Philip Hans Franses, guardian of the team spirit
On 31 January Philip Hans Franses stepped down after 12 years as Dean of Erasmus School of Economics. Franses has continued to be both Professor of Applied Econometrics and Professor of Marketing Research during his deanship. To mark the end of his years in office, he has agreed to look back, share his plans for the future and give us some insight into his time management.
‘I never planned this, it just happened’ says Philip Hans Franses in his office on the last day of his 12 years as Dean of Erasmus School of Economics. This statement seems odd, coming from one of the foremost experts on forecasting models. He clarifies: ‘In 2006 we had just undergone a major reorganisation. Several activities were discontinued and everybody had to reapply for his or her job. Since there were several things we would not be doing any more, a number of people were made redundant. Harry Commandeur, the previous dean, led this process.
However, it was always clear that it might be better if the person who had undertaken this tough task, would not be the same leader that would get us off to a new, positive start. I put my name forward out of a sense of responsibility. When the end of my first term came up, I had not even realised myself that it was time already. Someone asked if we shouldn’t be doing something and the Executive Board of Erasmus University Rotterdam granted me another term. At the end of that period, something similar happened and I stayed on for another four years.’
"From the onset Philip Hans has endeavoured to create diversity, based on the premise that a diverse student population benefits from heterogeneous role models in the staff"
"Philip Hans is one of the best researchers in Europe. He has a knack for attracting excellent people. This has made the School leading in the Netherlands again"
Primus inter pares
For an ambitious scientist to dedicate 12 years of his career to spearheading the School, the job must be attractive. What makes it worth investing so much time in management if it could also be spent on research and teaching? ‘I have always continued my lectures and the publication of papers. I enjoy it, but it is also vital that the dean is leading by example. By acting as primus inter pares, you stay in touch with what is going on and it helps to create support for the course you have set for the organisation. Besides, why stop doing what you really like?
What made the management duties interesting is that I was allowed to rebuild the School. This made it possible to choose quality over quantity. I have been fortunate to be able to surround myself with people at the top of their game, who are not afraid to tell me when I am wrong. It is no use working with yes men.’
"Philip Hans is always driven and passionate. Most important is the good atmosphere he created, which enabled the School to operate as a team"
‘During a recent visit to a Rubens exhibition, it became clear to me that most paintings were actually not finished by the master himself. He showed his apprentices how it should be done and then asked them to complete the remaining part. This master-apprentice model is no different from what we do. If young people are working in the team of a top researcher, they are let in on the ideas behind the research and the design of the paper. After they have learned how to do it, they take on part of the work, which will provide them with a wealth of experience.
I am proud that top researchers such as for example Peter Wakker, Patrick Verwijmeren, Stefan Stremersch, Bas Jacobs and Jan van Ours have joined us here in Rotterdam. Their presence attracted other good people and talented students that want to work with them.’
"He is a real people person, which enables him to get a lot of support"
Celebrate what there is to celebrate
'It is important to remember though that everybody here is part of a bigger entity, ranging from the well-known professor to the aspiring PhD student. We can only flourish with the help of others with whom we form Erasmus School of Economics. Building a team that people want to be a part of has been very satisfying. We celebrated everything there is to celebrate: a bottle of wine for someone who put in a good performance, awards at the Christmas party and treats for everyone when children were born. On the other hand you want to support colleagues in need. Sending flowers to someone who is unwell and making sure you follow how they are doing is important, but you should also take time to listen if someone has experienced a major set-back in a research project.’
What celebrations will Franses always remember? ‘The centennial in 2013,’ he says immediately. ‘Everything was just perfect: the presentations, the celebrations and the beautiful book about our 100-year history. I also really enjoyed the fifty-year jubilee of the Econometric Institute in 2006 (shortly before I started my time as dean). There were 20 guests from all over the world who went out to dinner together and played sports; a fantastic happening during which we awarded honorary doctorates to Clive Granger and Arnold Zellner. The fact that one of them had already been awarded a Nobel Prize made it even more special.'
What celebrations will Franses always remember? ‘The centennial in 2013,’ he says immediately. ‘Everything was just perfect: the presentations, the celebrations and the beautiful book about our 100-year history. I also really enjoyed the fifty-year jubilee of the Econometric Institute in 2006 (shortly before I started my time as dean). There were 20 guests from all over the world who went out to dinner together and played sports; a fantastic happening during which we awarded honorary doctorates to Clive Granger and Arnold Zellner. The fact that one of them had already been awarded a Nobel Prize made it even more special.’
"A great leader provides support when you need it and provides challenge when you can take it. That is exactly why Philip Hans inspired me to commit to Erasmus School of Economics"
Pleasant working environment
Franses pauses to wave at passers-by in front of his office in the E-building. He will do so regularly during our conversation and clearly relishes the sense of community. ‘We are fortunate that there is an objective consensus on what constitutes quality in our discipline. No one will dispute that Econometrica is a good scientific journal for example. This saves us from lengthy discussions on how well people are doing.
We can look at their publications and the scoring of their teaching by the students. This helps to maintain a pleasant working environment and I am really pleased with the results of our employee satisfaction surveys. There have been times when they were less positive, which was a serious concern. Those days are past now. Visitors to our open day meet staff who radiate the pleasure they experience in their work. That will be reflected in increasing numbers of new students.
I never cease to be amazed by the dynamism among our students. The sheer number of high quality events they organise, their participation in forums like the School Council and their constructive input, are things I really enjoy and I will continue to do so after I step down from my current role.’
"Philip Hans thinks in terms of opportunities instead of problems"
Would Franses be in favour of introducing selective admission of students? ‘That’s a tough one. Some are able to show their true ability sooner than others. It is a snapshot and it may be fairer to select during the first year of the study. In fact, that is what we are doing with our ‘nominal is normal’ policy, which makes it mandatory to finish your studies within the nominal duration. I really don’t mind if a student decides around Christmas that the study is not for him / her. Loosing a year doesn’t matter so much. I encourage students to have a broad experience that turns them into versatile personalities. Companies do not pay much attention to your age when you apply for a graduate job, but they do want to know what activities you have undertaken in addition to your studies, who supervised your thesis and which countries you have visited for instance.
Franses himself has many interests outside academia. Sometimes he is able to combine them, for example when, as a painter, he provided illustrations for the programme for a conference. How does he find time to develop such talents? ‘I know that I won’t find time at home, especially during a period with two young sons. There is always so much else to do. For almost 20 years now, I have been painting with a group of people one night a week. To mark the end of my time as dean, my colleagues have kindly given me the use of a studio for a year. What a fantastic present!’
"Philip Hans is an omni talent: research, teaching, super-efficient organisation, representing Erasmus School of Economics and empathy (providing support for those who need it). Such people are enormously valuable for society"
Philip Hans Franses is also known as a promoter of diversity. Does he see a difference when comparing the current situation with 2006? ‘Yes, definitely. There are now five female endowed professors, whereas before there were none. However you cannot speed up this process, it takes time for a scientist to produce a body of research of sufficient size and quality.
Today about half of the attendants of seminars for econometricians is female, that was very different twelve years ago.’ Franses the econometrician is quick to point out that it is difficult to pinpoint what the cause is: ‘We have not been able to conduct an experiment.’ The School has actively recruited female candidates in the international job market, making sure that the selection committee also contained women. Franses: ‘The presence of women seems to have attracted more female students. We also take care to avoid stereotypes in our presentations and in the media. However, only a few women continue to pursue an academic career and by the time they approach the tenure track, the percentage of leavers is higher among women than men. I do believe this will change. We are well on our way to create a continuous flow of new talent. I don’t consider this a strategy in itself: the increase in the number of women in our midst is changing the chemistry for the better and will continue to have a beneficial effect in our field. That will help us to execute the strategy of what we want to achieve in our research.’
"Philip Hans is a great source of inspiration and has been very supportive of students and student associations"
Looking toward the future
Is Philip Hans Franses interested in a new management position in the academic world outside Rotterdam? ‘Not really. The intellectual stimulation of peers is what makes me tick. I am happy to serve on a committee if necessary, but it is unlikely that I will leave this university any time soon. There are no other places where you find so many top econometricians or students of econometrics as in Rotterdam.’
He is modest about what he can do for society with his research. ‘It is sad to see how increasing economic growth also leads to a wider gap between rich and poor. I won’t pretend that I can solve the poverty problem, but I can help to think about data collection in less developed countries and how to use those numbers in a forecasting model to develop policy. It would be good to contribute to the tools that statistics offices and central banks in such countries have at their disposal.’
"He points you in the right direction and makes it clear what he expects from you, but he also allows room for mistakes and lessons that can be drawn from them"
Recently the School made a commitment to provide 5 million euros over the next five years for research related to the Sustainable Development Goals. Franses speaks enthusiastically about a project his colleagues from Operations Research are doing to improve logistical planning to speed up the delivery of medicines in developing countries. However, he is also keen to explain that it should be a two-way process. ‘Such projects should also have beneficial effects for the research here in Rotterdam. If the results provide practical solutions, they can also be made available in other settings but that would be part of a valorisation initiative.’
What about activities closer to home? ‘I see an increasing dichotomy between what companies do with their data and what we would be able to do with it here. The area of data analysis is developing so rapidly that many firms have no idea of all the things our alumni can do for them. Going forward, I will probably spend more time to give presentations for companies that send their people here to catch up.’
What role will educational innovations such as MOOCs (massive open online courses) play going forward? ‘MOOCs are a great way to enliven a course. Proving mathematical theorems is not ideal in front of a class with hundreds of students. If I use a MOOC to show students how it is done, I free up time to spend on something more engaging to create interaction in class. For studies such as economics, econometrics and law, instruments such as MOOCs can never be a substitute for coming to class. Students will have to put in the hard work for three or four years to master the subject. In fact, I would be in favour of increasing the duration of the study programme to 5 years, before obtaining a master's degree. It creates space for add-ons without losing focus.'
Since 1 February Frank Van der Duijn Schouten, interim dean, is charged with finding a more permanent successor. Does Franses have a message for the person who will lead Erasmus School of Economics during the next four years? ‘Strategic challenges change rapidly, so I’ll let him or her deal with that. It will remain interesting to seek further cooperation with other faculties and to increase the diversity of our academic staff in terms of ethnicity. Students with a migrant background don’t stay with us to build a career and that is a real pity. In addition, I would like to advise this new dean to continue his/her own research and teaching. Without those two my role as dean would not have been as fulfilling. It is also crucial to continue to have that experience in order to be a credible leader of the faculty.
Last but definitely not least: Show a genuine interest in people. Make sure you know what is important to them. Guard the team spirit!’
Franses' life hacks for aspiring (and more advanced) researchers
- Limit the time for a meeting by being well prepared and creating a natural end by planning something else afterwards.
- Never commit immediately when faced with an important proposal. Buy time to look at it when it suits you so that you can take an informed decision to avoid having to go back on a promise.
- Protect your time by keeping several days completely empty to think, read and write. This will also give you space for something unexpected, and the unexpected always happens.
- Don’t let it get you down if a research idea doesn’t work out despite the fact that you have spent a lot of time on it. This happens to everyone at some point.
- Choose a research topic by finding a question that you really want to know the answer to yourself. This should preferably be something short, concrete and practical, answerable with yes or no.
"The economic cycle and the School’s cycle were never more beautifully disconnected than during the 12-year deanship of Philip Hans!"
About Philip Hans Franses
Philip Hans Franses (1963) studied Econometrics in Groningen and obtained his PhD in 1991 at Erasmus School of Economics under supervision of Professor Teun Kloek. From 2006 to January 2019 he fulfilled the role of dean. Franses is especially known for his work on forecasting models. His main hobby is painting pictures.