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New FHS dean: “Deans aren’t all that important”

New FHS dean: “Deans aren’t all that important”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts

Transfer of the year, Bernadette Jansma from FPN to FHS

From incumbent dean of one faculty to dean of another: this type of transfer is virtually unheard of. Not at UM, though. What inspired Professor Bernadette Jansma to trade in the Faculty of Psychology and Neurosciences (FPN) for the Faculty of Humanities and Sciences (FHS) as of mid-2016?

Jansma (50) has been dean of the FPN since 2009. She is also a passionate scientist, as becomes crystal clear to anyone who spends five minutes in conversation with her. No matter the question, she never fails to come up with an answer involving this or that project set up with colleagues-so-and-so. So why, come 1 January 2017, would she not just return to her great love, science? That would have been conceivable, she admits. And not just in 2017.

“Two times four years is quite a long time”, Jansma says. “And because the faculty is doing well, we’re seeing a lot of success and the relationships are harmonious, as far as I’m concerned 2016 could have been a sort of fade-out year where I could have transferred the reins to my successor over the summer. Then I could have gone back to the Department of Cognitive Neuroscience and thrown myself into research on language in the brain – I want to know everything about that. How does it work in healthy people, in people with aphasia, in dyslexics? Not to mention the fact that the chair is set to be freed up. It’s a dynamic club, with about a hundred people but only 24 permanent staff, so there’s a lot of people management to be done. And I’d be able to teach again.”

That was one option. But not the only one, by a long shot. “Around three years ago head-hunters began to come knocking. They needed a dean in Groningen, for example, and at the University of Amsterdam. I wasn’t interested in the UvA; it’s not international enough for me. That’s not something they want to hear, but it’s true. And in academic circles in the Randstad there’s a sort of caste system where I just don’t feel at home. You’re always seen as an outsider and not taken seriously. You can see that in the national committee of deans. If I propose doing away with the numerus fixus, nobody listens. When the UvA dean says the same thing, it’s gone within a fortnight. It doesn’t help that in Maastricht the emphasis is on neuroscience, which doesn’t mesh well with their focus on clinical psychology. They seem to think we take funding away from them.”


Talking heads

She found herself wondering, “Where do I want to be, as a non-Dutch [German] person? If not in the Randstad, then in Maastricht. I have great colleagues here and the opportunity to build things up. Since coming here in 1998 I’ve been involved in the development of the department, Brains Unlimited (a set of super fMRI scanners, including a 9.4 Tesla), the Science programme, the forensic institute TMFI. And other things too.”

And Jansma is in a position to make comparisons: she knows how UM stands up in relation to universities both in the Netherlands and abroad. “Faculties elsewhere know next to nothing about one another. Here they do, and I don’t want to lose that. Our management team, the consultative body made up of the Executive Board and the deans, is unique. Every two years we take a joint trip to an institution abroad that we can learn from; most recently to two universities in Madrid. That sort of thing makes it easy to collaborate: projects with the FHML, with the law faculty, with economists. And here we have as few meetings as possible with the talking heads – we just get down to business straight away.” 

Jansma, then, has no intention of leaving Maastricht. Last summer, she was “casually sounded out” by rector Luc Soete on the topic of the FHS dean’s office, where a number of posts remain unfilled: dean of the University College, dean of what is now called the School of Sciences, overarching dean of the faculty. Jansma responded that she “would not, in principle, turn down the latter”. (“Sparing? Yes, that’s me.”) She is aware – these sorts of things are discussed in the management team – that it is a difficult task for outsiders. “I get that. It’s an incubator faculty; people want to know, ‘how does that even work?’ Moreover, Dutch people have all these ideas about Limburg and Limburgers. So they just don’t come to Maastricht. You don’t see that with foreigners. In late November we’ll have another three international candidates here for UCM. That’s been going on since January, but Teun Dekker is doing a fine job as acting dean. So there’s no reason for panic.”



In the end, Jansma said yes. Because, she says, she has a second passion besides science. “Looking at people, their talents, how they can develop. My role in that is to foster things, to facilitate them, to promote collaboration.”

She is looking forward to this part of the new job. “The FHS is made up of very different autonomous units, and yet it works. You might wonder what the point of a dean is at all”, she laughs. But she knows what the point is: further building on the potential of the faculty, and making connections across and beyond its various units. “You have to get all those different units to talk to one another, to look beyond their own borders, to see whether they have chemistry and whether something new can grow out of them. I want to be a facilitator – that’s how I view my role as dean.”

Beyond that, she says, deans aren’t all that important. “Here in Psychology, for example, there’s no need for leaders. They’re unnecessary. I mainly want to focus on content; I don’t need to flex my muscles, or lie or make threats, or even be all soft and zen. I’m not like that. I’m realistic. I think you have to be transparent, and friendly and positive. Unless people don’t stick to the agreements they’ve made. Then I become less friendly.”

She laughs again. Friendly.



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