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"Without sexy master’s programmes, it’s going to be difficult"

"Without sexy master’s programmes, it’s going to be difficult"

Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes

SBE dean Vergauwen is leaving for Brussels

SBE dean Philip Vergauwen himself agrees that he is leaving prematurely. The strategic overhaul of his faculty is still in full swing. But the offer from the Solvay business school in Brussels was, he says, simply too good to turn down. Observant talks with him about his toughest moments as dean, SBE as an outsider, and the ‘selling’ of research.

Before the interview, the dean of the School of Business and Economics had one request: he wanted to choose the location. One week later, he is sitting on the terrace at the Tapijn Brasserie soaking up the mild autumn sun. He returned from the US only this morning, although you wouldn’t know it just from looking at him.

Why Tapijn? The hundred-year-old barracks are a “symbol of innovation” for SBE, he says. A moment later, he grabs the notepad and sketches out the Carré building, fifty metres further down the Bisschopssingel. “That’s where our postgraduate programmes will be delivered from 2019. The master’s programmes will largely be given at Tapijn, and the bachelor’s programmes at the Tongersestraat.”

Vergauwen won’t be around long enough to see that. He is leaving for Brussels in January. As professor of Accounting and Management Control, he will be based in the Solvay Business School at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Already a member of the Solvay Advisory Board, he has been tasked with leading the strategic renewal of the education and research portfolio. “Solvay was established in 1903 and has a great reputation, but isn’t quite doing justice to it right now. Something needs to change.”

Authority

Vergauwen would seem to be the right man for the job. In recent years he has turned SBE upside down, precisely in the name of strategic renewal. There, the departments surrender money and powers to interdepartmental teams, which are responsible for education and research and are supposedly more effective than individual departments. The sea change is still underway. This was what made Vergauwen hesitate, he says, but in the end it was an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“I don’t see Solvay as a step up from SBE, but you’re certainly right at the centre of attention, in the capital. People pay more attention to you. That I’m Belgian is definitely an advantage. A Dutch person would run into obstacles there, have trouble navigating the unofficial channels of authority. I’m Flemish myself but I expect to be able to handle it."

Street kid

It would be going too far to say that Solvay looks up to SBE, Vergauwen says, but they certainly respect the Maastricht faculty, if only for the three international quality labels it has managed to pocket. Solvay has only two. As he sees it, SBE commands more respect abroad than it does in the Netherlands. And even here in Maastricht sometimes, a little more recognition and understanding from the Executive Board wouldn’t go astray.

“SBE is often the outsider among the UM faculties. Sometimes we’re not entrepreneurial enough, or too reluctant, for example when it comes to offering minors. After all, we have a mandatory internship abroad. At other times we might want something like an International Relations Office, which the Board sees less need for. We don’t need constantly patting on the back, but a bit more understanding would be welcome sometimes.”

And this while the rector from 2012 to 2016 was Luc Soete, an economist. “Luc is a Brussels street kid, a frog constantly jumping out of the wheelbarrow. He’s intelligent, engaged, unconventional, gets how it works at SBE – but at the same time he’s an agent provocateur. That’s to his credit, but it means you can be sure he’s not there as your personal advocate.”

Failed merger

After some prodding (“you’ll have to ask others about that”), Vergauwen concedes that his term as dean was largely successful. “One thing I did manage to do was bring together the different blood groups, including the economists and the management people. I think I got them to be a little more open and a little less conflict-ridden. Bringing people together is my strength.”

At this point he reaches for a note that has been lying on the table, and says he approached the role of dean very personally, from his heart. Listed on the note are a number of keywords that describe his administrative style: engagement, respect, impact, collaboration and complementarity. In Dutch, the first letters spell out ‘BRISK’, meaning fresh and energetic.

Asked about his most difficult moment as dean, he steers clear of the failed merger with the Maastricht School of Management (MSM). Although he almost fell off his chair when the MSM suddenly withdrew in the summer of 2015: “It was a missed opportunity, for sure. SBE did well; I don’t see it as a personal failure. At the same time, I don’t want to put all the blame on the MSM. They just made different choices. For us it wasn’t a necessity. I’m all for merging, but we don’t need the MSM.”

Sexy

The most difficult thing, he says, were the faculty meetings in the spring on the new strategic direction, especially the financial model. “One day in April we, the Faculty Board, find ourselves sitting across from the group of department heads. You can feel the tension in the air: we’re not understanding one another, we’re rubbing each other up the wrong way, we’re not on the same wavelength. And then you have to conclude that as the board you’ve dropped the ball; you haven’t done enough to keep the department heads in the loop. Of course you want to involve them in how things are developing, but you can’t inform them fully at every point in time. Anyway, a month later there was an awayday and everything was all right again.”

Another controversial matter is research. Here, Vergauwen differs in opinion from some ‘basic’ researchers. “As far as I’m concerned they don’t have to do anything different to what they were already doing. I place a lot of value on their A-publications, even if they’re in small fields. But I do think you have to try to build a bridge to the bigger picture, to society. You don’t have to get your face in the newspaper, but you could be a bit more visible, make more of a point of showing the world what you do.”

Not least, to attract students. “If we don’t succeed in getting sexy master’s programmes out there, it’s going to be difficult. And then the research money will dry up – it’s as simple as that.”

Strength

Solvay wanted Vergauwen to start even earlier, as of September, but he refused. “That would have meant not being able to see through the introduction of the financial model. That’s basically the last push. I want to be here for that.”

He will definitely miss UM, he says; over the last two decades it has made him into what he is today. “I’ve done and seen everything here since 1997, from programme director to chair of the University Council.” For this very reason he was planning on leaving anyway, after his term as dean. “I don’t want to return to the faculty. I’ve seen other deans do that and it didn’t make them happy. At the administrative level, you’ll then go and do something you’ve already done, and that’s not for me. My strength lies not in the routine, but in doing something new.”

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