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“I’m not a fun partner right now, and it eats at me”

“I’m not a fun partner right now, and it eats at me”

Photographer:Fotograaf:

Joey Roberts

Director of the bachelor’s programmes at SBE, Mark Vluggen,on the turbulent year of 2020

Mark Vluggen, director of the bachelor’s programmes at the School of Business and Economics, has been in crisis mode for over a year. It all started in November 2019 with civil protests in Chile. Anxious SBE students on exchange asked if they could come back home. Not much later, similar requests arrived from Hong Kong, where protests had escalated into violence. “After Christmas, I suddenly noticed I was receiving very few emails”, he chuckles. And the COVID-19 pandemic was yet to begin. What is his way of coping with everything? Walking ten thousand steps per day and “seeing optimism as a moral duty”.

“I still don’t really know what day of the week it is. Weekends no longer exist”, says Mark Vluggen. It was a year of running around and never standing still for him. “In March, the dean made a speech to the management team, in which he said, ‘This is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t overwork yourself.’ But we’re still in that mode: ‘We just have to get through this, and then life will continue as usual.’ I haven’t had time to reflect yet.”

What does crisis mode look like in practice? “It hasn’t been quiet in my inbox since March. I receive 100-150 emails per day. I don’t get around to them until the evenings, as I spend about thirty hours per week in meetings and teach for twelve hours.”

On top of that, he has things to worry about in his personal life. “My father-in-law has a chronic form of leukaemia. He was in a critical condition two years ago, but now he’s quite healthy again. My own father has heart problems, but he acts like he doesn’t. He’s not attending any gatherings, fortunately, but he made it clear from the start that he wouldn’t just stay at home all the time. I say something about it sometimes, but I don’t feel the need to parent my parents.”

He hardly sees any of his friends. “The circle of people I still talk to is very small. I’ve lost sight of what people are up to. And you can’t just spontaneously invite people over to cook them a nice dinner right now.”

His partner, Sylvia, makes sure he gets out of the house from time to time. “And I’ve been walking ten thousand steps per day since April, even if it means I have to go outside at 9:30 in the evening. I’ve also become a bit smarter about organising my day; I make sure to plan a break between one meeting and the next sometimes. But I’m not a fun partner right now. I’m completely absorbed in work. It’s eating at me.”

No routines

One of the pressing problems SBE was facing was not just the move to online teaching, but also the question of what to do about the six hundred students who go on exchange each year. “To be able to graduate, our students must obtain a certain number of credits abroad. We had to amend the examination regulations and come up with alternatives.” Protocols had to change – a recurring theme this year, says Vluggen. “All routines have gone out the window.”

It doesn’t take him long to decide on the lowest point of the year: “Our exam issues.” In June, 1200 students took the exam Quantitative Methods 2 at home. To prevent cheating, multiple exam questions were written. Each student would receive a different set of questions, in a different order. But a staff member forgot to activate ‘randomisation’ in the system. All students were given the exact same exam.
“The management team held a crisis meeting that evening. At first, we wanted to let it go: the mistake had been ours and there was no evidence of cheating.” This changed a few days later. The answers had been shared in a WhatsApp group many students were participants in. It was impossible to trace who had used the answers. “That’s when the Board of Examiners said, ‘We would no longer be able to face ourselves in the mirror if we approved this exam.’ We didn’t have a choice.”

Human consequences

“This happened at a time when students were already struggling. On top of that, QM is an obstacle for many of them. So I received an awful lot of emails.” Some of them were written in an aggressive tone. “The next day, a very angry student came to our front office on Tongersestraat. He demanded to speak to a manager.” Vluggen went to see him. “With some hesitation – I even considered asking a colleague to come with me. The student turned out to be a very nice boy who had tears in his eyes after fifteen minutes of venting his rage. He had finally passed the exam after five tries. The human consequences of the decision were suddenly standing right in front of me.”

And the problems were not over after that. There was another exam week in October. By then, the decision had been made to hire an external proctoring company to keep an eye on students during the online exam. “We first wanted to keep it in-house, but an invigilator can only keep an eye on a maximum of eight students at a time. These kinds of courses involve 1300 students, so do the maths. All those people would also have to be trained. We just couldn’t get it done.”

Grumpiness

During the exam, some of the students who were taking it online (some students could take the exam on campus, as the COVID-19 restrictions were more relaxed at the time) were thrown out of the system. “On that day, the UM phone system was also down and the emergency number didn’t work. And this was the same cohort of students who were affected by the situation in June.”

Vluggen wanted to postpone the rest of the exams. “That evening, we were briefed on what had gone wrong. They thought it was a volume problem that could be solved by spreading out the exams more. I wasn’t reassured by the phrase ‘we think that…’” But the Faculty Board wanted to continue. “Another exam ended up going wrong that week.” Students were given another opportunity to take the exam. “This meant extra work for the course coordinators, who had to create a new exam. Our people showed so much willingness to keep bouncing back and getting back to work after a setback this year. But there’s a limit. I’ve noticed grumpiness creeping into our meetings as of late. There’s more annoyance than usual. People are tired.”

Work pressure

It doesn’t help that SBE has two new study programmes – Business Analytics and Business Engineering – as well as a new pre-master’s programme as of this year. “The number of students has increased considerably. This would be fine if they were evenly spread out across the faculty, but some departments now have a lot of extra work. Problem-Based Learning isn’t a system that can be easily scaled up. And the work pressure was already enormous. If I could give a message to the Executive Board, I’d ask them to think carefully about the growth ambitions of the university.”

Bob Dylan

But the year wasn’t all bad. “It’s the little things: making a good noodle soup, Bob Dylan releasing a new, 16-minute song…” In his work, teaching gives him energy. “It really raised my spirits to see how much the students appreciate being able to come to campus. I spend relatively little time teaching, so I’m only now experiencing what we came up with.”

SBE uses a ‘flying tutors’ concept: student work in small groups and the tutor moves from room to room to see where they can help. “We’d had a few hybrid meetings ourselves and we knew that wasn’t what we wanted. It sucks for the people who are at home. The flying tutors concept was also met with a lot of resistance, though. Some lecturers didn’t want to come to campus. It was a lot of work for the coordinators to adapt teaching and get the scheduling done. But I think it was worth it, having seen how much students benefit from seeing each other two hours per week.”  

Digital questions

The COVID-19 pandemic also inspired some changes that Vluggen would like to maintain. “We’d never received as many questions during an Open Day as we did now. I already knew from the literature that people are more likely to ask a question if they can do it anonymously online, in a chat, but I still didn’t expect this. We now have a much better idea of what secondary-school students would like to know. We want to maintain a digital element.”

Surprisingly enough, the other element he would like to keep is proctoring. “Yes, despite everything. Some students still have to complete a course when they go on exchange. Right now, their only option is to fly back to Maastricht to take the exam. Proctoring would allow them to do so remotely, saving two flights.”

Finally, what are his hopes for 2021? “I’m hoping for chats in the bakery to be about the weather again, and conversations with friends to be about the books you’ve read, the films you’ve watched and the best places to eat roti again.” And – there’s nothing wrong with a bit of hope – “for my inbox to be a bit quieter.”

Christmas interviews Observant

This is an interview of Observant's Christmas special, in which we ask employees and a student to look back on 2020. It was an eventful year for many.

Other articles in this series include HR-adviser Pierre SchröderMedicine student Vera Schriebl, vice chair of the Executive Board Nick Bos and physician and researcher Chahinda Ghossein, and Dave Mattheijs, district attorney in the case of Nicky Verstappen and lecturer at UM.

On Wednesday 16 December the digital Christmas special, including the six interviews, will be published on our website in PDF

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