Lessons from Professor Rianne Letschert

Prof.dr. Rianne Letschert
Harry Heuts

On a cold December morning, yESHPM (Young ESHPM) welcomed professor of victimology and international law Rianne Letschert in their midst for a talk as part of a series of inspirational meetups for early career researchers. Letschert – one of the youngest ever appointed rector magnifici in the Netherlands and ‘Topvrouw van het Jaar 2019’ – opened the debate in the Netherlands on a number of issues: gender equality, diversity, and recognition & rewards of academics. How does she combine this vocation with a busy job as rector magnificus of Maastricht University? An inspiring monologue on unpredictable career paths, passion, and the future of academia.

For a rector whose university was this year not only confronted by a pandemic but also the aftermath of a cyber crisis, Rianne Letschert makes a remarkably relaxed impression. In these times where video calling sometimes seems the only way to interact, the border between informal and formal fades. With the click of a button, you enter a room, and with that same click you leave, not knowing how many people are in that room, and you are immediately aware of that one conversation going on. Before Sanne officially gave the ‘floor’ to Rianne, they chatted about Christmas holiday plans. Letschert is a great fan of winter sports – alas, last year she had to skip the trip due to said cyber crisis, and this year the situation is obvious. So, this Christmas, Letschert and her family planned to dedicate time to upholstering the garage and turning it into an official home office – the contrast with the 17th century Franciscan monastery from which she usually works could not be bigger.  

In 2016, Letschert became rector magnificus of Maastricht University. Now, she is at the beginning of her second term. But how did she end up there, and what aspects played an important role in her way to the board room? Let’s start with remarking that Letschert does not plan her career. She makes sure to always be a team player and stay visible, then goes with the opportunities popping up on her path. While writing her master’s thesis, her supervisor asked if she wanted to pursue a PhD. During her PhD trajectory, she engaged in matters that did not necessarily relate to her scientific career. According to Letschert, female candidates tend to invest more in such extracurricular activities compared to men. This paid off for her, but she acknowledged: “In many cases it is not as fruitful as in mine.”  

After finishing her PhD, it was that same supervisor who asked her to become a university lecturer. Not long after that, Letschert was appointed research director of the International Victimology Institute in Tilburg. After a couple of years, she got frustrated with the fact that she couldn’t get more funding and that she couldn’t give junior staff more perspective. It was at that moment that she clearly saw the limits of the academic system. An academic system in which, if you know the right people, you can get a position. She remarked that the way she got her positions were not always very transparent or inclusive – one of the things that she likes to see changed in Dutch academia.

  • However, Letschert emphasizes that failure is no stranger to her either. She got rejected for whatever grant you could apply for. “I am always failing forward. Not doing everything perfect, but also making sure not to make the same mistake again.” She told herself that if the next application was not successful, she would quit academia. But eventually – emphasizing that it was a team effort – she got a Vidi. It led to a lot of media attention, and soon after, she was asked to become dean of the Law School in Tilburg. However, Tilburg was not the only university who had heard of her. So, during a car drive home, the phone rang. It was a member of the selection committee charged with the task of finding a new rector magnificus for Maastricht University, asking if Letschert was open for the job. This female member of the selection committee assured her that she should try and apply. And so Letschert did. “Let’s not read the job profile”, she told herself, “because you’ll never fit any of the bullet points”. In a timeframe of less than two weeks, Letschert was one of the youngest ever appointed rector magnificus in the Netherlands.

    With that appointment, she placed herself in a spot where she could actually change something on a national level, after all those years of noticing flaws in our system. Letschert co-spearheaded the ‘recognition and rewards’ movement, and in 2019 a position paper on this topic was released. At the core of this position paper is the proposition of a renewed system of recognition and rewards of competences and talents in academia, with an increased diversity of career paths and academic profiles. It suggests a move away from solitary recognition of individualistic research accomplishments, towards increased recognition of accomplishments in education, leadership and impact.

    This includes acknowledgment of collective goals and team spirit. While this appeals to a great number of academics, there are quite some hurdles to take. “We need to have more stable funding. Most of the money is coming from teaching, but the number of students is growing, and the money is not. So, the workload is increasing.” This disbalance has long been acknowledged, but we have to speak out in order to persuade those who are reluctant to change. As Letcher states, “the top and the bottom of the hierarchy are aware of the necessity for an improved system, but there is always a thick layer of people in between where these voices are lost.” Fundamental changes are needed, else this academic system is not sustainable. In short, there are lots of challenges ahead to speed up the `recognition and rewards’ movement. Rianne Letschert calls on all of us young academics to raise our voices and help her speed up this inevitable change. 

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Young ESHPM (yESHPM) is the PhD community of ESHPM. Their goal is to create a space for PhD candidates from different sections to meet and interact. Through organizing regular activities, yESHPM functions as a platform for sharing experiences, difficulties, and questions related to being a PhD candidate at ESHPM.