Professor Albert Scherpbier is saying farewell, but will stay on just a little
MAASTRICHT. “I am sweet until people are unkind or don’t listen. Then I can be hard and nasty.” “I am an unorthodox type of person; I like to stray from the beaten path and I don’t hold my tongue.” “I can be a bit of a hothead.” “The adolescent in me is never far away.”
A random selection of the qualifications that Albert Scherpbier saw written about himself over the past 29 years in Observant. The man who officially said farewell as dean of the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences (FHML) last Friday, listens amusedly. He says it is all correct, although he has been able to control the hothead reasonably well as the years mounted.
But he adds: in everything he is a “connector. I am passionate, want to build things together with others. I am good at working with other people. I have to be. The FHML may well be the largest player within the UM - we are the only ones to generate a multiple of our government contribution with contributions from other subsidisers - it is not good if one faculty is the most powerful. We are in this all together. You have to help each other and learn from each other. If things go well for the university, everybody benefits.” He refers to the still young Faculty of Science and Engineering. “If the Executive Board hadn’t founded that, I would have done it myself, in a manner of speaking. We really need such scientists, data scientists, for our own FHML research. We already have a lot of in-house researchers, but it is good if more specialists join us and exchange knowledge. The same applies to the psychologists. We need each other.”
How different was the atmosphere back in 1991 when he came to Maastricht to become head of the Skillslab: badly organised, was his judgement at the time. The medical faculty felt that the other faculties could only exist because they paid all the costs. Scherpbier: “That was the general opinion and that hasn’t changed. But back then, the relations were different: self-interest was foremost, there were arguments, people were kicked out, there was hassle.” And yes, FHML’s power is still great. Although he feels that ‘power’ is not the right word. “It’s about influence, instead of me saying ‘I want this so we will go left here,’ I try to convince others with facts, with solid reasoning. You take them along, do it with them. You try to get things going and hope that someone else takes off with it.” They can subsequently flaunt with Scherpbier’s feathers? Laughing: “Yes, I think that’s great. It’s all about the subject matter. The rest doesn’t interest me, status and fame mean nothing to me.”
He already showed that status means nothing to him when he was director of the education institute. In those years, repeated cuts had to be made and eventually Scherpbier refused to make more cuts in education. He would take his leave if the measures were pushed through. Dean Harry Hillen informed him at the time that he would also lose his title as professor if he did so. He didn’t care. Scherpbier stuck to his guns and won.
We speak to each other the day before his official farewell, which is planned for Friday 30 October, in the auditorium on the Minderbroedersberg. In the presence of a mere thirty invitees. “It is sober, not what I had hoped nor what I had been looking forward to. But I didn’t want to postpone it again, it would almost be superfluous then,” he said. The original date was 15 May 2020, with more than three hundred attendees. So now, an almost empty hall with lots of facemasks and a suitable distance, but also, as appeared from the livestream, with lots of wonderful words and jokes about the eternal cigarette from, among others, his “mate” in the Faculty Board professor Nanne de Vries, rector Rianne Letschert and President Martin Paul. The latter awards him with the Tans medal because of his many years of service but especially because “the UM has become known, worldwide, for its quality of education through you”. A little later, chairperson of the Board of Governors at MUMC+, Helen Mertens, gives him the Maastricht UMC+ Award. Followed by his first PhD student, Debbie Jaarsma, by now a professor in Groningen, from whom he receives a silver-coloured cup – sports trophy model – on behalf of all PhD students: “Because you give people wings.”
Ask him about his most important feat, and he answers completely in line with the above-mentioned his contribution towards that culture of working together– in the faculty, in the university, with the hospital (now together with the faculty, the MUMC+) and outside. This is offset by the headaches which no manager can escape. “There are individual problems with employees. We have abolished the existing system of ‘organising something around the problem’. We no longer shuffle people around, or create new positions. No, we no longer live in the previous century, we discuss things. The time when a professor had his own little kingdom, is gone. You become a professor by the grace of others, it’s about the team. We now ask: what do you contribute? How many PhD students do you deliver? We can say that, because Nanne (de Vries, ed.) and I also supervise PhD students. If I didn’t do that myself, such a discussion would be a lot more difficult.”
There were also the cuts and reorganisations. “It is always tough when you have to tell people that they get less time for research. In order to make research institute Caphri healthy again, we had to have some difficult talks. There was no other way. I was called a ‘benevolent despot’ by one of the research directors at the time – it was meant to be friendly – because I got on with it.” And yes, sometimes he was “too fierce” and in the heat of moment he may have “unintentionally insulted or rebuffed people. I’m sorry about that. I can only say sorry.”
Doctor devoted to education
It has been quite a while since Albert Scherpbier was just ‘the doctor who devotes himself to education’. He was given that title after his study of Medicine, when he became – what was supposed to be a temporary job, until a training place to become a surgeon would become available – education co-ordinator at surgery in Groningen, only to become head of the Skillslab at the Maastricht Faculty of Medicine in 1991 (intended to teach practical medical skills); a few years later, he became director of the Education Institute at FHML. In the end, he wasn’t just involved in the training of doctors of medicine in Maastricht, but also that of medical specialists in the Netherlands (he was the co-author of national reports that carried his name: Scherpbier 1.0, Scherpbier 2.0), and together with Mundo (the Maastricht Centre for International Cooperation in Academic Development) and SHE Collaborates (School of Health Profession Education, FHML section), he exported the Maastricht medical education abroad. “It is an important way of helping other countries. We help, we don’t take over. The best example is Northern Ghana. We started there with a small medical faculty, housed in the Faculty of Agriculture. Now they have a campus with various health care programmes, there are shops, a network of hospitals, our students do work placements through the Mustangh project.”
That big heart for education could not prevent that the study of Medicine, which had held first place in the Keuzegids for years, was surpassed by sister faculties and has not been at the top for some time. And many programmes within Health Sciences and Biomedical Sciences are not getting top places either. “I don’t have a proper explanation for that. The differences in the country are often so minute and innovations in the curriculum don’t always meet immediate positive responses either. Employees have to become accustomed and students too. It takes a while before that translates into better grades. But it is more important how the Keuzegids rankings compare to our own evaluations. We work with large numbers, the Keuzegids bases itself more often on the opinion of smaller groups. I have said: base yourselves on our own evaluations. There you can definitely see the effects of our improvement tracks.”
Doctor that does much more
Since he became dean in 2011, his playing field has broadened considerably. In addition to education, there was research, contacts with the industry, focus on the region. “I’m in favour of more contact with the business community. We need to go to the market, not to make a profit but to show the value that our researchers can add. That is our social responsibility.” That is happening, among others, through InSciTe, an international research and knowledge institute for biobased and biomedical materials located on the Chemelot location in Sittard, where medical findings are brought to the patient via small businesses. Scherpbier will remain as board chairman until 2022.
Interim director of UM Sports
It is not the only task that continues for him after retirement. “I am still working on a number of large things; it will keep me busy for about 3.5 days a week.” So apart from him being director of the Maastricht imaging centre Scannexus (“that is more at a distance, I only do the broad lines”) he became the interim director of UM Sports in Augusts. “In a short space of time, people have either been fired or left of their own accord. That is bad for an organisation. I like being a crisis manager and solve problems. I always do that with a human approach. I listen, give them the space to say their piece and to get things off their chest, and I involve them in the plans. I want to create a flat organisation together with personnel and for them to have decent contracts (at the moment there are a lot of small jobs, ed.) and professional wage levels.” To continue: “It is a beautiful location, but too quiet at certain times in the day. We want to fill that with customers from outside, things like a great market for seniors. Or staff from businesses in the neighbourhood. We also want to do more for UM employees.”
Kicking at shins
He liked kicking at the shins of managers, wasn’t at all afraid to open his mouth, but since his deanship the rebel in him has receded somewhat. “As a dean, you have to keep an eye on your effectiveness, and kicking is not always helpful in that case. I had to make my rebel behaviour subservient to the organisation.” That rebel in deans clothes, having become a thoroughbred manager, also closed the door more and more to the public during faculty council meetings, as well as to the university press, i.e. Observant. The list with confidential items was regularly longer that the agenda for the public part. “I was looking for commitment from the faculty council. I wanted to inform them at an early stage about new plans so that they could contribute their thoughts. We often had constructive discussions, they had to take place in a trustworthy setting, not in public.” The fact that the rest of the faculty was not privy to this information and so were unable to contribute, he accepted.
Does he have any advice for the new dean, Annemie Schols? “Yes, two things. First: be yourself, that is the only thing that works. Second: make sure you have a balance between work and private life. Do other things.” He himself was and is a regular visitor to the gym, chopped and still chops many a tree into manageable pieces for the fireplace, did odd jobs and walked with his dogs (who have by now passed away). Sometimes at ungodly hours. Or as his PhD student Debbie Jaarsma blabbed during the farewell, after she had praised him for being a “warm, involved and always accessible” supervisor. “The only thing that did worry us was the time he sent feedback to our mail boxes: between 4.30 and 7.00 in the morning.”
Albert Scherpbier (Kerkrade, 1954)
1972 Studied Medicine in Groningen
1980 Education co-ordinator of surgery in Groningen
1991 Head of the Maastricht University Skillslab
1997 Completes a PhD in Maastricht on research into medical skills education
1999 Scientific director of the Education Institute for Medicine
2007 Director of the Education Institute at the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences, FHML (after the merger between the faculties of Medicine and Health Sciences) and professor of Quality Improvement of Medical Education
2008 Prodecaan for Education at FHML
2011 FHML dean and vice chairman of the Board of Governors at MUMC+
Albert Scherpbier has more than 340 international publications to his name, most of them on medical education. He is now supervising the last five of a total 67 PhD students.
He is married, has four children, his wife has one, together they have 11 grandchildren