Rutger Engels: A Thinker and a Doer

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Prof. dr. Rutger Engels is excited about his new job. ‘I get to take up a position with an eminent and international top-university that prioritises societal impact.’

TEXT: Eva Hoeke
PHOTO’S: © Aurélie Geurts


The new rector magnificus currently lives in Zeist. He was born in Velp, studied in Groningen, worked in Nijmegen, moved altogether about twenty times, but his formative years – those were in Emmen. Engels: ‘That’s where the writer and journalist Peter Middendorp grew up. He once said that Drenthe is the one piece of land on the planet that no one’s ever fought over. I think there’s some truth in that.’ And still – when Engels was invited to sit in on a concert of the Drenths singer-songwriter Daniel Lohues he found himself overcome by emotion.

What was so touching about that concert?

‘I guess it’s still those roots. The way Lohues talked about the people and the nature, that love for earthly matters. The poems by Rutger Kopland have the same quality, that earthy element. And of course the fact that Emmen is now participating in the Premier Division – that helped along the emotion.’

That earthy quality is something Engels wants to take with into his office, which now looks rather bare. It’ll stay like that in part. Engels is not a man of ‘stuff’, but there will definitely be a big wooden table. ‘A desk doesn’t work for me. I need a laptop that I can put anywhere. Besides, a wooden table has something very symbolic to it. It almost says: let’s get down to work.’

What about your new position as rector has stood out so far?

‘Before I had my first interview here I came by and had an undercover walkabout. It was a Saturday and I was just scoping out the place, getting a feel for it, and was so surprised by how busy it still was. People who were here to study, or for sports or lunch. It was vibrant, which hadn’t seen in Utrecht or Nijmegen. The university is made up of people, not buildings. I like that.’

Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb said: ‘Every rector stands on the shoulders of his predecessors.’ What advise did you get from your predecessor, Huib Pols?

‘His message was connectedness. Between people, but also between faculties. I believe in that. If you, as a director, think you can achieve that top-down – then you won’t get very far. It’s also an outdated attitude: the voices of the students have gotten louder, and what they have to say also has quite an impact these days.’

The university has democratised.

‘Certainly, more so than when I was studying. The students bring their own ideas and themes to the table. From my very first interaction with students it was clear that sustainability was a very important issue to them. And if it’s an issue that they’re concerned with, it’s something we’re concerned with, too.’

What makes you the right man to be here?

‘I’m a thinker and a doer. I think it’s important to have solid plans but even more important to implement those plans. I also bring in an outsider’s perspective – I don’t assume much and I’m open to just about anything. That can be an advantage.’


  • Rutger Engels

    Name: Rutger Engels

    Education: Psychology at Groningen University, PhD at Maastricht University.

    Position: rector magnificus since June 15th 2018 at Erasmus University.

  • ‘If you, as a director, think you can achieve that top-down – then you won’t get very far.’

And why did you choose for the EUR?

‘At some point I noticed that a lot of what I was doing within the sciences remained rather static. Your work is appreciated, but it doesn’t have much effect on the outside world. Here I’d get to take up a position with an eminent and international top-university that prioritises societal impact. That seemed wonderful to me, also an honour.’

And how will you achieve that impact, that relevance?

‘I think that collaborating with the city is very important. Rotterdam faces the same challenges as many big cities around the world: poverty, mobility, sustainable energy. Science can contribute to solving those issues. By, on the one hand, actively aiding in starting up neighbourhood projects where residents and scientists can work together to implement changes. Or on the other hand, by setting up longterm studies in connection with those collaborative efforts. There’s about a seven-year life-expectancy gap between the richest and poorest neighbourhood in Rotterdam. That’s unacceptable. Another thing: the representation of students with different cultural background is different than what you’d expect, considering how prevalent the topic is right now. We need to change that, actively. Those young people need to get the same chances to get to university. We as a university have a responsibility in that.’

You yourself studied Psychology in Groningen and graduated on the topic of ‘Cheating and Safe Sexual Intercourse.’ What kind of a student did that make you?

‘I was quite timid! It was during the AIDS crisis, end 80s. So there was a lot of money for research that looked into safe sex and AIDS prevention. And I was really interested in it, not just in why people cheat, but in behavioural change. How can you motivate people, even if they will cheat, to do so safely? But at the same I was a very timid. I met my then-partner at nineteen. But I could be found at the bar quite often, especially when I started out.’

Are students more serious these days?

‘Far more serious. There’s a lot of pressure on choosing the right track, and – once you have made a choice – to do it right. I worry about that. They’re all young people in their formative years, and already they’re not allowed to make any mistakes.’

In Nijmegen you did a lot of research into smoking and drinking among youth. Do you see that happening here?

‘For years I also smoked, and I wouldn’t say no to a glass of wine, so I don’t want to give the impression of a disapproving disciplinarian. But on the other hand I also think that we as a university must take responsibility when it comes to preventing excessive drinking and smoking.’

You’re also concerned with issues like depression among young people. How will your knowledge come into play in your new position?

‘There’s students who struggle with their self image, which is quite a recurring theme among students. Same goes for university staff members, by the way, if you’re talking about work pressure and burn outs. It’s become a social issue. There’s TV-shows about it, and Sophie Hilbrand did an interview about her burn out – that would’ve been unthinkable twenty years ago. We have around 27.000 students here, so it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that at least a few of them will have issues.’

How are you going to approach this?

‘I hear from students that there’s a need for ‘soft skill’ development next to more knowledge-based education. In other words: social skills. That kind of education can be aimed at making yourself more resilient when it comes to stress or negative life experiences. You can’t change the fact that sometimes people go through tough times, but you can give them the tools to help them deal.’

Huib Pols used to have an open-office hour.

‘I’ll have one too, between five and six in the morning. Just kidding. But I’ll definitely organise something similar.’

You live in Zeist. Would you consider moving to Rotterdam?

‘Well, that’s an issue, because me and my partner just moved to Zeist because of our jobs. Because I used to work for the Trimbos institute, and Karlijn worked for the GGZ as a psychologist in Utrecht. And considering that her career is as important as mine, I don’t want to drag her with every time I get a new job. But on the other hand, I’m noticing that it’s a bit of a challenge, not living here. It would make sense. And of course Rotterdam is a wonderful city, so who knows.’

You have two daughters, Sophie (21) and Iris (19). What do they study?

‘Iris is doing Lifestyle Studies at Fontys in Tilburg, and Sophie is studying Medicine in Groningen. And it’s going well. During my professorship, what would happen on the Sunday morning is that I’d finish breakfast and then open my laptop. Colleagues would come by the house, people from here or from abroad, and I think that gave them a certain perspective, a work ethic. I didn’t have to push them at all.’

But if you were on the laptop after breakfast, that means they didn’t get the father who baked cookies, or took them to the zoo.

‘That’s true. They didn’t get that part of me. I was travelling a lot.’

Now you also have two young children. What’s going to be different?

‘That’s a tricky question. I don’t regret the way I raised my oldest daughters. But I’ve grown in the meanwhile, too. And at the same time, yes, I have a busy job with a lot of responsibility.’

And now the question that women in this position are always asked: how are you going to combine life with work?

‘Well, it is a bit of a puzzle, just like it is for many modern families. But we’re getting a lot of support from our environment. It’s a complex situation, though, so it’s possible that I’ll have to cancel something at some point for the sake of the kids.’

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working?

‘Cook. Lately I’ve really gotten into the Peruvian kitchen. I went to this restaurant in San Francisco called La Mar, and that was so good… Mindblowing, really. And then I found out that there are also really good restaurants in Lima. One thing that’s wonderful about cooking is that it needs your full attention and a lot of energy. When I get home my brain keeps on whirring, but cooking is cognitively so tasking that I don’t have the mental space to think about anything else.’

In your office there’s also all kinds of film posters.

‘I also love TV-shows. I can easily keep binge-watching until two, three in the morning. And if I haven’t been able to finish watching a whole show I’d rather just call in sick. I loved House of Cards, but Homeland was even better.’

And to conclude: your predecessor’s – Huib – word of advice to his students was to flirt as much as they could. What’s your motto?

‘Do other things next to studying. That’s what ends up shaping you.’

Were your years studying your best years?

‘No. My best years are yet to come.’