Founder of European Studies Tannelie Blom is retiring
“The university that I once chose, unfortunately no longer exists. It was fantastic: young, with an experimental nature and lots of room for creativity. You could also be critical without being put in the corner.” Tannelie Blom, professor of European Studies, came to Maastricht in 1986, was one of those responsible for starting Arts and Social Sciences, and is one of the founding fathers of the bachelor’s and research master’s of European Studies. He is retiring this week.
Professor Tannelie Blom is not one for the public eye. “I don’t like to be the centre of things; this has to do with shyness. I do well in small groups, then I show true presence, but not in large ones. I find masses terrifying. I used to often go to concerts in the Melkweg (pop podium in Amsterdam, ed.) and I was allowed to sit in the journalists’ stand, which means you sit above the dancing masses.” But now, so close to his farewell, he said yes to a request for an interview. “It is quite something that I am now leaving, for myself, but also for others. I can’t really say a proper goodbye, although that may happen later on.”
Tidying up his room on the Grote Gracht has already started, hundreds of kilos of paper has already landed in the waste container. Leaving feels ambiguous, he says at a distance of at least two metres, while the door to his room remains open for the obligatory anti-COVID-19 ventilation. “I am glad to be released from this gigantic bureaucracy. At the beginning, we could do our work without having to constantly give account. I read a student’s paper, sometimes wrote a comment in the margin, and marked it with a grade at the top. If a student didn’t agree, he could come by. Now (he grabs a pile of A4 pages from his desk) you have to fill this in: how did you arrive at this grade, why this, why that. My, my, pages full, it drives you crazy. Our education system is intensive enough as it is, but this makes it even more so. And then those accreditations, they take a lot of time and effort, and after two years the whole rigmarole starts all over again. Who decides this? My professional brothers and sisters? No, civil servants in The Hague. It is all founded on mistrust by the authorities, that we are not doing our jobs properly.”
A kid of the sixties and seventies
How different was the atmosphere in the years that formed him: the sixties and seventies. His colleagues Arnold Labrie and Jo Wachelder feel that he is still a product of those times. He values his freedom, is relaxed and not authoritarian. Labrie: “He doesn’t need to be, people listen to him anyway. He listens too, he is prepared to compromise, is very jovial, but when necessary, he can persevere.”
Blom: “I would hope so, yes. I am pig-headed and have enough of the seventies in me to not allow others to put me in a corner.” Smiling: “There have been conflicts here within the faculty and I didn’t stand on the outside.”
This offspring of the sixties and seventies is horrified by the intolerance in present-day society, the xenophobia, populism, youths shifting towards being more right-wing, and the advance of moralism. He is from a period when an assistant professor could have a relationship with a student without getting into trouble. He had them himself. “Students are adults. Obviously, you have to keep certain matters separate, you are not going to mark your lover’s papers. I know many colleagues who married students. Current moralism is tremendous. If I now come across a young colleague with a student, I hope that they have lots of fun and will be happy.”
Not a career academic
What he is also glad to leave behind is the competition for research funds and the publication rat race. Even though he never participated himself, insiders say. Blom is not a “career academic”, they say, he is not interested in collecting points or things like a H-index, and will “never milk a subject dry just because that would be good for his career”. They praise his broad knowledge - from Habermas to James Joyce, edible mushrooms, hang-gliding (he was once the Dutch champion in a particular class), Trump’s America, music, horse-riding (his passion), Europe (another passion), or Ajax trainer Ten Hag’s line-up – and his curious mind. It is all about innovative research for him, many say, not postage stamp size, but broad and interdisciplinary. Or, as he puts it himself: “I only research what I find interesting and I don’t publish five articles on it if one suffices.”
Blom was already an interdisciplinary scientist before the word came into fashion, is the conclusion. He grins when hears this. But it is true. “It is because of Amsterdam, where I studied philosophy, specialising in social and political philosophy. I was raised by Harry Kunneman, originally a sociologist and a philosopher. His students also learned about empirical sciences such as sociology and political science. I have read all the classic sociologists, and that was no hardship. I am very theoretically minded, but I also do empirical research and can link up many lines.” That is why Maastricht suits him so well. “What is so nice here is that you have to work together to realise the education programme and in doing so, you easily get into contact with other fields. Take the block Enlightenment and Romance that I set up with Maarten Doorman at some stage; it combines history, philosophy, sociology, and political science. In that way, you automatically gain that broad knowledge.”
By the way: studying was not really his intention. He had had more than his bellyful of “right-wing teachers and their conservatism” at grammar school in Doorn, so after his exams he was going to find his way in pop music: guitar and singing. Just to be on the safe side, he enrolled for an academic study, hoping to get a scholarship that way. Eventually, he is so enthralled by philosophy that his music career and his work as a studio musician were no longer in the picture and he wouldn’t pick up his guitar for seven years. He actually didn’t get that scholarship, because his father earned too much.
“Tannelie is remarkably strong in conceptual terms, he has an overview,” his colleague Esther Versluis tells us. Those characteristics came in very handy in the development of the bachelor’s of European Studies, which welcomed its first students in 2002. Blom: “The influx of students to Arts and Social Sciences (CWS) caved in at the turn of the century. The faculty board held a competition, everyone was allowed to submit a plan for a new programme. Together with my colleague Ton Nijhuis, we developed two blocks on European integration for CWS, for the graduation variant Political Culture. Students loved it, so you knew that there was interest for such a study programme.”
They were given the green light when, upon invitation from a social sciences institute, Blom was spending a year in Vienna. A kind of sabbatical. “I had just completed my PhD on the theoretical sociologist Niklas Luhmann and I wanted to return to political philosophy. I looked around me and it was as if everything had been standing still. In the field of philosophy but also in political science, nothing had happened with Europe; that is too absurd for words, isn’t it? If you want to talk about the meaning of politics today, of power, polity, then surely it has to be about European integration and the EU, doesn’t it? Only the legal specialists were doing that, in particular here in Maastricht.” He spent a year reading up on things and when he returned, he developed the ES curriculum at speed. His mate Labrie looks back on that with great pleasure: “Tannelie was the engine when it came to content, I was the organiser. It was a great period, very creative, we had a lot of fun. It was the best time in my working existence.”
The success of the new bachelor’s – by now the largest ES programme in Europe, if not in the world - was overwhelming. “We had reckoned on a maximum of 80 first-year students in 2002, but we got 180. The year after that, we were at 230, then 300. Eventually we had a total of 900 students, and that with Problem-Based Learning, it was very labour-intensive.” He was programme director for the first three years. “One of the toughest jobs within the faculty. So many blocks, so many skills training sessions, so many papers. You had to work really hard at keeping the lecturer base up. And always people moaning at you, you are the first port of call for everyone. After three years, Sophie (Vanhoonacker) took over and together with her and Arnold, I was able to set up the ES research master’s.”
He seems surprised when he hears that people refer to him as not being an organisational genius. Versluis speaks lovingly of a “philosophical scatterbrain”. He has had many management jobs, he says in a soft tone more or less to himself. The fact that his room is a mess to an outsider, can’t have anything to do with that. He always knows exactly where to find the right document from a pile of papers. He sees his own weakness more in his “impatience, restlessness” which means that he can never be idle.
Teaching like an athlete
We have now arrived at the things that he is certainly going to miss after his retirement. “Working with good students.” He is one of “the best teachers,” say former students. Dedicated, serious, motivating, inspiring. Someone who is averse to hierarchy and who treats everyone equal, professor or student, it makes no difference. Someone who “created a democratic sanctuary for ideas”. Also: “His commitment was tremendous. He approached teaching like an athlete. He walked around the classroom full of enthusiasm, sometimes disappointed, sometimes full of admiration and pride if we did something well.” But he could also be strict and critical, they remembered. Some students were afraid of him, preferred to have their thesis assessed by someone else, but those who graduated under him could not say enough good about him.
Strict? Him? Blom has to think about that. Then: “I can’t stand crap and moaning. The feeling of: would you like me to write that piece for you? And I can’t stand industrious but stupid students. And I really can’t stand students who have it in them but who are lazy.”
Nose for good people
He is going to miss his PhD students, “there are still three in the pipeline”. Just like the daily contact with colleagues. A considerable number – the department of political science is huge, about fifty people – he appointed himself. “Tannelie has a nose for good people,” one person after the other remarks. His judgement of human character is great. Blom, down to earth, explains: “In the first place, you absolutely must make no difference between men and women, you must always take the best.” And in his case, they are often women. That is how he came by Sophie Vanhoonacker (former dean), Christine Neuhold (present dean), Esther Versluis (department chairperson). “People who make it to the end of a round of interviews, are inevitably good in their field. At such a moment, other things come into play: what kind of person is this? Is he or she self-centred? Or a team player who wants to help others? Would they feel at home in the group? These things are very important to be able to work well. I once appointed someone who I knew was not a team player, but who did have everything necessary to put ES on the world map. That was what we needed at the time. But I seldom do that. Both things proved to be right: he was not a team player and he did put ES on the international map. Who I am talking about?” He grins, is not going to say. Except that he no longer works at the faculty.
At the end of the talk, he refers back to the university from 1986 that no longer exists. He never left Maastricht, even though he saw a lot change, and not everything was to his liking. “I could have gone to Groningen or Amsterdam, but they are supertankers. There you have to do exactly what you are told and you cannot deviate even a millimetre. Here in Maastricht, you are still given the opportunity to set up something new. So that young and experimental aspect hasn’t really disappeared.”
In a nutshell: who is Tannelie Blom
Tannelie Blom was born in Lagos, Nigeria, on 21 September 1954, where his father was a harbour master. After stop-overs in places such as Venezuela (where his father ran an X-ray equipment business), his family (Dutch reformed; five sisters and two brothers) left for the Netherlands just before he started secondary school.
After grammar school and doing his master’s degree in philosophy at the University of Amsterdam (cum laude on both occasions), he worked in Amsterdam and Leiden and then came to Maastricht in 1986 – professor of medieval philosophy Bertus de Rijk from Leiden asked him – initially to help set up the Faculty of General Sciences, which eventually developed into the new Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (1994). He did a PhD on the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann (cum laude again). “It is a kind of patricide; I grew up with Habermas and he is criticised by Luhmann.”
Together with others, he is one of the initiators of the MA study programme of Arts and Social Sciences. At the beginning of the 21st century, he and professor Arnold Labrie set up the bachelor’s of European Studies. Followed by the research master’s of ES (ultimately a two-year programme), together with Labrie and professor Sophie Vanhoonacker.
He is supervisor for a number of PhD students, is board member of among others the Duitsland Instituut and the NIG, a Dutch-Flemish research school for Science of Public Administration and Political Science in which twelve universities participate.
The name in his passport is Christiaan Blom, but his nickname changed into Tannelie after a stay in Finland (“In Finnish, Christian is a direct referral to Christ, we don’t call anyone in the Netherlands Jesus, which – on the other hand – is quite possible in some other countries. Tannelie is a kind of John or Peter in Finnish”), and became his permanent name when it appeared that there were too many Chrises living in his commune in the centre of Amsterdam.
Tannelie Blom is married.
In preparation for this interview, a number of insiders were interviewed, including professor Esther Versluis (one of his former students and now his department chairperson), Dr. Patrick Bijsmans (also a former student and his first PhD candidate), Dr. Jo Wachelder (historian and almost neighbour at FASoS), professor Arnold Labrie (with whom he set up the bachelor’s and master’s of European Studies), and Utrecht professor Thomas Schillemans (a former student).