Yantai: Conflagration of wrong assessments
Evaluation committee on UG campus in Yantai:
Yantai: Conflagration of wrong assessments
‘Mistakes were made throughout the process. On their own, these mistakes weren’t that bad, but together they led to an accumulation of negative attitudes towards the plan’, the report says.
Under the direction of then university president Sibrand Poppema, the previous board of directors failed to see the ‘dark clouds’ that had been gathering since the fall of 2015 for what they were.
People’s ‘negative attitudes’ led to the university council blocking the plan to open a branch campus in the Chinese city of Yantai in 2018. By then, the plan had been underway for four years.
The idea for a Yantai campus was presented in 2014, through Poppema’s network. The board felt it was in line with the university’s internationalisation strategies.
Initially, the university council, as well as the Faculties of Science and Engineering (FSE), Economy and Business (FEB), and the ministry of Education, Culture, and Science (OCW) were receptive of the ideea.
In six months, the UG and Yantai twice signed a Memorandum of Understanding in China. The first signing was attended by prime minister Mark Rutte, while king Willem-Alexander was present for the second. This made it seem as though the plan was a go, the report says.
Unfortunately, the plan was missing some crucial elements, including a business case. The university council started voicing more criticisms in the fall of 2015. Early 2016, the Facult of Economics and Business dropped out, partially because of the lack of a proper business case.
Over the course of 2017, it became apparent that The Hague was ‘unwilling to stick its neck out’ for the plan. After four years, the university council shot down the plan.
Irritation and frustration
The writers of the report say several factors were at play. First of all, the accelerated speed at which the plans were being executed early on was unwise, since this ultimately created a ‘breeding ground for irritation and frustration’.
The report also said the decision-making process was lacking. It had been developed the wrong way around, the investigators say.
‘They started with the most important part, with a lot of bombast and publicity, and only then started working on developing it, setting up a business case at a fairly late stage, when they should have presented that at the beginning of the strategic process.’
The report also criticises the fact that the university wanted to keep the plan in-house as much as possible. ‘It was clear that staff couldn’t always handle things. […] Increased external support not only promotes professionalisation but can also contribute to credibility. This played a role in the business case, among others.’
The report also says the university should have collaborated with other universities. The investigators say that Dutch universities aren’t equipped to handle projects of this size. The UG should not compare itself to American or British universities which did succeed in setting up branch campuses, since they ‘are completely differently embedded politically, administratively, and financially’.
‘The Poppema Plan’
The evaluation committee says the project’s leadership, with board president Poppema at the helm, wanted to stay in control of everything.
‘That’s understandable and has its advantages. But this also made it easier to refer to and dismiss it as ‘The Poppema Plan’, as sceptics started calling it after a while.
His central role and his compelling, bold, enthusiastic, and confident way of working ended up annoying people both at the university itself and at the ministry of Education, Culture, and Science, among other places.’
No unconditional support
As well as the execution, the report also criticises the way people counted on political support. While the ministry of Education was initially in favour of the plans and the first set-up was signed in the presence of important people, it was wrong to consider this unconditional support for the plans.
‘People put to much value on positive statements, sympathetic letters, and grand ceremonial gestures when the memoranda were signed. […] They also underestimated how willing the Netherlands is to recall certain decisions and resolutions, even if the deals were made in the presence of the highest authorities.’
While the way decisions were made can and should be criticised, the report also says it’s easy to do so in hindsight. The evaluation committee says people have simply worked very hard to set up a project that looked like it was right up the UG’s alley.
Therefore, the evaluation committee not only criticises the question ‘what went wrong?’, but also says the answer to that question is: nothing.
Response from the RUG: End to the Yantai discussion
‘The board of directors agrees with the committee’s findings. Some of their recommendations contain useful advice that we can use when writing our new strategic plan and for the ‘University of the North’. The committee has also advised to put an end to the Yantai discussion. There are plenty of new challenges to keep the University of Groningen busy.’