Interview with the new rector
‘A university is like a mammoth tanker’
The first female head of the RUG has an impressive record. In 2015, Cisca Wijmenga (55) won the prestigious Spinoza Prize for her research in genetics. She lead the genetics department at the UMCG for ten years and was appointed to the Lodewijk Sandkuijl chair in 2017. Her path to rector magnificus was an unconventional one, which began at one of the lower Dutch high school levels – which does not grant direct access to university. From there she worked her way up to a PhD in Leiden, where her academic career took flight.
‘I was always an inquisitive person’, says Wijmenga. ‘I always wanted to know exactly how things worked and why. Doing experiments by the book wasn’t enough for me. That’s how I found out research was the thing for me.’
Even so, she’s giving up research to fulfill one of the most important executive roles at the RUG. The UKrant spoke with the new rector – Wijmenga specifically chooses to use the male conjugation, because ‘it’s the job’s title’ – about her career switch, her views on the university, and her vision for the future.
Considering your impressive research record, I can imagine that the choice to switch from research to an executive role has raised some eyebrows.
‘Yes. I received many positive reactions, but there were a lot of people who were surprised by my choice. They didn’t expect this of me. I’ve worked in research for thirty years and enjoyed myself a lot, and I hope to remain involved for one day a week. But my role has changed over the last years, especially once I became the department head. I now see the challenge in a role that might allow me to mean something to all researchers.’
Like what, specifically?
‘We all know the pressure on researchers is enormous. How do you make sure you help them in the right way? That you set up the right infrastructure for them? In the end, what matters most to researchers is that they’re able to do their job and that they are supported in that by their environment. At the same time, I love exploring the possibilities of collaboration, both in research and in education.’
When you won the Spinoza Prize, you emphasised the importance of the group. A well-functioning team has a positive influence on the individual. How do you see this happening RUG-wide?
I’ve learned that two people always know more than one
‘There’s a tendency in his country to look at the performance of a group as a whole rather than at the work of an individual. That’s a message I’ve always carried out throughout my research; team work is a topic that’s dear to my heart. I think it is really important to bring together people who have different skills on different fronts. If you choose to implement diversity that way, people will use their best traits in their work. During my PhD research in Leiden I learned that two people always know more than one, and I believe that is what we should all strive for.’
That sounds like a lovely thought, but the reality is often different.
‘Yes. I would gladly discuss the topic with young researchers and teachers. What could you contribute on your own? How do you apply this way of thinking in your research group? Because in the end this is not something that can be enforced top-down, it doesn’t work that way. It needs to be done bottom-up. And it obviously only works if people understand the benefits of the approach.’
There’s currently a movement towards favouring the sciences and technical studies over the arts. How will you preserve the broader scope of education at the RUG, if the money only goes to specific departments?
‘I believe that asking people to think outside the box and consider their possible contribution to the RUG’s three social themes (healthy ageing, sustainable society, and energy) will result in many interesting approaches. The money aside, we should ask ourselves how we can contribute. You’d be surprised how many disciplines could do something with those broader themes. I’m not saying that’s where all the money should go, but I do think it could be a good opportunity to showcase the scope of the university.’
The picture you’re painting here requires a healthy dose of curiosity, while at this point there’s an enormous amount of pressure on lecturers teach for the sake of exams and not curiosity. How would you go about changing people’s attitudes?
‘Obviously you have to be the best at what you do, but I also think it’s very important that once you leave university you have developed a broader view. That means you can think in many different ways. But to know how we can make this happen, I first have to find out what wiggle room there is in the curriculum.’
The pressure on students is also increasing. What can the RUG as an institution do to change that?
‘I don’t know; I just don’t have enough of an overview to say anything concrete. More importantly, that’s something I should leave to our education professionals. But there are a lot of good things happening in Groningen as well. People are experimenting with different ways of teaching, different ways of testing their students’ knowledge. I think there’s room to do things differently by learning from each other.’
‘Wouldn’t it be nice, now that a woman is the head of our university for the first time in history, to use the correct Latin title rectrix magnicifa to refer to her?’ wondered the poet Jean Pierre Rawie in a letter to the editor in Dagblad van het Noorden. The UKrant asked students and staff on Facebook what they think.
‘Why do we always use the male conjugation’? asked Gijs. ‘Can’t we use the female conjugation to refer to male rectors?’ Timo likes ‘rectrix’: ‘A female chairman is also referred to as a chairwoman, after all.’ But Cas has a different view: ‘We don’t call women who studied law “mistress”, either.’ Most people agree on one thing: Wijmenga should be the one to decide which title she prefers.
Will four years be sufficient to effect these changes?
‘A university is obviously like a mammoth tanker. I’m not going to pretend that I’ll be able to change everything. But I do very much like to get people together and think about whether we could do things differently to empower and stimulate people. How could we do that? Who could we include in the process? How can we bring people together?
You went from having only a high school diploma to winning a Spinoza Prize. Where does that tenacity and belief that things can change come from?
‘I first did mavo (one of the lower Dutch high school degrees, which does not grant access to university), then moved up to applied sciences where I brushed up on necessary knowledge. I had to work really hard to get there. After that, when I wanted to go to med school, I had to take all sorts of admission tests in physics, chemistry, mathematics, and biology. That meant I spent another summer ploughing through my books. It didn’t come easy. After I got rejected for med school twice, I started my studies in biology.’
Do you think a similar path is available to students nowadays?
‘I think it is possible, but I suspect it may be even more difficult than it was in my time.’
The academic field looked a lot different twenty to thirty years ago. As a woman in biology, you must have been a minority. What did you take away from that experience?
‘You know, I never really thought of that. My mom worked, my grandmother worked, and my great-grandmother worked. It never occurred to me that a woman would be any different, so it has never been an issue.’
How about at work? Did you ever notice anything there?
‘No, no. I think it’s even the opposite. In that time there were less female PhD candidates, so you stood out more. And I’ve actually always had male supervisors with whom I had a good and healthy relationship. They very much stimulated me and I even think they might have helped me out a little behind the scenes. So I don’t recognise that at all. I don’t mean to say it doesn’t exist, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t recognise it myself.’
People with children also did good work
In the meantime, you’re showing everyone that women belong at the top, too.
‘I have always had women in my research group who did great work. I still do. So I also didn’t see any issues with the people around me. The people with children too, they did good work. I never thought they underperformed because they had a family. In fact I thought they were all the more powerful for doing it all. I have always given people the room to work how they need to. If you want to work from home or if you need to leave early, that’s fine. People work in the evenings, too, so I don’t keep tabs on when they are or aren’t around. In the end it’s about the work you get done.’
Is there any room for a social life in a career track like yours?
‘Yes. Fortunately there is. I enjoy going to the theatre, to the Stadsschouwburg or Oosterpoort. I also love art, so I enjoy visiting galleries and museums, or art fairs. And I love good food with friends. But I’ve got so little time that it’s hard to prioritise things like that. There will always be periods where I’ve got no time to spare, such as the last days before the deadline of a grant application. But I also view it as a wave; there will be quiet time later.’
To conclude our interview: is there something which you truly hope to accomplish as rector?
‘I think that is a conversation for later, when I have truly started my work and have a better overview of the university. The most important thing is that I want to first talk to people so I can find out how they work. After that, we can talk about the practical side of things.’