Rector Rutger Engels: “I’ve seen how resilient this organisation is”

Rutger Engels, rector of Erasmus University Rotterdam, can look back on a turbulent few months. And with due pride: “Besides all the researchers who have made the news, and the tremendous work done by all our lecturers, allowing us to swiftly transition to online education, I am also very proud of the team of directors and deans whom I work with. They managed to switch – seemingly effortlessly – from their normal routine to all-out crisis management.”

How are you doing?
“Very well! Rather busy, though. As it is, preparing for the start of the new academic year is a lot of work. But this year it’s even more than usual. It’s actually busier than in late March.”

Three months ago, we entered a crisis of an unprecedented scale. Looking back, how do you feel about this period?
“What has happened was a terrible thing for people everywhere, and very disruptive. But leaving that aside, I feel quite positive about the whole thing. Both Hans Smits, the chair of EUR’s Executive Board, and I were abroad in mid-March. He was in Johannesburg; I was visiting Los Angeles with colleagues from the university. We had to fly back without further delay, Trump was closing everything down. I drove straight to the university from Schiphol. Incidentally, our crisis team had already set to work, since we’d seen the writing on the wall. The scenario in which we needed to close up shop and move our activities online had already been fleshed out to some extent. We’re very experienced in crisis management, so the team knew where to start.”

What was your crisis plan – and did it work out?
“We still have to make an in-depth analysis. But what I can tell you at this point is that we immediately decided to communicate as effectively as possible with staff members and students via all channels at our disposal. I think that proved quite an asset. We’re starting to hear that people really appreciated that move. For example, we set up a studio with facilities for recording video broadcasts. We’re the only university that immediately began to organise television broadcasts.

Another thing I enjoyed witnessing was the prominent role assigned to, and claimed by, our researchers in current affairs programmes. Of course, our IC wards, our world-class virology department and the staff of the Erasmus MC became almost a regular fixture on the news. I felt immensely proud of that. And after this initial phase, you started seeing more and more researchers from other disciplines besides: philosophers, behavioural scientists, economists. Including people who presented a different perspective. Scientists who think along about issues in the medium term. I am extremely proud of all of them. One thing that I’ve learned from this crisis is how resilient this organisation is. Indeed, our researchers have continued to land a lot of grants in the most recent period. They didn’t simply throw in the towel; they said to themselves: I want to contribute and perform research. You could see this in each of our faculties. I think this reflects a wonderful mind-set. One that I intend to cherish and foster.”

“The good news is: we’ve received more registrations than ever”

What went particularly well?
“Besides the researchers I just mentioned, and the tremendous work done by all our lecturers, allowing us to swiftly transition to online education, I am also very proud of the team of directors and deans whom I work with. They managed to switch – seemingly effortlessly – from their normal routine to all-out crisis management. I also had the pleasure of working together with a very experienced chair of the Executive Board: Hans Smits. He has seen it all before, so he wasn’t ruffled one bit. With the inclusion of Roelien our team was complete, everyone could contribute their own expertise and so we could build upon each other’s efforts.  It is, of course, very unfortunate that she is leaving; as we have been able to work very well together, and our personalities compliment each other. I will miss Hans and Roelien.

Did you keep your cool yourself?
“I didn’t feel too stressed out, but I was concerned. About students and staff members who were still abroad. And I was also worried about the pressure and stress experienced by our own researchers and students. Together with HRM, we initiated a study into pressure of work. We’re trying to support our staff wherever we can in this respect. We had a platform up and running in no time, which students can turn to with their questions. I attach a lot of importance to people’s welfare.”

Rutger Engels

Which part did you personally find hardest to deal with?
“Everyone is hit to some extent by a crisis like this. Including financially. The university had to deal with substantial new cost items paired with less income. But I’m also concerned about people with temporary contracts – like a lot of our students had jobs on the side that they lost. This crisis has had quite an impact. And we can’t solve this for them. It’s not as if we can advance them their tuition fees or anything like that.”

Were you in touch with other universities a lot?
“We significantly intensified our contacts. Some weeks I’d get together with all the Dutch rectors – not once but twice – to discuss complicated matters like the binding study advice. We’ve adapted the rules surrounding the transition from bachelor to master. Even if Covid has caused you to fall behind in you bachelor programme, you can still start on your master degree. Under certain conditions, of course. These arrangements are agreed at the national level and then worked out in detail locally.”

So have things quieted down now? Or is this when the real work starts?
“Closing a university is actually easier than re-opening one. In effect, opening our university while abiding by the 1.5-metre rule means that we have to fundamentally reorganise almost every aspect of our education activities. Hardly a walk in the park.

The good news is: we’ve received more registrations than ever. But we cannot utilise our regular capacity. We need to determine how we can organise campus life so that students still get a taste of the campus experience, while abiding by the 1.5-metre rule. So interaction with fellow students and lecturers still will exist.”

“The good news is: we’ve received more registrations than ever”

What will EUR education programmes look like in the coming academic year?
“They’ll offer a mix of campus-based activities and digital education. We’ll be installing audiovisual equipment in each of the rooms across campus, so lecturers can record whenever they choose to. And we’re examining how we can organise a share of the examinations on campus. This is important: some of our students don’t have enough peace and quiet at home, which makes it difficult for them to sit exams. And we’ve been looking at which groups we need to assign priority when it comes to activities on campus. One category that should definitely be prioritised is first-year bachelor students. In addition, we need to prioritise skills training – in which interaction between students and lecturers plays an important part. Regular lectures, on the other hand, are easier to organise online rather than face to face.”

Will students be able to attend a full year programme over the coming academic year?
“Absolutely! One hundred percent. The only situation in which I couldn’t guarantee this across the board – some programmes involve clinical internships, for instance – if we once again have to close up entirely. But if the situation remains stable as it is, students will be getting a full year’s worth of education. And it will be of high quality.”

What are the main advantages of online education?
“That you no longer need to be in the same physical space. So it’s very efficient. In addition, we are examining whether we couldn’t make specific master programmes digital altogether. Imagine you live thousands of miles away and you’re interested in attending one of RSM’s world-class management programmes. Could it be offered entirely online – and still be interactive? We’re currently looking into that kind of things. Without Covid, we would never have gotten to this point, not even after three years of work. And teleworking is also here to stay: from now on, many of our staff will be taking a different approach to their work day.”

Does digital education come with any drawbacks?
“Academic education involves more than just sitting in front of your laptop and doing assignments. The university’s number-one responsibility is developing its students. And this isn’t just about reading books – it’s about the fact that your years as a student are a crucial, formative period in your life, during which you acquire social skills and develop your critical faculties. Matters like this become a bit more difficult when your contact with other people is limited to online interactions. Our new strategy puts more focus on skills training, and this is something that can hardly be organised only online. Contacts between students and lecturers remain important. So I have no doubt that our education activities will continue to be campus-based.

Still, yesterday I heard that students are working on a new app with ‘semi-official’ study areas around town. If people decide to meet up and study together at other locations across the city, I think they’re definitely on the right track.”

Rutger Engels interview

How did the university manage to switch to digital education so quickly?
“We’ve invested heavily in both software and manpower to support lecturers in developing hybrid curricula. We have the Community for Learning & Innovation (CLI) at our university, meaning that we already had a range of experts in-house when the crisis broke. Each faculty has its own CLI team. Thanks in part to this, we could organise a swift and effective transition. The director, Jeroen Jansz, is an experienced professor when it comes to innovation and development in education. He has put in a lot of work together with the CLI team – with remarkable results. We managed to move the lion’s share of our education activities online within a matter of three weeks – and this transition will never be reversed. Both our students and lecturers can now enjoy the benefits of this form of hybrid education, or blended learning.”

“We managed to move the lion’s share of our education activities online within a matter of three weeks – and this transition will never be reversed”

Rutger Engels

What are the main advantages of online education?
“That you no longer need to be in the same physical space. So it’s very efficient. In addition, we are examining whether we couldn’t make specific master programmes digital altogether. Imagine you live thousands of miles away and you’re interested in attending one of RSM’s world-class management programmes. Could it be offered entirely online – and still be interactive? We’re currently looking into that kind of things. Without Covid, we would never have gotten to this point, not even after three years of work. And teleworking is also here to stay: from now on, many of our staff will be taking a different approach to their work day.”

Does digital education come with any drawbacks?
“Academic education involves more than just sitting in front of your laptop and doing assignments. The university’s number-one responsibility is developing its students. And this isn’t just about reading books – it’s about the fact that your years as a student are a crucial, formative period in your life, during which you acquire social skills and develop your critical faculties. Matters like this become a bit more difficult when your contact with other people is limited to online interactions. Our new strategy puts more focus on skills training, and this is something that can hardly be organised only online. Contacts between students and lecturers remain important. So I have no doubt that our education activities will continue to be campus-based.

Still, yesterday I heard that students are working on a new app with ‘semi-official’ study areas around town. If people decide to meet up and study together at other locations across the city, I think they’re definitely on the right track.”

Have you been working from home yourself?
“Yes, I worked from the office one or two days a week. The campus was virtually deserted at the time. But I don’t like working from home – it doesn’t suit me at all.”

But are you saying students won’t be affected by this?
“What you do see is that some groups are more affected than others. Some students have to deal with serious issues that prevent them from studying at home. They are experiencing a lot of stress. And students with physical impairments have to contend with more obstacles than usual too. Students are facing financial problems. I’m concerned about these things. And we’re sincerely trying to help them. We have around 30,000 students. You could simply focus on the 29,000 who are doing relatively well. But what’s important is to pay proper attention to the 1,000 who have run into problems.”

Has your role as rector changed?
“The crisis has led us to work together more than ever. Every week I met to confer with the programme directors and deans of the different faculties. There was a strong feeling of: we’ll get this done, together. Traditionally, university employees enjoy a lot of autonomy – which is a wonderful thing. But in this case we really needed to work as a team. I’m proud that we succeeded in doing so, and I hope that we can hold on to this team spirit.”

In a few years’ time, will you be looking back on this period as a wild and exciting time, or do you regret being rector precisely during this outbreak?
“Forget the latter! A crisis like this simply happens to you; no one’s looking forward to it. But we basically worked hard to find solutions for whatever cropped up. Roll up your sleeves and set to work is how I saw it. And we really made a team effort.”

“Roll up your sleeves and set to work is how I saw it”

And finally: what would you say to students who are worried about their ‘Covid diploma’ being worth less than a ‘regular’ one?
“Complete nonsense in my opinion. Actually, I think that students who have weathered this storm are actually better positioned in today’s job market. During a very complex period of transition, they’ve managed to finish a programme or thesis that meets the same academic standards as always. That definitely speaks to your abilities and to your resilience.”

Will you be able to go on holiday this year?
“Yes, I have a two-week holiday coming up.”

Erasmus University Rotterdam builds first virtual campus in the Netherlands

Press release

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Erasmus University Rotterdam launches the Dilemma Game app

General

EUR believes it is important for researchers, young and old, to be able to discuss dilemmas with each other in an safe environment. Hence, the renewed Dilemma Game app was launched.

Erasmus University Rotterdam leads new European alliance of universities in post-industrial cities (UNIC)

Press release

Together with seven universities (from Bilbao, Bochum, Cork, Istanbul, Liege, Oulu and Zagreb), Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR) is founding a European University of Post-Industrial Cities (UNIC).

More information

Professor Rutger Engels (1968) became rector magnificus of Erasmus University Rotterdam on 15 June 2018. He is responsible for education, research and impact, policies for academic employees, science communication and information for students. He is also Professor of Development Psychopathology at Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences (ESSB).