Heads of Education Offices win Wynand Wijnen Education Prize
“The Magnificent Seven, it seemed like a good name for us, if it weren’t for the fact that there were six of us,” Roel Gilissen grins, referring to an American western from 1960 (and 2016). “But dream team is also a good one.” But who is actually the captain of the ship, he wonders aloud? There is a lot of laughing and chatting via Zoom. “There is not one leader, we have a six-headed leadership. There is a reason why we are all heads of education offices,” says Judith Buddenberg. “It wouldn’t work with hotheads,” René Nijssen adds. “Collaboration is where our power lies.”
Planning an interview with six people is often a disaster, but this time it is a piece of cake. The six heads of faculty offices (see below the article for a brief bio on Catharien Kerkman (FPN), Collin Prumpeler (FASoS), Joël Castermans (SBE), René Nijssen (FHML), Judith Buddenberg (FSE), and Roel Gilissen (Law)) arranged it in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.
They won the Wynand Wijnen Education Prize this year. Normally, these are awarded during the foundation day celebrations in January, but because of COVID-19, it has been postponed until the opening of the academic year on 31 August. It doesn’t make them any less proud. In the jury report they are referred to as “the engine room” of their faculties, without them and – they repeat this continually throughout the interview - their teams (on average 30 employees per faculty, only FHML has about 65) education does not happen. They deal with everything that has to do with education: registering, timetables, planning exams, exam administration, service desk, canvas support, graduation ceremonies, et cetera. In short, they guide students logistically through their study programmes from day one up to the graduation awards and ensure that lecturers can do their jobs.
This engine room was under tremendous pressure last year. It all started with the cyberattack just before Christmas 2019. All systems were down, nothing worked anymore. From Boxing Day 2019, the six were “locked in a room on the Grote Looiersstraat” for more than a week. With only one objective: getting the education programmes started on 6 January. They distributed the tasks: who would look into what, and what gets our priority? It was the timetables and the electronic communication system EleUM. Soon, they all had their own role in the team: one was more involved in IT; another was stronger in communication. Buddenberg: “We know each other’s strong and weak points, we complement each other.” They reaped the rewards of their long days: all students were able to attend their tutorials as planned on 6 January. “That is why you do the job,” they say unanimously. That was their first highlight of 2020.
When the whole country was shut down because of COVID-19 half way through March, the education offices, still not fully recovered from the cyberhack, again had to dig deep in order to get education online at record speed – obviously together with the lecturers. They also managed to do that. The second highlight. After that, work continued to pile up: the ‘soft cut-off’ was introduced (third-year bachelor’s students may, even though they have not obtained all their credits, continue on to a master’s study), the binding study advice was adapted (read: made less strict), after that there was hybrid education (half online, half on campus) in September, et cetera. They continually had to solve totally new problems in a short space of time. They feel that in hind sight the hack was a “blessing in disguise”. “Everything was different, we couldn’t rely on our routine.” That crisis appealed tremendously to their creativity and inventiveness and prepared them, without them realising it, for what was about to happen.
All of this did not go unnoticed. They are no longer the little elves, as Joël Castermans laughingly explained, going about invisibly doing their work. Since the hack, the higher management of the UM have realised more than ever what it takes to keep education running, Collin Prumpeler adds. Their appreciation is great, ukases from above have become rare, says Catharien Kerkman. “Now it is much more bottom-up.” The six are consulted more often, are included in the policy-making and every fortnight, they say with pride, rector Rianne Letschert joins in their meetings.
There were also lows. Prumpeler (FASoS): “At the end of November, I walked into the faculty, there was a Christmas tree with lights but there were no people, I was consumed by an intense feeling of sadness.” Kerkman (FPN): “You didn’t and still don’t actually see colleagues; everything is done via Zoom. There is less you can do for your people.” Nijssen (FHML): “Sometimes, you know that they are having a difficult time, because someone in the family is sick, someone has died, they are looking after their small children. You want to do so much, but you are missing cohesion. You can’t just pop in to have a little chat.” Buddenberg (FSE): “There is no real contact, you can’t just cuddle a colleague who is having a hard time.” Gilissen (law): “There are certain moments when you want to be close to your colleagues. That is not possible.” Castermans (SBE): “The spontaneity is gone. You can tell by the people that times are tough. I think of our international staff members who haven’t visited their families in such a long time. You want to be there for them, but it doesn’t happen often.”
They have worked really hard this past year, as have their teams. Days of 10 to 12 hours were normal, and still are. Sometimes, things really get out of hand. “We point that out to each other; we do try to contain things. We are all very driven, we love doing this work, but it is difficult to find a balance,” Gilissen knows. “This is not a short sprint, but a long marathon,” says Nijssen, and that is taking its toll. They are there for each other: if things become too much, if something has happened in someone’s private life, or if they just want to vent. The atmosphere is very open, they all agree, and there is a lot of laughter, as is testified on many occasions during the interview.
They have become a very close team, across faculty borders. Nijssen: “We already clicked, but because of the hack the bond has only become stronger. Where initially we were sometimes inclined to reinvented the wheel individually, we now do so together.” That doesn’t mean that we didn’t and still have heated discussions from time to time. We do, because every faculty is different. And sometimes – which can occasionally be tough, because there is a reason why they are all heads – they just have to hold their tongues for a moment.
Joël Castermans, head of the Education Office at the School of Business and Economics since November 2015
Which character trait was worth its weight in gold this past year?
“My slightly stoic disposition.”
And which one was not helpful? “My sense of humour, which is not always understood, ha-ha.”
Does your partner/family still recognise you after this rough year? “Sure, they do, there is always time for family. But my world has become smaller in terms of social activities, although most likely that has more to do with all the COVID-19 measures.”
Outside the UM, who was your greatest prop and stay this past year? “My golfclubs. By chance, I had just achieved my handicap of 54. It was great to be (allowed) outside and really get away from work-related woes. Only to then become terribly frustrated with my inexperience in the field of golf – but it seems that that is part and parcel of it all.”
Catharien Kerkman, head of the Education Office at the Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience since April 2016
Which character trait was worth its weight in gold this past year? “My capacity to give sincere attention and trust.”
And which one was not helpful? “My drive, which can lead to too much pressure, both for others and for myself.”
Does your partner/family still recognise you after this rough year? “Certainly, we have spent a lot of time together. Great, sitting at a large table in the sun room with my dear son, him studying and me working. A few COVID-19 kilos were added, though, so I’ve stopped snacking and started exercising more.”
Outside the UM, who was your greatest prop and stay this past year? “My wise and steady husband Bert and my sweet and clever son Pieter.”
René Nijssen, head of education affairs at the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences since May 2017
Which character trait was worth its weight in gold this past year? “My ability to put things into perspective.”
And which one was not helpful? “My impatience when it comes to what I regard as trivial matters.”
Does your partner/family still recognise you after this rough year? “Absolutely, we were more or less all locked up together.”
Outside the UM, who was your greatest prop and stay this past year? “That was without a doubt my partner Sacha.”
Collin Prumpeler, head of the Education Office at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences since September 2018
Which character trait was worth its weight in gold this past year? “The fact that I can motivate people.”
And which one was not helpful? “My worry that something will go wrong.”
Does your partner/family still recognise you after this rough year? “At least since I have been working from home. My wife also works in education, so she is very understanding when I am really busy. She is used to the fact that I sometimes work too hard and too much.”
Outside the UM, who was your greatest prop and stay this past year? “My wife Elke, but that has been the answer for 28 years.”
Roel Gilissen, head of the Education Office at the Faculty of Law since December 2008
Which character trait was worth its weight in gold this past year? “My self-confidence.”
And which one was not helpful? “My impatience.”
Does your partner/family still recognise you after this rough year? “Yes, they do, fortunately. I mainly find rest and relaxation at home. Besides, I am good at putting things into perspective.”
Outside the UM, who was your greatest prop and stay this past year? “Home, my family and friends. Not just this past year, but always in fact.”
Judith Buddenberg, head of the Education Office at the Faculty of Science and Engineering since 1 October 2020 officially (she filled this position - unofficially - since 2009)
Which character trait was worth its weight in gold this past year? “A sense of humour and my ‘cut the crap, and get down to work’ mentality.”
And which one was not helpful? “Sometimes, my loyalty and determination.”
Does your partner/family still recognise you after this rough year? “They do, thank goodness J. I live with my sons and fortunately they often called me to order: ‘Take it easy mum.’ Besides, my quiet partner (also a UM employee) provides sufficient counterbalance to my busy character. He indicated on time when the conversation needed to be something other than the UM.”
Outside the UM, who was your greatest prop and stay this past year? “My two cats; the little brothers Nelson & Oliver (British Shorthair) who came to live with us on 1 February 2020.”