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The many faces of vice rector Harm Hospers

The many faces of vice rector Harm Hospers

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts

MAASTRICHT. Who is the man who is described by some as having “great resilience” and by others as “he cannot handle criticism”? That he creates a “warm environment” while the next person calls it “an atmosphere of suspicion”? Someone with whom you “can have a great laugh”, another claiming that he has a “choleric character”? Is he a “Panicking Peter” or someone who “provides space for initiatives”? Who is this enigmatic Harm Hospers, the first vice rector of this university?

“What? Does he not want to co-operate?” Professor Anita Janssen, psychologist, sounds surprised. “Ah well,” she offers, “he is not one for status, does not feel the need to act important. That is probably what it is.”

It all started a few days earlier, with an e-mail from this paper to Harm Hospers. The answer: “A written portrait? Of me? Heavens no. Terrible plan.”

Of course, not everyone is always in the mood to have his or her whole past dragged up and put in print. Hospers’ resistance, as first vice rector of this university and therefore selected for this interview, can nevertheless be regarded as remarkable. He realises that the story will be published, no matter what, but he doesn’t give us any more than a few crumbs of information. An interview? Out of the question, maybe in a year’s time and then only about his new job. And he certainly won’t be providing us with names of people who can tell us things about him. “Private life, that is nobody’s business, and as far as work is concerned: the usual suspects.” A little later, a cut-and-paste e-mail arrives with the passages on privacy from the professional code of the journalists’ union. As a deterrence.

And it continues in the same vein. The publication date is getting closer. We want to take a photograph, because the last one in the Observant archive is four years old. “Does this ever stop …,” he e-mails. Okay then, some photographs were taken recently so he sends us one. Not really suitable to the style of this paper, more like a PR photograph, with a broad grin. Does he have any more? “No.”

We approach the photographer. He is prepared to provide us with a few other pictures. Until he receives an urgent e-mail from Hospers: “If they ask you for other photographs, please do not send any to Observant.” So we make do with the grin.


Friends and enemies agree on one thing: if there is someone who cares about education, then it is Harm Hospers. At the Faculty of Psychology he was Director of Studies and faculty board member responsible for education, and at University College Maastricht (UCM) it was hardly about anything else. “He is more a man of education than a man of research,” says Peter Vermeer, chairman of UCM’s Examination Committee, “he knows a lot about it”.

Anita Jansen is undoubtedly one of the usual suspects referred to by Hospers. They are friends and have known each other for 25 years. “Education is so important to him that he feels that lecturers should immerse themselves completely in it. If you didn’t do that, you had to deal with him as Director of Studies.” And, she adds, then he would not be an easy person to deal with, “but I like that, he speaks in plain terms, a little blunt, that is the way more administrators should be. Being soft only leads to a lot of trouble.”

A heart for education, but in particular for students. That is something else that everyone agrees about. Barbara Oomen, dean of the competitor Roosevelt College in Middelburg: “He beams when he talks about his students, he is very proud of them. And that warm bond is mutual; as deans of University Colleges we regularly have deans’ debates, there is always a whole fan club of Maastricht students cheering him on.”

Indeed, students love him, as the UCM Facebook page shows. Hospers is also active on Facebook, taking part in discussions, speaking to them admonishingly if they use too many cardboard cups. He is accessible but more than that, he is visible: Hospers spends a large part of his time at UCM in the common room, with the students, and in the courtyard, the patio. That is where there has been a loud neon sign since January, which the former board member of student association Universalis Leanne Heuberger tells us is his motto: Everything will be OK. A gift from the students at the last graduation ceremony.

How will everything be OK? Jesper Saman, UCM student and former member of the Faculty Council: “It is a graffiti text that was on the wall across the road for years. Harm took photographs of it, put it on postcards and handed them out to students who worried about their future or who came to see him because they were stressed.” The outgoing dean was so happy with the neon version that he “jumped for joy”, says Heuberger.

Stressed students, there are plenty of them at UCM; apparently it comes with their high ambitions and hard work. But it can become too much, for staff as well.

Teun Dekker, acting dean until Hospers’ successor is appointed: “One of his major achievements was that he brought us peace. After six years of Louis Boon, who built up UCM, after six years of extremely hard work, people were tired. The pressure of work was too high, and Harm reduced it. And he introduced the reflection week for students: instead of eight weeks per block, there are now only seven, and the last week off. To stare out of the window or go to a museum, or whatever. They no longer needed to slave away from August until Christmas without a break.” 


“An educator” more than anything else, says Peter Vermeer, but that says nothing about Hospers’ research. Anita Jansen: “I have worked with him, he is a good researcher. It is a pity he stopped.” Hospers himself doesn’t think it is much of an issue. In 2010, when he became dean of FHS, he completed his research (aids prevention and education), “but I don’t think that is a pity. My passion lies in education and education policies, thinking about the future of PBL,” he said in Observant.

His good friend – since the days when they were students - Nora Oosting formulates it somewhat differently: “He is good in research and thinking analytically but couldn’t translate it well onto paper, at least he did not enjoy doing it. That is also why he moved towards the administrative side of things.”

Oosting, a graphic designer, is the widow of one of Hospers’ best friends, Herman Schaalma, who died suddenly in 2009. The two knew each other from the time when they studied Psychology in Groningen, both ended up in Maastricht, and were also both professors of Aids Prevention and Education. Oosting: “We even bought a house together here in Maastricht and split it between us. Harm was almost part of our family, the children practically grew up together, we even went on holiday together. Later on, he bought a house on Tafelstraat.”

He let an interior decorator loose on it, says Anita Jansen: “Harm loves beautiful things.”

He lives there by himself, he never got around to having a partner and now he is not spending much energy on it anymore, close friends say. Singer/chansonnier Marijn Brouwers, a friend of Hospers since they met at the Esquire in the nineteen-nineties, “a cosy pub for gays in Maastricht” teases him occasionally: “Then I tell him that I think he will eventually hook up with a hairdresser from Bunde who has three poodles.”

Oosting: “Ten years ago, he spoke of such things, but not anymore. He is actually a solitary person, I think. He does have a lot of friends, a rich social life, and he works hard, otherwise he is satisfied with what he has. He is moderate, a real Calvinist; of course he has an ample income but he does not do mad things with it. He only recently acquired a car, mainly to drive to his mother, and to the house that he bought together with an old school friend in France, in the Morvan.”

Coming home

The move from Groningen to Maastricht was in a way like coming home for Hospers. He was born here and lived here until he was six, in a house belonging to the constabulary barracks on the Scharnerweg. A Dutch Reformed family. Oosting: “Harm didn’t have an easy relationship with his father, a real military man, very strict. His younger brother and sister also had a problem with him. Those two, by the way, were much wilder than Harm, his sister ended up in a squat, his brother in inland shipping, Harm was actually the smart little boy. The fact that he was gay only came out later, when he was a student. I don’t believe he had a problem with coming out, he just feels that it is a private matter.”

The subject at any rate sent him on the track of aids research. Oosting: “He saw the great fear that prevailed from nearby and saw people in his immediate vicinity getting ill. So it was not just any topic.”


In later life, the “smart boy” sticks to rest and regularity. Teun Dekker from UCM: “If Harm were a garden, he would be a French garden, neatly raked and trimmed. He likes orderly processes with a clear end; he is allergic to open processes. That is when he puts on the brakes. The fact that some members of staff refer to him a Panicking Peter, fits in with that image. The peace must not be disturbed. You could call him a control freak.”

Nora Oosting agrees: “No, he is not flexible, more rigid. He once did a project in Tanzania that did not go well at all, it irritates him no end when people don’t stick to their agreements. But then again, ha-ha, this was Africa! He would ask: when will the meeting start? And the answer was: when the people are here. That was terrible for Harm.”

But how does that match up with another side of him: that he, according to many, gives people the space for all kinds of initiatives, both students and employees? And not just space, but also the support? Peter Vermeer: “You are given that space if everything is arranged properly, well covered.”

Pascal Breuls, faculty director at FHS adds something: “Harm gives people a lot of freedom, but he doesn’t like moaning. He thinks: ‘Have you come to get something from me? What can I expect in return? Because you don’t only have rights, you also have duties.’ That shocks people, he does not mince words, he can be a bit harsh but he doesn’t put on a show. What you see is what you get with Harm.”

And that means, Dekker says, that he “does not like to waste time on things that he believes are not going to work anyway.”

That is the students’ experience as well. Jesper Saman: “If he really believes in something, you get his full support.” The opposite is true too: “Ideas that he can’t support are given just as much opposition.” This statement is from a student wants to remain anonymous “because I still have to graduate”.

This desired anonymity has good reason. It is related to Harm Hospers’ management style. The dean has a reputation to uphold when it comes to confrontations with people who approach him critically, in the Faculty Council or elsewhere. These may be students, but also lecturers. A member of staff even refused to participate in this article even if anonymity were guaranteed, because he/she feared the “witch hunt” that Hospers would undertake in order to find out the name of his critic. Informants speak of tantrums, snubbing and intimidating behaviour. At least once, an official complaint was made by students. Arjan Blokland, senior lecturer at Psychology, remembers Hospers when he was Director of Studies: “There was always a trouble, always arguments, he looks for confrontation and eventually gets his own way.”

Warm atmosphere

That other side of Hospers surprises a lot of people. His friend Marijn Brouwers: “Harm is sweet, he is calm, with that beautiful low male voice; it makes girls feel at ease. We sometimes talk about it, that he should narrate a nature film. He always speaks in a very relaxed way about his work, has tremendous resilience, and is always in control. Tantrums? Really? I cannot imagine that at all.”

The choleric side was also a surprise to Ike Kamphof. Kamphof is a lecturer at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and also chairman of the Board of Studies (an education advisory body of staff and students) at UCM, which after all relies largely on lecturers from other faculties.

Kamphof: “He became chairman of a think tank on education in 2009, in preparation of the strategic programme for the UM. He asked me to join, and it has become one of the best experiences that I have ever had at the UM. He gave me the space to think critically – you don’t see that much at this university where a lot is done top-down. He created a pleasant, warm atmosphere, the feeling of a personal connection. Maybe that is also his downfall: that he sees certain criticism as a breach, as treason.”

Because later on, in the Board of Studies, she saw him blow up at people. “It was about the hours that lecturers are given for certain tasks, the standard hours. He was under pressure from above to produce money, everyone was against it but he persevered. That was not a pleasant discussion.” She once saw Hospers coming down on a member of staff like a ton of bricks. “I spoke to him afterwards; he admitted that he shouldn’t have done that. Excuses? No, I suspect that he never mentioned it to that person again.”

This image is also confirmed by one of the lecturers who was once the victim of such an attack: “No, he never apologised, and as far as I know, not to others either, members of staff or students.”


Things have been quiet for the past few years in the Faculty Council, council members confirm. Meetings are short, Hospers is very business-like, “he only discusses what is absolutely necessary, he does not ask for feedback, does not set up discussions on visions, that is not really his thing,” says Marc Dijk, council member of four years from the research institute ICIS, a section of FHS. The arguments occurred mainly during the first two years of Hospers’ deanship. Partly because of a persistent incompatibilité d’humeur with the then council chairman, knowledge engineer Nico Roos. The latter also experienced what may be a beautiful but often loud voice of the dean. UCM staff member Peter Vermeer on this subject: “He pushes people away by doing so. I myself was never very impressed by it. In such cases, you sometimes need to use your own loud voice.”

He has also noticed that Hospers “is not a visionary”. Vermeer: “Harm’s predecessor at UCM, Louis Boon, was a man of vision. I have never heard Harm himself speak about the central theme here: what is Liberal Arts and Sciences exactly. He first and foremost wants good education for students.”

But does Hospers have a vision on that theme: good education? Few have noticed. But then why has he become director of EdLab, which was set up to promote educational innovation, why was he appointed vice rector of education? “Because he is a pragmatic idealist,” says Teun Dekker.

That approach appealed to Wim Groot. He is professor of evidence-based education at TIER, which also comes under FHS: “Vision on education may not be Harm’s strength – in discussions on the subject he focuses on procedures more than on content – but it is good to have a pragmatist in that place. If you have real vision, you risk being chopped off at the knees. The Executive Board wanted to appoint someone neutral, someone who is not playing games. So not one of the usual suspects in educational innovation, the boys from O&O (didactics). They do only one thing, and that is thwart matters, obstruct things. They have botched things up here badly at the UM.”

What surprises him most, says Groot, is not that Hospers was appointed, “but that he actually accepted. There is not much honour to be derived from such a job. It is difficult to get the faculties on board, the question is whether it will develop into something. He will have to delve deep into his diplomatic abilities. Yes, he does possess them, I think. I have at any rate never had a problem with him.”


The question remains whether Hospers’ new role is a leg up, whether the vice rector wants to (and soon will) become rector. Opinions are divided on this. Director Pascal Breuls: “I don’t think that is his ambition.”

Close friend Marijn Brouwers: “I don’t think so, he does not want to work himself into the ground. The death of his friend Herman Schaalma has affected his vision on life.”

But Schaalma’s widow Nora Oosting sees it differently: “I think he eventually wants to become the boss of the university. This is a step in the right direction, Harm is very strategic. He knows whom you need to be friends with at exactly the right time: is the mayor in the hall, then he will go and speak with him. And he likes status more than you would think. Think of the academic celebrations, when the professors, dressed in their gowns, walk in a procession, there are those who take off their gowns immediately afterwards, so before the reception. Not Harm. He always keeps his gown for a little while.”



Harm Hospers’ CV

Harm Hospers was born in Maastricht on 31 May 1957, as a son of a military man, the oldest of three children, and moved to Nijmegen after six years. He studied Psychology in Groningen, specialising in the Theory of Personality.

He came to Maastricht University in 1985 as a lecturer at the department of Health Education; in 1999 he moved to the new Faculty of Psychology. There, he became professor of Experimental Health Psychology and Homosexuality in 2005. He was appointed vice dean of the faculty in 2006; in 2008 he left in order to follow in professor Louis Boon’s footsteps as dean of University College Maastricht. His appointment as professor of Applied Health Psychology followed in 2009. In 2011, he again took over Boon’s position, to become dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Sciences of which UCM is a part. In 2014 he was appointed director of ‘EdLab’, which focuses on educational innovation; in 2015 he became vice rector of education.



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