‘Being an Erasmian, that’s the new strategy’

Kristel Baele in EA Magazine

In conversation with Kristel Baele, president of the Executive Board, about a new generation of students who work toward a better, more inclusive world. ‘Knowing how to interact with diversity is becoming more important, to the point that it’s now a strength rather than a hurdle.’

TEXT: Eva Hoeke
PHOTO’S: © Geert Broertjes

You’ve been president of the Executive Board for three years now. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in your position so far?

‘There’s two things. First is the understanding that today’s students want very different things than the students of twenty years ago – and often very different things than what I would expect. Today’s students are very involved with the world’s problems, with sustainability for example, with food. So we listen to that. The university-council students wanted to have all food on campus be vegetarian. We thought that went a bit far, but what we did do is make the vegetarian options default, rather than the other way around. If you want meat, you have to specify. It’s a small example, but it shows how driven the students are.’

'We’ve set up a new strategy called the “green team”, a team of young students and staff members who got the assignment to think against the grain.'

The students of the 60s were also a plucky bunch – protesting against the bomb, against rising tuition fees, the occupation of the Maagdenhuis…

‘True, I was like that myself. But in the years that followed, things changed again. Became more utilitarian. But you see that it’s coming back again, a movement that I fully support. You also see that the students consider themselves multi-talents. It’s very common these days to study and volunteer and start your own business on the side.’

And what’s the second thing you’ve come to learn?

‘That the “university” as an institution is in transition. Not just in the Netherlands or in Europe, but world-wide. We live in complicated times with complicated issues, and society is turning to universities to help solve these issues. And not in the classical sense – by way of classes and writing articles – but by being closely involved in society. An example: last year, one of our professors helped with the coalition formation following the elections in Rotterdam. Scientists are becoming public property of sorts, rather than being outside observers. We’ve already observed. A wonderfully inspiring example is Generation R: a project that’s monitoring the growth, development, and health of over 10.000 children growing up in Rotterdam. In the end, this will majorly contribute to the health and care of all children in the Netherlands.’

These new developments require a new approach. What does this mean for the university?

‘Quite a lot. A fundamental addition is that, next to education and research, societal impact will become the university’s third “prong”, as it were. This will shape how we design our research practices and our education, and our students will stay at the front and centre of that. As such we’ve set up a new strategy called the “green team”, a team of young students and staff members who got the assignment to think against the grain. I don’t want to call it a generational gap, but you often see differences in thinking between teachers and students. This new strategy will allow us to pave a path that’ll see us into the future.’

I’m sure that mission got you a few weird looks.

‘Yes, of course. But that’s good, it’s part of the university – questioning everything. And despite the strange looks, I enjoyed seeing how it got our deans thinking from a place that’s purely motivated by wanting a better future for your students. Because the future our students will be entering will be very different than what we saw five or ten years ago. I’m often in touch with companies, and the feedback I usually get is a call for multidisciplinarity and teamwork. The so-called soft skills. We want to implement more of those in education, by – among other things – working more and more with real-life cases. Sometimes that’s a bit exciting, but for the most part it’s very cool.’

'Diversity is one thing – inclusivity is another.'

Where did your love for academic education come from?

‘It came from the fact that I’ve seen in my own life – and that of others – how big of a difference it can make. Once upon a time my career started with the United Nations. There I learned that if you get to invest a hundred euro – invest it in education. It makes such a difference: it’s the motor that keeps things going, more so than water wells, to name one thing. Education is life’s touchstone.’

Internationalisation is also a part of this change we’re undergoing. We’re seeing a growing number of international students: 20% of students is now from elsewhere – how does that lead to good jobs?

‘Keep the conversation going and keep your eyes on the ball. We believe that we owe it to students to offer them an international classroom and campus – it’s an environment that’ll prepare them for their future career and life in general. Even if our Dutch students would stay in the region: their customer base would still be international. Moreover, knowing how to interact with diversity is more and more important these days. For students and for scientists. And then I’m not just talking about nationality but also about age, belief systems, background, etc. And especially: knowing how to interact in an inclusive manner, making it your strength rather than a hurdle to overcome.’

Rotterdam is a city of over 170 nationalities. Do you see that reflected in the university?

‘Yes. But diversity is one thing – inclusivity is another. It’s not that strange: you leave an old world behind to enter into a new world, and this one’s put together in a different way. Then there’s other factors playing a role here: in some families it’s not obvious that girls get to go to university – it’s important to mention this – and in other families it’s obvious that you continue on to university. This can make for a certain fear in some students to leave a familiar environment for one that’s strange and unknown. That’s why we have an outreach programme for high schools in the region. We’re trying to bridge that gap.’

You were born in Belgium, which makes you a migrant yourself – although from quite nearby. Is this an advantage, do you think?

‘When I went to Comoros – a group of islands in the Indian ocean – as part of a foreign aid project, I felt for the first time what it’s like to leave an airplane and arrive at a country where you recognise nothing: not the sounds, not the language, the smells, the colours. Nothing. You’re a stranger adrift. The interesting part is: intellectually you know this, but the emotion of being thrown entirely by the wayside – that was new. But I’m an adventurous person by nature, so I didn’t hide out in the compound. It ended up being a major life lesson that I still profit from to this day. The point is: you think you’re without prejudice, but you’re not. Luckily, most people aren’t evil, so no matter how confronting an experience is, people always want to move forward.’

I’ve been told that you’re quite bothered by the increased attitude of working by the book?

‘Yes, I am.’

What does an annoyed Kristel Baele look like?

‘She can be a bit brusque, haha.’

Explain.

‘Ha, where to start! We live in a society where there’s less and less space for spontaneity – or even just an experiment. We get this immediate control reflex. The effect of this is a lot of administration, because everyone has to explain every step. If you ask me, it’s gone into overdrive. The goal of this institution is to provide solid education and research, not a drawer full of the right forms. In my wildest dreams we make of this place a bureaucracy-free zone, where we let our professionals do their job freely. In all probability that would make for an equal amount of – or even less – mistakes as you find in the world welded shut with rules and regulations.’

Where will the university be in five years?

‘Ideally, the university will have renewed itself to the degree where we can help student realise their dreams – and we can offer an even more improved educational system. Train people to make a difference. Conduct research at the forefront of innovation when it comes to societal impact – have scientists that contribute to a better world in close collaboration with social partners and parties.’

And in 25 years? Dream out loud.

‘By then both education and research will have drastically changed at the hand of digitalisation, like for example the kind of research that profits off of “big data”. By that time I hope that we’ll still be in a position to offer new generations the tools that would make it possible for them to step into their own as professionals, but also as people, as citizens. Being an Erasmian, that’s the new strategy.’

What do you do when you’re not at work, actually?

‘I’m quite sporty: I sail, I do yoga when I get the chance, I bike into work from Rotterdam-Zuid. It’s a twenty-minute journey from beginning to end, just as fast as when I’d come in by car. I like to go on walks. Last weekend I was in the Staelduinse forest, and that was lovely. I also think the Biesbosch is beautiful – and the Brienenoord island in the New Maas. Not far away at all!’

Final question: is Rotterdam prettier than Antwerp?

Laughing: ‘Almost.’

CV

  • NAME: Kristel Baele (60)

    STUDIED: BA in political and social sciences (cum laude), Ghent University (Belgium); MA in political and social sciences (specialisation in organisational sociology), University of Antwerp (Belgium); Programme for Executive Development (PED), International Institute for Management Development, Lausanne (Switzerland)

    TITLES: President of the Executive Board at Erasmus University Rotterdam

    Profile Kristel Baele