Don’t Worry Too Much, Look Ahead!

By UCR Dean Bert van den Brink

In the last couple of days, Tabula Rasa has published two very different reactions to UCRs ranking in the Keuzegids Universiteiten 2018. In the Keuzegids, we scored a 68 out of 100. As Faye Bovelander explains in her contribution, we used to score above 75, which made us a Top Rated Program in the eyes of the Keuzegids. 68 is still well above the national average for all universities (60). But Top Rated is the status that we need to go back to as the wonderful university college that we are.

Keuzegids gets most of its input from the National Student Evaluation. So the judgment of 68 comes from you, our students. As I will explain in this contribution, we know where this is coming from and we are acting on your input. The next NSE will take place coming January and February. I am convinced that we have given you reason for being more confident than you were last year.

Here’s my motto: don’t worry too much, look ahead! Alumni Jonathan Seib (Class of 2017) and Frits Brouwer (Class of 2012) claim that UCR is in a deep crisis and that the board is not in control. I beg to differ. We are not in a crisis, but in a phase of transition. We are growing from a pioneering institution – which was wild, less regulated, financially unstable, and focused exclusively on teaching and learning – to an established institution, from which students expect a more holistic conception of excellence than they did before. We’re less wild, we’re more regulated, we’re financially much more solid, and we are still all about excellent teaching and learning. We’re not quite there yet. But look ahead!

The need for transition has been articulated strongly by both students and faculty upon my arrival as new Dean, in the Summer of 2016. You expect some comfort! Together, we have been working on this ever since. We started this whole discussion last Fall, at the first public sphere event. Keuzegids represents the outcomes of the early phase of building a new narrative for the college. We are harvesting opinion from that period, and it is no surprise that it is a bit reserved.

At the time, Jonathan Seib was among the first to congratulate me on enabling an open debate. Faye Bovelander was there as well, and I am happy to see that she thinks that my board has taken up many of the outcomes of the public sphere events and other discussions with the council, etc. As Steinar Boomsma says in a lucid response to Jonathan and Frits’ piece, it may be wise to trust on the fact that we are having a firm and open debate over this, and are building a consensus about what to do. I will not announce overnight miracles. I will help the place make the transition though, step by step, and from a responsible financial policy.

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Let me debunk two false conceptions that are running around in our beloved UCR bubble. Those who push these false conceptions are dealing in fear. Fear is a bad counselor.

False conception 1: The keuzegids is hurting the value of my diploma

Of course it isn’t. It is irresponsible to make that suggestion over a less than ideal outcome of what is basically a satisfaction survey. The real value of your diploma rests on our successful accreditation as a Utrecht University undergraduate program. The expert judgment on the quality of our program is the highest possible, because the 2013 judgment was that we have a good to excellent program. Utrecht University is one of the best known and highest ranked institutions in Western Europe. Believe you me; that is worth much more than our disappointing 2018 ranking in the Keuzegids. Next Fall, there will be another accreditation visit, and a final report is expected for 2019. That is the real test, and we will be fully prepared for it.

As you can see in the Keuzegids, most other colleges actually score lower on expert judgment than we do. Have the diplomas in these institutions been less valuable than ours? Of course they haven’t. When we were among the top ranks in the ratings, some other colleges were where we are now. Have they been in terrible crises? No, these colleges responded adequately and are doing well – as are their alumni. All institutions of higher education go through life cycles, so do we. Just look at the successes of our alumni in prestigious master programs around the globe. Just look at how well our students and alumni did only last week at the Student Research Conference: four of nine awards were ours! We are very proud of that.

All of this does not mean that we can simply be satisfied with what we have. As anyone who is in touch with student representatives and reads our weekly newsletter knows, we are working on improving existing ICT facilities, adding quiet study spaces, taking seriously the housing issue. And we are making progress. Wifi is much better now in Franklin, Eleanor, and Elliott, we just extended opening hours in Eleanor, we expect to bring more dedicated study spaces soon. With the help of the city, we are making it very clear to Woongoed and Villex that we won’t accept halfhearted measures on student housing. The city acknowledges the problem. We want real solutions for our students, not in some distant future, but soon.

When it comes to our LAS program, the Curriculum Committee chaired by dr. Alexei Karas will publish by December 1 an advice to the Dean and Director of Education on a stronger academic introductory program about what LAS really is, a better organization of the curriculum with an eye to workload, the future of capstones, interdisciplinary elements in the program, and graduation requirements. We plan to introduce first innovations as of 2018-19. We are also working on teacher training and research opportunities for faculty at Utrecht University and other research universities. A research group such as Prof. Oomen’s on Cities of Refuge brings a fantastic vibe for interdisciplinary teaching and learning to the college. We want more of that.

I fully agree with Jonathan Seib and Frits Brouwer that at a certain point you need to stop talking and act. I also agree that we need to do this by preparing things democratically. Well, we have, which explains that things take a bit of time.

False conception 2: UCR is investing in wild ideas about Engineering and Innovation rather than in strengthening its existing LAS program.

Let us look at future developments, and the wholly unfounded worry that they will be paid for with money that should really be invested in the existing curriculum.

With powerful partners – the Ministry of Economic Affairs, the Province, the City of Middelburg and the Hogeschool Zeeland – we are realizing a 4500m2 Joint Research Center with dedicated lab spaces for the sciences as well as spaces for project-based interdisciplinary LAS projects. About 15% of the facilities will be ours and there will be plenty of project space should we need it – for any of our majors, really! The center will be located behind the ‘Groenewoud’, the big building under renovation on the other side of the bridge opposite Koestraat.

We have made it clear to our partners from the start that UCR cannot and will not carry the main financial burden (the HZ will, and we are thankful). We will modestly rent space in this in the future.

If and when all this gets off to a good start, then we will aim to look a bit further than (much) better facilities for the Science Department. Building from the sciences, a new department of Engineering and Innovation could come into being. This would involve getting extra faculty with innovative expertise in engineering, design and technology. This would result in new tracks and majors, but even more importantly, it would help us make even more challenging and technology-informed courses in, for instance, geophysics, chemistry, biology, physics, mathematics, bio-medicine and premed, sustainability, social geography, economics, food sociology, public health, environmental law, and arts and design.

The liberal arts and sciences can think through today’s problems as they relate to, for instance, sea level rise, climate change, and demographic challenges of changes in the landscape. Why would they not integrate more applied knowledge and a focus on knowledge innovation? See it as a next frontier for liberal arts and sciences.

The renowned marine research institute NIOZ at Yerseke is willing to be our strong partner in this. We are working with colleagues from Utrecht University, Technical University Eindhoven, Leuven/Brugge and the HZ: University of Applied Sciences in Vlissingen to see how to best fit these fields into our LAS program. And we are talking with global players such as Dow Chemical in Terneuzen and Dong Wind Power in Vlissingen in order to build all-important bridges to industry as well.

I can well understand that the prospect of rapid growth that you may associate with a new department may seem threatening. Point taken, we should be careful with that.

For the far-reaching plan on engineering and Innovation, the Province and the City in Middelburg are willing to invest €7 million in UCR. You may now say: what can you do for 7 million in such an expensive field of the sciences? Well, not that much. We would hire a handful of good scientists and engineers, and build from there, gradually.

The plan has not yet been approved by the provincial Parliament and the City Council. We expect to know whether the finances for the further-reaching plan will come through by Summer 2018 (if you think that UCR is slow, then go study provincial politics!).

If you are interested in this – and you should – then come to the Public Sphere event about this on Monday, November 27, which I recently announced. Check you email of last Friday.  Starts at 18:15 in the Burgerzaal; soup, sandwiches, snacks for everyone. Register at the reception: Reception@ucr.nl

In sum, don’t worry too much over ratings and don’t restrict yourselves to moaning in the Roosevelt Confessions. Engage, talk with your student representatives and with us, visit next week’s public sphere, and look ahead with us! UCR remains the great place that it always was. We will make a successful transition to an even brighter future!

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