Antoon De Baets on 14 years of keeping an eye on the board
‘We have no qualms about putting the gods in their place’
‘Have you ever heard the joke about the two beavers?’ asks Antoon De Baets. ‘Two beavers are in the forest, sitting in the underbrush, looking out over a giant hydro-electric dam in the distance. One beaver turns to the other and says: I didn’t build it myself, but it’s based on my idea.’
The joke is characteristic of the way the 65-year-old Flanders-born professor of history, ethics, and human rights likes to engage the minds of the people on the university council. ‘I’m not great with numbers or budgets, but I feel I was always a pretty good ideas guy’, he says. Emphasis on ‘was’; after fourteen years, his watch is ending. He’s leaving as one of the longest-serving council members ever.
De Baets had never planned to hold on to his seat for so long. When he stood for election the first time in 2007, he mainly did so out of curiosity. He wanted to know what was needed to keep a university going in terms of human rights. He was curious about how academic freedom worked in practice. ‘The only way for me to find out was to participate in an advisory capacity’, he says.
The fact that he was re-elected six times was initially due to the fact that there weren’t enough experienced members for the personnel faction. ‘But I also kind of fell in love with the work. I had been working in Groningen since 1989, and this was the first time I saw how things worked outside my own faculty. It was a breath of fresh air’, says De Baets. ‘In one fell swoop, my view of how the university functioned became much broader than I ever thought possible.’
This was the first time I saw how things worked outside my own faculty
He was also able to ‘say his piece’ about issues in the council. With what looked like practised ease, he would passionately deliver lectures full of historical reference. However, De Baets wouldn’t call himself a gifted speaker. ‘All my speeches for the council were prepared beforehand. That’s easy. Off the cuff, I’m not that good. If I’m caught off guard and have to answer right away it sometimes turns out all right, but more often than not I’m struck by l’esprit de l’escalier’, he says, laughing.
He’s referring to a term coined by eighteenth-century philosopher Denis Diderot. ‘He frequented the salons in Paris. They always took place upstairs somewhere and he’d say that he usually didn’t think of the perfect reply until he was walking down the stairs after a debate. He called it staircase wit, which is what I suffer from a lot.’
Even so, he’s always managed to engage the minds of the board of directors, as well as his colleagues on the university council. He says it’s important to separate the main issues from the side issues. ‘The council is always running hot’, he says. ‘Every month, people are up in arms about one issue or another. If you get swept up in every single thing, you’ll get overheated.’
Looking back, De Baets has two different views of participation in the council: the absolute approach, and the moderate approach. ‘The absolute approach is that we should be allowed to decide on absolutely everything, including buildings, copiers, and coffee. That the board is obligated to listen to us. I don’t personally feel that way.’ He’s much more comfortable with the moderate approach, where he as a staff member joins in the discussion of topics that impact education and research.
Every month, people are up in arms about something or other
He also says it’s important to know where to ‘work Socratically’. ‘Through critical questions and remarks, I want to increase the board’s self-awareness. Don’t worry, I know how arrogant that sounds’, he says. ‘I just hope that any well-founded argument is powerful enough to stir the minds of my fellow members. That it stays with them for the rest of the night, or even for a few days.’
De Baets says that’s the essence of being a council member. ‘Like Socrates said, we have to be like a gadfly. We need to bite the horse now and then. True, we’re not always friendly, and we can get quite angry. Sometimes we’re unreasonable and sometimes we ride the waves of our indignation. That’s all true. But if we can increase the board’s self-awareness, and I think we have once or twice, that’s Socratism at its best.’
While he regrets that it was a negative success, the cancellation of the Yantai campus was probably the biggest case he was involved in during his time on the council that changed the board’s minds. ‘I have to add the caveat that hindsight bias is my biggest enemy right now. I know how things turned out, and that impacts my opinion today. It’s easy to be right in hindsight, when more often than not it was just blind luck and not because we actually outsmarted anyone.’
It’s easy to be right in hindsight, when often it was just blind luck
Even so, he does think the council was right to vote against the plan to create a branch campus in the Chinese city of Yantai for thirty years. ‘I supported the ambition to put Groningen on the map. But the plan itself was megalomaniacal. Looking back, it was an iceberg, and the university could have been the Titanic. I do think the university council steered the board right.’
De Baets sees the university council as a compass, steering the board of director’s ideas in the right direction. ‘I never thought I was doing the steering, though. I advise and I ask questions. Unvarnished, politely, respectfully, but I’m not the one making the decisions. I’m just trying to convince them that there’s another way to look at a case.’ He’s steadfast and deliberate.
‘You have to have stamina if you want to do your job well’, he says. ‘It’s like a cave full of stalagmites, which grow slowly, drop by drop. The board will say no a lot, so if you want to convince them to see it through your eyes, you have to be persistent. I’ll say something during a meeting once, maybe twice, and that’s it. But I’ll be making another point the next month, the next case, or during the next session on the previous case. And again the month after that.’
The council meeting in June will be the last time De Baets will try to move the board. For fourteen years, he’s personally experienced the practice of academic freedom in Groningen. ‘Things are going pretty well here in general’, he says. He is surprised, though, that only thirty percent of the intellectual community actually votes in the participation council elections. ‘Most people, including my fellow council members and the people on the board, don’t realise that proper participation leads to academic freedom here in Groningen.’
While he’d like to see that change, he’s happy with the role the council plays in Groningen. There is room for open criticism. Room to fearlessly put ‘the gods of the board’ in their place. And finally, room to occasionally change their minds. ‘Looking back, that joke about the two beavers always comes to mind. I hope that maybe, occasionally, I am that beaver. I hope that I was able to provide the basis for some ideas.’