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Yantai reconstruction

How they finally pulled the plug

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10 January, 2018: the day it was decided that the branch campus in Yantai, China would not happen. How six months of lobbying, meetings, and questions from the University Council led to the end of the RUG’s most ambitious plan ever
By Thereza Langeler en Rob Siebelink / Illustration René Lapoutre

Henk-Jan Wondergem, faction chair for student party Lijst Calimero, remembers the moment he stopped believing in the Yantai project.

It was not when he heard the fraught term ‘party secretary’, or the even more fraught ‘academic freedom’. Rather, it was an ordinary Wednesday, 10 January, and Wondergem had spent the day as he had spend most days in the previous months: in meetings.

As a member of the Scholten committee, every week he reviewed the Groningen plans to start a branch campus in the Chinese city of Yantai. On this day, he met with four professors of the Faculty of Science and Engineering (FSE), the plan’s pioneering faculty. He was shocked by what they told him.

They introduced so many ways in which the budget was a mess

‘They introduced so many ways in which the budget was a complete mess’, says Wondergem. Consider the chemistry bachelor, one of the professors said. Chemistry students have to do lab work, which requires intensive supervision and a student-staff ratio of at least one to eight. ‘But there was absolutely no room in the budget for that. Either they would have to spend a lot more money on that, or there would be too few teachers.’

Historical failure

Each point increased Wondergem’s uneasiness. For months he had heard glowing arguments about the golden opportunities in China and how it would be a shame not to take this chance. But now he was faced with four professors of the faculty responsible for the first Chinese programmes, and they were practically begging not to go.

Their pleas helped make up his mind. He didn’t believe in the plan’s promise any longer.

The five students that make up Lijst Calimero also played a crucial role in shooting down Yantai, the RUG’s most prestigious project ever. For three years there were meetings, discussions, trips, debates, and negotiations. There were project teams, building plans, and millions of euros invested. Now it’s all been called off. That Wednesday afternoon, Wondergem made a decision with far-reaching consequences.

Everything changed

Originally, he would never have been in the position to make this decision. The Proposal for Transnational Education Yantai was to have been submitted to a vote in the University council in August of 2017, when his predecessor Daan van Dijk was still chair of Calimero. But that all changed on Thursday, 24 August.

It was the day of the council committee meetings. Usually these are only of interest to the Council, but that day there was an audience: students Tim van Heuven and Jasper Been. Their new party, Democratische Academie Groningen (DAG), had recently won two seats in the University Council. They would start joining meetings in September, and had come to see the proceedings for themselves.

They didn’t know what to expect when they joined the first committee, Education and Research, at nine that morning. But then Bart Beijer, Personnel faction chair, made a shocking announcement that shook the room.

We will stop Yantai from happening

After an internal discussion, Beijer said, Lijst Calimero’s faction and his own decided they were unable to agree to Yantai plans such as they were. Things were too unclear; there were too many uncertainties. And because together they held fourteen of the twenty-four seats, the plans would not go through.

‘I looked at Tim like this’, says Been, dramatically widening his eyes. ‘Whooooaaa!’ They had never dreamed this would happen. Unlike those in other factions, he and Van Heuven were never convinced of the merits of a Chinese branch campus ‘The plan represents everything that’s wrong with this university, which is focused on nothing but quantity over quality, and its image.’

Been had a realisation: the final decision would be made while he was on the council. From that moment, DAG had a singular mission: ‘We will stop Yantai from happening.’

Really reserved

If Beijer’s words affected rector magnificus Elmer Sterken, he didn’t show it. ‘His reaction was really reserved’, Casper Albers with the Personnel faction recalls. ‘As though it didn’t quite land with him. He said something along the lines of, “this is not a matter for the Education and Research committee. So I don’t currently have an opinion on it”.’

The actual impact didn’t sink in until later, when RUG president Sibrand Poppema attended the Board committee meeting. Poppema did not bother to hide his reaction.

‘He was severely displeased’, Olaf Scholten of the Personnel faction says. Displeased with Calimero’s and the Personnel faction’s down vote, and with how everything had transpired. According to Poppema, a decision should be made after all the views have been discussed. Not before. SOG, with six seats the largest student faction at the time, was also annoyed, and accused Calimero and the personnel of relying on ‘gut feelings, fears, and suspicions’.

Scholten took the insult personally. So that day, he went to Stephan van Galen, president of the Office of the University. ‘I would like a meeting with the Office’, he told Van Galen, ‘to figure out a few things.’

Total sham

Soon after, Scholten found himself heading up the council committee that was officially called the Yantai committee, but which everyone but him called the ‘Scholten committee’. Representatives of the council factions sat on this committee. The only people who declined to join were DAG’s newcomers. DAG president Jasper Been doesn’t like committees who are supposed to remove the sting from a disagreement: ‘It was a total sham.’

Wondergem did join the committee. It would be months before his decision to vote against Yantai, but from that moment onward he started getting the feeling as though the board saw him as a supporter. ‘I repeated the same thing again and again: “The fact that I am on this committee does not automatically mean that I agree with the plans”‘, he says.

Some people thought that our members would be turned by the board

‘This committee is meant to uncover the facts needed to be able to form a more informed opinion of the proposal’, says Scholten. Most of the meetings followed the same pattern: the University Council members asked questions, and the Office staff tried to answer them.

The more we figure everything out, the better the new proposal will be, they thought. And, some people secretly thought: as long as the proposal is good enough, the plans will be approved.

Scholten says the committee dealt with facts. Opinions had no business in their meetings. ‘Some people thought that our members would be turned by the board, and that we would automatically vote yes.’

Such a bad plan

But it was not that simple. A new Yantai proposal indeed appeared in November. Jasper Been and Tim van Heuven printed out all 540 pages of the plan and locked themselves in Been’s room for an entire Saturday.

Been was not impressed. He wasn’t even disappointed. What the second-year economy student saw was a budget with no sensitivity analysis, no calculations concerning the best- or worst-case scenario, and no market research (‘Apart from China saying everything would be fine’). He was shocked. ‘I couldn’t believe actual adults had produced such a bad plan.’

I couldn’t believe actual adults had produced such a bad plan

During the council meeting in November, it turned out the other factions weren’t convinced either. Everyone, even proponent SOG, asked questions about the budget, the exit strategy should something go wrong, the quality of education, and the consequences for Groningen.

It didn’t help that it had just been announced that the Chinese communist party wanted a secretary to sit on the Yantai board. Some council members heard the news during the meeting itself. For the rest of the afternoon, their shock was palpable. How was Sibrand Poppema going to justify this?

Don’t worry

The university president responded the way he had all along: by saying that everything would be fine. Sure, the board would have a party secretary, but academic freedom was not in danger. Don’t worry.

Did it look like he still believed his own words, that late November?

‘He just wasn’t interested in any criticism’, Been thinks. Every time he or Tim said anything, the board would sigh in annoyance and grimace. ‘They treated us like we were crazy. We were against the plans, so they didn’t need to take us seriously.’ In other words: Poppema would continue to play deaf and keep pushing to get his way.

The university just didn’t buy his good news shtick

Scholten is more cautious in his assessment. ‘It’s always easy to tear someone down. Poppema is a great leader: he accomplished more with China and The Hague than anyone else ever could.’ He falls silent, looking thoughtful. ‘But the university just didn’t buy his good news shtick, and I don’t think he was expecting that.’

In December, the staff members on the council were invited by the board president to take a long lunch walk with him one of these days. Casper Albers accepted and joined Poppema on a tour from the Oude Boteringestraat, past the Grote Markt, the UMCG, the Diepenring, the Nieuwe Kijk in ‘t Jat bridge to the Westerhaven, and back. ‘We walked for at least an hour. He set a firm pace.’

They ate their sandwiches and Poppema asked Albers about his stance on the whole Yantai issue. ‘It was slightly nerve-wracking’, Albers recalls. ‘I played it pretty close to the vest.’ Did Poppema exert any pressure on him? Did he try to charm him? ‘No, that’s not my recollection of it. It was a really good, proper conversation.’

Ten percent

In the meantime, the Scholten committee continued its meetings, now joined by DAG. ‘Olaf Scholten is such a sweet man, and he wouldn’t stop asking us.’ Plus, during the meeting with the council, he’d only been able to ask ten percent of the questions he had. So Been thought he’d ask the remainder during the committee meetings.

He became impressed with the committee members. ‘They asked some really good questions, and kept their heads about them.’ But not all the speakers had good arguments. To wit: employees from the Faculty of Spatial Sciences and the Faculty of Science and Engineering, who would be pioneering their programmes in China.

‘Two and a half hours of listening to someone argue in favour of Yantai with nothing more substantial than: ‘It’ll be so cool to tell my kids that they’ll be able to study in China!’ Been is annoyed and amused at the same time, but then switches to pure annoyance: ‘Seriously? Sentimental stories about your kids? That’s supposed to convince us?’

There was much less support than they had initially thought

Then, 10 January rolls around. The committee hosts another round of speakers, who have a different story to tell. Personnel faction member Dirk-Jan Scheffers has heard it all before: he was on the FSE faculty board last year and knows the professors, has heard their objections. But he sees the shock on the other committee members’ faces.

‘There was much less support than they had initially thought’, he says. ‘They’d been told that FSE wanted this, that their faculty board was in favour of the whole enterprise.’ But Scheffers knows this wasn’t really the case.

Vote against

The faculty was asked if they would agree to provide programmes in Yantai if the plans were approved. ‘Agreeing to that, however, is not the same as agreeing to the plan itself’, Scheffers emphasises. Yet this was how it had been interpreted and communicated. ‘To be honest, I was surprised the Board of Directors didn’t correct this.’

Once Henk-Jan Wondergem realised that FSE wasn’t as enthusiastic as he’d thought, he lost all interest in the plans. That Monday, the faction met, and everyone was in agreement. The pros and cons had been laid out, and they had heard enough. Calimero was against the plans.

The rector said: You know this will have consequences, right?

So now what?

The events in August had taught them what happens when people aren’t careful about their announcements. They didn’t want that happening again. They were going to be more careful. First, they would tell the Board and the Office. They scheduled a meeting with Elmer Sterken for Thursday, 18 January.

Wondergem remembers the lack of expression on the rector’s face when he was told the news. He showed neither shock nor anger. ‘He said: “You know this will have consequences, right?”‘ But that was it.

Tense

Over the course of the day, however, the Office of the University became so tense that SOG faction chair Zeger Glas began to notice. ‘Something was going on. So I started to fish around.’ The staff wouldn’t tell him anything, but that night, he happened to bump into Wondergem. After some urging, the truth came out.

Glas was annoyed; he would have like to see UGY be successful. He had attended the November meeting and heard the objections. He knew it would be a difficult sell. ‘But I remained hopeful, trying to convince people.’

We were being attacked just as we had put down our weapons

That same Thursday evening, Calimero e-mailed the council to tell them of their decision. We need to do something, Glas thought. It wouldn’t be long before Calimero would publicly announce their decision. SOG published a Facebook statement detailing the reasons why Yantai should receive a positive vote. They hoped, against their better judgement perhaps, to mobilise a student front.

That plan failed. Wondergem and his faction members were suddenly confronted by FSE’s disgruntled study associations. ‘They somehow knew that we were against the plans’, Wondergem says, annoyed. ‘It felt like they had been put up against us. It was really frustrating: we were being attacked just as we had put down our weapons.’

Trump card

Immediately after the e-mail, Dirk-Jan Scheffers called Wondergem to discuss that the news should not spread beyond the council. Scheffers knew exactly what Calimero’s down vote would mean. ‘I was like: this is how it will all come undone’, he says.

I was like: this is how it will all come undone

The members of DAG were so incredibly happy that they had a hard time admitting it to themselves. ‘I kept thinking that Poppema would come back to play his trump card’, Been says. ‘Could this really be the end of the plans?’

He didn’t truly believe it until, a week later, he read the press release from the Board of Directors that said they were abandoning the plans for a branch campus. That’s when they finally celebrated.

Scholten has had a different experience of the past few weeks. He is conflicted. ‘I’m relieved a decision was finally reached, but I’m not happy that Yantai isn’t happening. A part of me really wanted to be in favour. But these plans were just not good enough.’

Floodgates

It’s been a little over a week since the die was cast, or at least, since the press, once again too early, got wind of the decision. The news has opened up the floodgates rather than closed them, it seems. Disappointed proponents have published opinions pieces and open letters by the dozen, have called the decision a catastrophic mistake, and arrogantly asked the University Council if they even knew what they were doing.

They’re people on the sidelines, they haven’t invested their time and effort into this

‘They are people on the sidelines, they haven’t invested their time and effort into this’, Wondergem says drily. ‘I have. I took this very seriously. I’ve given it a lot of thought and I’m convinced that this is not a missed opportunity, but the right decision to make.’

‘I’ve got better things to do than worry about people criticising me right now’, says Scholten.

The final report he finished yesterday clearly outlines for everyone else what the University Council thought they were doing. So what’s next? The university will need some time to get used to the idea that they’ll just be ‘of Groningen’ rather than ‘Groningen Yantai’. And the University Council will have to face Sibrand Poppema for at least another six months.

‘We’ll see what happens’, says Scholten. ‘Right now, I have exams to grade.’

 

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