transparency is not doing the plans any favours. ‘To be honest, I don’t see a lot of things that indicate that there is support within the university community’, concludes Personnel faction head Bart Beijer.

Readtime: 13 minutes (2,233 woorden)

It is a sensitive issue – very sensitive. The RUG will make a definitive decision about going to China at the end of next month, but almost no dares to talk about it.

Out of all the members of the councils and instructors from the involved faculties, virtually no one is willing to discuss it, at least not on the record. When we asked RUG boss Sibrand Poppema to respond to the discussion that has transpired in recent months, he choose to remain silent as well. At least, that is what his spokesperson tells us, even though he does not want to be quoted on that, either. Even the heavy-hitting delegation consisting of 25 RUG employees that travelled to China last month to discuss some sticking points left without any fanfare.

The RUG seems like it is holding its breath. Approval by the Chinese ministry of Education is still pending, and nothing can get in its way. After all, there is a lot at stake: the collaboration with China, the university’s reputation. So until there are green lights across the board, almost everyone is keeping mum. But something is brewing underneath it all.

‘Everything seems particularly shady’, says a faculty council member who wished to remain anonymous. ‘It’s an important matter that impacts a lot of people. Clear decisions need to be made here, but that appears to be impossible.’

Chinese copy

It all started on 25 March, 2015. On that day, Poppema announced to the press what he had decided in China shortly before that: we are going to Yantai. ‘RUG opens campus in China’, proclaimed headlines nationwide. Less than six weeks after a British colleague had tipped him off about the empty campus, as far as Poppema was concerned, the die had been cast. ‘It’s really quite simple’, he told the press. ‘We’ll be making a smaller copy of our university Yantai. The buildings are already there, all we have to do is move in.’

But the university staff were still ignorant at this point. ‘Right from the start, it seemed there was no going back’, a faculty council member recalls. ‘The university board made it their mission from day one. They made a whole bunch of promises and only developed a plan after the fact, and now, they’re trying to push it through. Turns out, that’s really complicated.’

Questions abound

Almost immediately after the announcement, there were critical questions from the two RUG faculties whose programmes were set to be exported to China. Are we not going too fast, asked staff at the faculties of Economy and Business (FEB) and Mathematics and Natural Sciences (FMNS). How will we safeguard the programmes’ quality? What will this mean for the work load at the RUG? How can we guarantee academic freedom? And why has no risk analysis been performed?

Questions abound. ‘It wasn’t so much criticism as just an enormous amount of questions’, says Personnel faction head Bart Beijer, who was present at several informational meetings about Yantai at the faculties.

Kees van Veen, president of the FEB faculty council, shares that view. ‘Right from the beginning, some obvious but fundamental questions were asked. About the advantages and opportunities of this project, for example. But so far, there has been no satisfactory answer to these questions.’

‘As early as April last year, three advisory boards within FEB wrote some very polite and sensible letters to the university board, but they were never properly addressed’, says Tom Wansbeek, professor of econometrics and member of the FEB advisory committee that looked at the pros and cons of the Yantai plans.

Too little information

This did not help the mood one bit. While Poppema worked on a video promoting the campus and had secret meetings with minister of Education Jet Bussemaker and the Chinese ministry of Education, the FEB and FMNS faculty councils complained about the lack of information.

We first want to see a solid plan with some answers

‘Normally, we should have had all the answers already’, says Van Veen. ‘Even before the RUG went public with the plans. FEB postponing its involvement is therefore a direct result of this unorthodox approach. We first want to see a solid plan with some answers. Right now, we’ve only got the superficial story that has been making the rounds for over a year and has never been convincing.’

‘Leap in the dark’

The advisory committee that FEB created to find the answers to all these questions were fiercely critical in their final report. Yantai was ‘a leap in the dark’, wrote committee members Beppo van Leeuwen and Frans Rutten. According to them, the touted advantages of the campus were ‘merely assumptions’.

‘And we stand by that’, Rutten and Van Leeuwen say. ‘In our eyes, the expected revenue was overestimated, and the risks and necessary efforts were underestimated.’

Poppema was not happy with the criticism. In an interview in De Volkskrant, he called the committee members ‘know-it-alls’. ‘And besides, that report contains manifest inaccuracies. They were just splitting hairs’, he said. Poppema thought the committee members’ assertions that his plans were faulty were ‘disrespectful’, he later said in an interview with the UK.

Despite the criticism, the RUG president maintained that the committee and the faculty really support the plans. But it turns out that that is not entirely true. ‘Absent a convincing answer to the ‘why’ question, we think the faculty will prefer to continue investing in its own quality’, says Rutten and Van Leeuwen. ‘With international classroom projects, language and cultural policies and learning communities, we can increase FEB’s attractiveness at the same time. People will have more faith in that than in an uncertain Yantai project that comes with a lot of hidden costs for the faculty, such as inadequate compensation for outsourced staff.’

Resistance

In the summer of last year, Poppema also faced resistance from a different direction. The University Council had been complaining for some time about the lack of information and the speed with which the plans were pushed through, but right at that moment, Poppema made a move that surprised everyone: he granted the council the power of consent. Suddenly, they were allowed to decide whether or not the RUG was going to China.

The staff factions were not exactly eager to make the decision just yet. Instead, they wanted more information. But Poppema knew that he had the support of the student parties and refused to wait. Normally, the council is made up of twelve students and twelve staff members. But that day, there were only seven staff members present.

So much of the staff is so sceptical

‘It may have looked like Poppema was giving a lot away, but he wasn’t’, council member Jan Visser said at the time. He had done a headcount and knew perfectly well that with the students included, he would have a majority to support his plans in China.’ ‘It was a trick’, says an employee close to the council, who wished to remain anonymous. ‘For all we know, he’ll pull the same stunt in a couple of weeks, and we’ll be going to Yantai because a few students think it’s a good idea. That is why so much of the staff is so sceptical.’

And that is how, last year, the plans for the sister campus in Yantai were passed – quicly and with a substantial majority. Student factions SOG, Calimero, and Lijst Sterk, together with staff member Jitse van Dijk, voted in favour (13 council members in total). Then-Council chairperson Hilly Mast was the only one to vote against. The remaining five staff members abstained from voting because they wanted more information.

A clever game, thought council members Jan Visser and Jan Blaauw. But they are not giving up that easily. In an interview with the UK, they voiced their displeasure about Poppema’s tactics. ‘I feel kind of cheated and overwhelmed by the board president’s eloquence’, said Visser. ‘What stings is the fact that there was no attempt to get broader base support’, said Blaauw.

And that did not go unnoticed. Poppema immediately lashed out in De Volkskrant: ‘The council asked for voting powers when really they had no right to them. It’s a bit petty to then say: the president is far too smart for us.’

Blaauw does not ‘hold a grudge’ about Poppema’s response. ‘That is how it went back then, and we did what we felt was necessary. There was a lot of emotion and worrying, but also respect for the challenge.’

‘Megalomaniacal manager’

Socialist Party MP Jasper van Dijk did mind the RUG president’s words. ‘A typical case of a megalomaniacal manager’, Van Dijk called him, and immediately asked parliamentary questions concerning the Yantai plans in the Lower House.

‘I still feel that way’, Van Dijk says now. ‘It’s megalomania. Poppema says he wants to set up the campus to compensate for the decreasing number of Dutch students. I think that’s ridiculous. If that’s the argument to open up branches in China, we’ve truly lost our way. I’ve asked the minister to do everything in her power to overrule the plans.’

Despite the parliamentary questions, Visser has not seen any effects of his criticism. ‘The plans are steadily coming along, after all. That’s to be expected, because ending the process now would mean the RUG would lose face’, he says.

‘We are continuing’

Poppema felt the same way. There was no reason to slow down the plans, he said at the time: ‘It would be stupid to say that we are doing all of this, making those people promise all those things, encouraging the University Council, only to then say: ‘Never mind.’’

He did respond to the criticism that everything was going too fast. ‘I created some artificial haste, because I knew the moment of signing was getting closer. I wanted our Chinese partners to experience this urgency as well. Because if I’m not in a hurry, they’re not in a hurry’, he explained.

Openly and honestly

The criticism did have some effect, however. Poppema promised to improve communication and be clearer about things. He had a website set up with all the information about Yantai. He also granted FEB’s wish and got a new committee to draw up a business plan. This would also address the risks involved.

Let’s talk about this openly

But these concessions were half measures at best. The website was last updated in April, the progress of the plans are discussed in secret and although the business plan is open to the public, it has to be requested from a clerk.

‘It’s a shame that we’re told which words we’re allowed to use in discussing it, and which ones we aren’t. If you want to generate support, you should be saying: let’s talk about this openly and honestly’, opines Bart Beijer. ‘To be honest, I don’t see a lot of things that indicate that there is support within the university community.’

Support

And the employees’ support is crucial if the Yantai campus is to succeed, says the business plan that was published last month.

For FEB, the lack of support was reason enough to ultimately withdraw. ‘We received very little information’, conclude Rutten and Van Leeuwen, both of whom are now officially retired but are still connected to the university. ‘So that means our recommendations have not been met, namely creating commitment on the work floor by operating transparently and communicating openly. But as far as we can see, any information about the developments that happened over the past year has always been made confidential. That’s weird and counterproductive for a project that can only succeed if it has university-wide support.’

The business plan comes too late, they feel. Moreover, it is incomplete. ‘Its writers must have seen that not only is there little support at FEB, but that there is a lot of resistance among other departments, such as chemistry. You’d think that these circumstances would be identified and analysed.’

Green lights

Rutten and Van Leeuwen feel that ‘Yantai’ is presented much too positively. They think that the RUG cannot just transplant good programmes to China. And they fear a lot of pressure will be put on the faculties to maintain quality in Yantai. ‘In short, the most likely scenario is that the RUG will work really hard for meagre results, at least in the short term. After all, that is what happened to the most successful examples – the campuses in Liverpool and Nottingham – as well.’

Their fellow committee member, Tom Wansbeek, does not agree. ‘It’s a spectacular adventure’, he feels. Of course it has its complications, and the process will have its surprises, both great and not so great. But we’re in!’

China is expected to give the green light this month. Next, the University Council gets to recommend whether or not the university should move forward with the plans. Minister Bussemaker will have the final say.

She is collaborating fully with setting up the campus, but at the same time, she’s keeping a finger on the pulse. ‘The RUG really needs a lot of support within the institute’, she said previously to the Lower House. ‘If I have doubts about the desirability of this initiative, or if it looks like the plans cannot be guaranteed in terms of quality or financing, I will interfere.’

Read the full response by Beppo van Leeuwen and Frans Rutten, former members of the FEB advisory committee, here

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