Universiteit

RUG boss Jouke de Vries is on his way

‘The fasten seatbelt sign is off’

After five months in Groningen, Jouke de Vries has settled in as the new board of directors president at the RUG. ‘I want to move forward with this university.’
By Thereza Langeler / Photos Reyer Boxem / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Personal information

Jouke de Vries was born on 26 September 1960 in Deersum, near Sneek, and grew up next to the Sloter lake in Balk. He studied political science at the University of Amsterdam and specialised in administration. He worked at the UvA in 1984 as academic assistant and later as a university lecturer, receiving his PhD degree in 1989.

In 1999, he became a professor of public administration at the University of Leiden. He set up a branch campus for the University of Leiden in The Hague, where he also served as scientific director. In 2015 the RUG appointed him professor of Governance & Public Policy, and dean of the Campus Fryslân in Leeuwarden.

Jouke de Vries is married and has two children. He still lives in Leiden, but is set to move to Zuidlaren soon.

Practically every Tuesday, a professor holds his or her inaugural lecture at the auditorium in the Academy building. Jouke de Vries attends every single one. He is genuinely interested in the lectures, but his favourite part of the ceremony happens before the lectures.

‘When the rector leaves the Senate room followed by all the professors, I approach from the other side with the vice president of the board and the chairperson of the university council’, De Vries spreads his arms, then closes them again as he brings his hands together. ‘We come together to form one line, and then we enter the auditorium like that.’

De Vries loves tradition and ritual. He also loves roaming the halls of the stately university buildings, imagining the great men and women who have done the same. But he is also excited by the new, the modern, the fresh start. ‘I’m a complex man’, he says. ‘I’m interested in a lot of different things.’

Jouke de Vries (58), a Frisian from Leiden and a professor of public administration with a speciality in decision-making theory, has been at the helm of the RUG for five months. He is sitting in his large, airy office at the Oude Boteringestraat 44. His manner is matter-of-fact, but what his voice lacks in expression he makes up for with animated gestures.

Fascinating

De Vries is at ‘cruising altitude’, he says. ‘The fasten seatbelt sign is off, so to speak.’ To get here, he has spent the past few months getting acquainted with basically everyone. He visited every faculty, all their separate departments and sub-departments, and the service management departments. ‘This is such a large, all-encompassing university with so many different fields – including some I don’t know much about.’

De Vries doesn’t like not knowing things. So he studies new things intently; he watches, listens, and observes until he is satisfied that he understands. As a student of political science, he wasn’t satisfied reading only the prescribed literature; he read everything remotely related as well. And as president of the board, he wants to talk to more people than just the usual suspects. He wants to know everything about every single employee: who are they, and what is their job?

‘I got a warm welcome everywhere I went. I think it’s fascinating to hear people talk about their work’, he says. And they did, gladly. He says that’s pretty much the only discernible difference between the RUG and the University of Leiden, where he used to work. Here, communication is clear and people are direct. ‘They were like: Welcome, this is our organisation, we’re proud of it. This is what’s going on, can you help solve some issues?’

Sparkling eyes

The people in Leiden would have never talked to their board president like that. But he kind of likes the directness. He enjoyed getting to know everyone so much that he puts the experience on a level with awarding Ban Ki-moon his honorary doctorate, which definitely ranks as an absolute highlight of De Vries’ first months. It was celebrated at the Martini church and Ban Ki-moon opened the new Climate Centre at the Zernike campus.

I’m proud of this institution, of all its traditions and achievements

Anyone observing De Vries during the event would have seen it: when De Vries is having fun, he can’t hide it. He grins from ear to ear, eyes sparkling behind his glasses. During the musical intermezzo, when student orchestra Mira plays Aretha Franklin and George Michael, he bops along with the music. During moments like this, his normally rigid demeanour visibly loosens up. In fact, he beams.

‘I can’t help it, I just love it’, he explains. ‘I’m so proud of this institution, of all its traditions and achievements. You might think I’d get used to it, but I haven’t yet. I’m still amazed by it all.’

The past

When De Vries is frustrated, he doesn’t hide that either. On the last Thursday in February, no one had to guess how De Vries felt during university council meeting at the Oude Boteringestraat. The university council had just rejected the investigation into the time sheets for ‘Yantai’. (Long story extremely short: between 2015 and 2017, employees spent more time preparing for the planned Chinese branch campus than had been officially registered. This meant the RUG had spent public funds on the project, which wasn’t allowed.)

The council and Leendert Klaassen, who was in charge of the investigation, went back and forth; they disagreed whether the Yantai debacle was an honest mistake or evidence of mismanagement. They disagreed over what the consequences should be. By the time De Vries addressed the room, his frustration was clear. ‘I want to move forward with this university’, he told everyone, ‘and here I am spending all my time on these issues from the past.’

‘I understand that people want to know what happened exactly, and how we can learn from it’, he clarifies. ‘So I’d like to invest in that, together with the council. I want to give them what they need to put this behind them.’ As far as he’s concerned, the incorrectly registered hours will be compensated generously.

Wave of criticism

But there are so many other things to do. Financing for higher education is on the verge of radical change; there are work-stress related issues to solve; there is still a strategic plan to carve out for 2020-2025. ‘I want to get started with that, to look forward. That’s what I meant at that Thursday meeting.’

Was that meeting hard for him? ‘Of course not. It’s part of my job. When I started, I knew there would be leftover issues, including particularly tough ones. I was prepared for them.’ That’s the life of the board president: one day you’re having a grand old time with Ban Ki-moon, and the next you’re facing a wave of criticism on a project that you had nothing do with and didn’t necessarily support.

I thought transnational education was a really interesting idea

‘At first I thought the idea of transnational education was really interesting’, says De Vries. ‘Apparently I’ve gained a reputation for having more of a local focus, but when it comes to the university – I’m a proponent of internationalisation. Still, I did wonder if Yantai wasn’t a bit too much. When there’s no support, you have to know when to quit.’

Poppema

Just under six months ago, we interviewed De Vries’ predecessor, Sibrand Poppema, in this same office. ‘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?’ Poppema asked at the time. ‘The RUG suffered a defeat when Yantai was cancelled.’

How does De Vries differ from Poppema? He takes some time to think it over. To start, he said, he prefers not to discuss his predecessor. ‘I don’t think it’s very classy. But I’m not sure if he would describe himself as a facilitating leader.’

De Vries does use that term – facilitating leader – to refer to himself. He wants to help people reach achievements, to slowly but surely accomplish their goals. ‘If you do things too abruptly you’ll lose support. It’s important to always listen. I’m pretty decisive, but I want to make sure the decisions I make are welcome. I think Poppema had a bigger drive to really make his mark. He’s done so much for the RUG; under him we were ranked among the top 100 universities in the world’, says De Vries. Then, contemplatively: ‘But I think he may have been a little too abrupt towards the end.’

Pioneers

For the longest time, De Vries was only marginally aware of Poppema’s decisions. He’s been with the RUG since 2015, but he spent his first three years in Leeuwarden, as dean of the then-fledgling Campus Fryslân. His former colleagues still haven’t removed De Vries from their mailing list, so every now and again he’ll read something about a new building being opened over there. It tends to make him nostalgic.

‘We were pioneers over there. I can still remember the very first plans, sketched on the back of a cigar box. Seeing how that has grown, how our plans became reality, is just remarkable.’ On top of his bookshelf there’s a large fierljeppen pole, decorated with the typical Frisian seeblatt pattern. His team gifted it to him when he left. ‘We started with just a few people. As our team grew, we grew closer as well; we were all in it together. Getting the faculty off the ground was our responsibility. I miss my people sometimes.’

He left Leeuwarden for Groningen with a heavy heart, because he also had to give up his other passion: science. He’d been enamoured with his field since his time as a student. ‘My children say I was a total nerd’, he grins.

Set the tone

He still remembers his best teachers and the classes they taught – like Hans Daudt, his thesis supervisor, who had no problem making students summarise entire books. But Jouke loved that stuff.

I love that impetus to push myself, and I still do

He says: ‘I can find it with my eyes closed’, and gets up to walk over to his crammed bookshelves. He returns with Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. ‘By Schumpeter. Daudt translated it himself.’ His eyes flash with their signature sparkle. ‘There were only twelve students in the class; he would call on everyone, so we had no choice but to be prepared. I worked really hard on my summary and I thought it was pretty good. But Daudt said: “It’s not bad, but you forgot footnote so-and-so on page so-and-so”.’

This set the tone for the rest of his studies, and it carried over into his academic career. He always wanted to learn more, getter better, be first. Not all of his political science lecturers were as great as Daudt but, De Vries reasoned, what’s the point of classes that are easy to pass? ‘I love that impetus to push myself, and I still do.’’

Intellectual jam sessions

Whenever Jouke was a teacher, if he stood in front of a class of three hundred and two were reading a newspaper, he didn’t consider the class a success until both had abandoned their newspapers to listen. And now that he’s no longer a lecturer, but president of the board, what does he need to consider his tenure a success?

‘I want Groningen to really draw people. I want them to think that we’ve got it going on.’ By ‘it’ he means excellent fundamental research, a strong collaborative relationship with corporations and organisations in the north and Germany – there’s his local focus – and the very best education. ‘And we have to look at what’s best for the university in terms of student numbers. Is it 30,000, 35,000, or maybe only 25,000 student? What is our capacity?’

He will soon begin talks about the strategic plan for 2020-2025, which will allow him to explore and discuss his ideas. De Vries envisions something he calls ‘intellectual jam sessions’ – he plays an air trumpet with his fingers – ‘I’ll start with something; the deans can add their ideas; the university council weighs in; the students say their piece; together we create a great piece of music.’

But inherent to a jam session is that the music can go places the director, with his trumpet, doesn’t anticipate. Would De Vries be able to handle that?

He thinks about it, and smiles. ‘If I like it, I’ll keep listening.’

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