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“The New University wasn’t overly relevant down here”

“The New University wasn’t overly relevant down here”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes

University Council chair Herman Kingma steps down

MAASTRICHT. During his last meeting as chair of the University Council, in late February, he was given a framed print of Maastricht’s St Servatius Bridge. “Herman builds bridges”, explained the university president Martin Paul, who presented the gift. This is indeed how Professor Herman Kingma (65) has approached the role over the last six years: as a mediator. As someone who ensures that the Executive Board and the University Council can focus on their work as effectively as possible – if not transparently.

Does he look back on his time as chair with satisfaction?

“Very much so. When I took office the University Council was still very reactionary. The Executive Board prepared proposals, the MT [the management team consisting of the board members and the deans –Ed.] polished them and off they went to the council. By that point you could only say yes or no. The council played no part in developing strategy; we only heard about it later, usually in the form of a fait accompli. And if you wanted to go back to the way things were, you had to force a confrontation, which meant the council had virtually given up in that area.

Today things are vastly different – just look at the university’s new Strategic Programme 2016–2020. Think-tanks were set up to develop the programme, including people from the University Council. And the council brainstormed and had internal discussions, based on which five points emerged that were taken up in the Strategic Programme.”

 

That’s new – where can I find them?

“I don’t have them on hand, but if you take a look at the council documents, they won’t be hard to find. My point is that the relationship between the Executive Board and the University Council has undergone a drastic change: we’re now involved in the process early on, and that gives us much greater influence.”

 

Could that also be thanks to the sympathetic attitude of the current Executive Board?

“No, the council was already increasing in strength under Jo Ritzen [the previous UM president –Ed.]. A few times we reined the board in, for instance with the sports centre. That took an eternity, so we set deadlines. The council now makes a point of being active in the preliminary stage; the culture has changed, regardless of who the board members are. It’s true that this board is willing to go along with that, but that’s an attitude they’ve grown into. The behaviour of the boss, as it were, partly depends on your own behaviour.”

 

What did you fail to achieve in these six years?

Kingma is quiet for a moment. Then he brings up a subject that, in his view, has gone on far too long: the development of a new HRM policy. After years of discussion, a memo has at last been drafted. “That was extremely important for the University Council. The old policy, set out in the ‘Mobilising minds’ memo, got stuck in the planning stage; in terms of implementation it never got off the ground. That was under the previous board and the former HRM director. Then Nick Bos, the current portfolio holder for HR, got involved, and together with the Local Consultative Body [the LO or unions –Ed.] we put pressure on the board to organise things differently. It was partly thanks to us that a new HRM director was appointed. The present plan is the result of the findings of several working groups that investigated a range of different themes: tenure track, temporary contracts and so on. What played a role was the New University movement, which was also hammering on about those same themes. As far as I’m concerned, they drummed up support for issues that we ourselves had already put on the agenda.”

 

The impression you gave was that you were nervous about the New University Maastricht (NUM). Their opposition to the existing order circumvented the council, and you said you wanted to take the initiative back.

“Nervous? Not at all. And no, I wasn’t afraid the University Council would become irrelevant, but after the first NUM meeting I did want a second to be organised under our banner. Don’t forget: it was mainly an Amsterdam affair. They came down here, dominated the meetings and then left again to confer about their standpoint. Wanting to improve things here in Maastricht is all well and good, but you shouldn’t let yourself be bossed around from Amsterdam. The situation at the UvA is very different to that at UM. The local chapter of the NUM emerged mainly from a single faculty [FASoS –Ed.], and represented a very small minority that actually wasn’t overly relevant.”

 

When you took office in 2010 you wanted to ‘strengthen ties with voters and breathe new life into democracy at UM’. Yet voter turnout is still extremely low.

“This is an issue faced by all representative bodies. The national House of Representatives enjoys a turnout of around 60 percent, but beyond that? Company unions and works councils are happy if they manage 20 percent. The same goes for the university. Students come here to study, and as long as the facilities are okay then they’re not bothered. And things are not much different for staff. The people who play active roles are usually the same ones who are already active in other forums. We tried to increase turnout by installing a PR committee, setting up a Facebook page, posting summaries of meetings on the website. But nobody read them, so we gave up.”

 

During your term the University Council had more closed-door meetings than ever.

“True: we consulted much more with the Executive Board than earlier councils. And those meetings are often confidential, usually at the request of the board. If you turn down that request, the consequence is that the topic isn’t discussed at all. The way of discussing things also differs when the subject matter is confidential.”

 

You don’t see this as clashing with democratic principles?

“Not at all! Many things are simply not public. Do you know what the dean of the FHML discusses with the university president? And do you think that won’t affect UM policy?”

 

Consultation on university governance is by definition not public. But the council is made up of elected representatives – as a voter you need to be able to see what they’re up to.

“Certain elements of democracy are public. But not all of them.”

At this point a discussion arises – not for the first time – between reporter and council chair on the matter of transparency versus confidentiality. Why does Observant receive a separate agenda of the council and committee meetings, days after the normal agenda is disseminated among members? Imagine if the city council, or the House of Representatives for that matter, made one agenda for members and another, much reduced one for the press. Kingma says he has no knowledge of this practice, but as far as he is concerned the entire agenda can be made public, including the confidential items (excluding, for obvious reasons, the associated confidential documents).

But why does the council itself do so much behind closed doors? Its meetings, for instance, are preceded by a preliminary discussion that is not open to the public. And to give another, very recent example: at Kingma’s final meeting, after a brief discussion the council had to take an official standpoint on the new HRM memo – at which point all non-members were asked to leave the room. Even the council’s language policy, concerning the use of English and Dutch, was discussed for months behind closed doors until a memo appeared out of the blue.

“What’s wrong with internal consultation?”, Kingma says. “You want to develop a position, you want to discuss things with one another. What do you not know about our language policy if you’ve read the memo?”

 

You don’t know what the debate was about, what arguments were raised, who said what. And what about the council elections, when the parties and candidates present their agendas, their programmes – shouldn’t we be able to see how they follow through?

“Well, programme, that’s a big word. To be honest there’s not all that much debate, even between the student parties. People are usually in agreement. After the elections I always tell the new members, forget the programme. It’s no longer about the interests of your party, but the interests of the university.”

Kingma is keen to mention several more examples of effective intervention by the University Council. Take the plans for Brains Unlimited: the council was in favour of the project, but felt that too much money was being spent on it. “We went all the way up to the Supervisory Board, calling for other financial backers to be brought in. That’s when the Province decided to invest €10 million.” His point: transparency or not, it’s about results.

 

After the interview, your reporter emails the executive secretary of the University Council about the five points the council contributed to the UM Strategic Programme. Where can they be found? The reply comes: “The points were brought to the attention of the Executive Board confidentially [...] and are thus not intended for publication and/or dissemination.”

 

 

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