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“One cannot live with ambiguous bosses”

Founder of the School of Governance, Chris de Neubourg goes to Florence

The appointment was made weeks before. It was to be a serene farewell interview with Chris de Neubourg, about his move to that UNICEF research institute in Florence with the beautiful name: the Innocenti Research Center. And about leaving his brainchild behind: the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance that had finally entered smooth waters, or so the university population thought up to two weeks ago. Until suddenly there was a notice saying that the new dean of the School, Peter de Gijsel, had thrown in the towel. Disagreement with the Executive Board about cuts, arguments with the dean of the co-ordinating FHS faculty, Louis Boon, about everything.

Then more stories were published in this newspaper last week, and again it was about money having been squandered by the school, about expensive furniture, about a professional kitchen and connections with the Beluga restaurant, et cetera. Former academic director Chris de Neubourg became angry and sent a stiff e-mail to the reporter. Not for the first time, when it comes to articles about the school. A day later, the anger has simmered down. The interview takes place in his old room.

 

Why do you always get so angry?

“Because it is just a load of nonsense. That expensive furniture, where is it? Here, take a look around you, standard UM furniture, nothing special.” And indeed, cabinets, a desk, chairs: it looks cheap rather than stylish.

You must have just had it changed?

“No, it has always been like this. Purchased by the general and technical support services department or whoever is responsible for that, not by us. I would not go so far as to say that you won’t find an expensive piece of furniture anywhere, suiting this historical building, but generally it is standard stuff. We have always stuck to the rules here.”

Louis Boon spoke of a professional kitchen. He had explicitly forbidden its purchase, he said, but a little later it was there anyway.

“To begin with: Boon never lies. But forbid? I am hearing this for the first time. That kitchen came at my request. It is an investment that will yield money. We can offer decent lunches here during conferences - for example, we have trained approximately 650 UNICEF staff members over the years - instead of taking them to a restaurant. We then invoice the customer restaurant lunch prices, while we do it for less. So we actually make a profit. And the kitchen is also there to give the building, and hence the university, a broader function in the city. It works, external parties have lunches and dinners here, including the city council. During TEFAF, we had wealthy German art dealers. Even the Executive Board hires the place from time to time. With regard to the price of the kitchen, the wildest stories are being circulated, that it cost a hundred thousand euros, for example. The actual price was somewhere in the region of 35.000 euros. Then there is Beluga. Yes, there was a collaboration, in the sense that they hired our kitchen once. That is being paid back in the form of a dinner for 20 to 30 people, our sponsors. This has not happened yet but that is the agreement, made in writing.”

 

Achievements

Together with his angry e-mail, De Neubourg sent a number of appendices to Observant which together form his apologia for his policies of the past few years. And which also illustrate what went wrong. He emphatically refers to a piece that sums up the school’s achievements: a very popular master’s programme that was recently praised abundantly by an auditing committee, a real international student community of 43 nationalities (unlike the UM itself), none of which is dominant, a successful PhD policy, externally funded research programmes worth a million euros each year, from the EU, the ministry of foreign affairs, et cetera. And everything was implemented with a minimum of staff members. De Neubourg: “We recently received an e-mail from the World Bank: they were impressed with the quality of our master's students who were working on a project there. That says something, doesn’t it.”

Then there is this other document, about the financial problems. We do not need to go into detail here, but the message is clear: the SoG diligently complied with all agreements, the start-up loan that the Executive Board gave the school would have been paid back on time if it had not been for the fact that shortages were dramatically larger due to two measures taken by the same Executive Board. The first one concerned the PhD students. The Executive Board’s policy until 2008 was not to appoint PhD students as employees, as was previously done with research assistants, but to give them a much cheaper fellowship status. De Neubourg: “Every year I asked: Are you sure that we should continue with those fellowships? Yes, certainly, until the Executive Board had to change things at the end of 2008 because of national developments: they now had to become employees and this measure had a retroactive effect. We had to foot the bill; I sent a long e-mail on the matter, but it was never answered.”

The second measure is somewhat more complicated, but follows the same pattern, says De Neubourg: “Non-European students would no longer be paid for by the ministry, there was a transitional phase in which the Executive Board would compensate for the shortages but suddenly they deviated from that plan: we received a lot less. So I sent another letter, referring to our agreements, and again there was no answer.”

Well, I mean, he says with a crooked grin, an answer did arrive: “I was dismissed.”

 

That is really strange, isn't it? You must have some idea as to what went wrong?

“I wish I knew! In November 2007, at the official opening of our building, I was given a decoration, applied for by the Executive Board, and it’s high a ranking one too, Knight of the Order of Orange Nassau. A year later, I was set aside. What happened in the meantime? I can only speculate. Look, setting up a school like this requires a relationship based on trust between the Executive Board and management. This trust was there. When I was decorated, words like ‘admiration and appreciation’ were used in connection with what I had done here since 2005. But a year later we – business director Annemarie Rima, professor Eddy Szirmai and myself – wrote a business plan which they would not even discuss with us.”

He feels that “a huge degree of ambiguity” had crept into the relationship between himself and the Executive Board. “And one cannot live with ambiguous bosses.” Admittedly, he says, things will have gone wrong financially, at times. In 2009, interim director Peter Thuis wrote that at SoG “accounts could be kept more accurately”. De Neubourg: “But until 2008 all accounts were always approved. And Peter Thuis did not make mention of any excessive expenses in his internal audit, as Louis Boon did in Observant last week.”

The name has been dropped: Boon, dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Sciences where the SoG is housed, is not known to be the school’s best friend and certainly not best friends with those in charge there.

De Neubourg: “I was told when the school was set up in 2004 that all deans were in favour except for Boon. And even afterwards, or so I heard, he has never spoken positively about it.” But whether that means that Boon is the evil genius in this increasingly disturbed relationship with the Executive Board, he cannot say. “I have not had any direct contact with the Executive Board, like in the beginning, because everything had to go through the faculty and the dean. I have not spoken with Louis in a long time. When we pass by each other, he will not even greet me.”

Boon, when asked to comment about his position in 2004: “I never said that I was against it, I did support it at the time, but I also expressed my doubts. About the planned intake for example, and about the construction of the loan that was spread out over a number of years. Why not plan the budget annually, just like the University College did? But the Executive Board - Anne Flierman back then - did not want this as he feared that attitudes would change.”

He still feels that, as he already said last week, “the School of Governance is a good idea, but it has been completely botched in the implementation”.

 

Contempt

De Neubourg feels that the last two years have been detrimental for the school. The management had to leave, including Annemarie Rima who is still sitting at home, on full pay because the UM lost a court case about her dismissal. “Inertia is setting in among staff members, we could have started a second master's programme, but now that will not be possible for another two or three years. People feel that the Executive Board and the dean are contemptuous of their work. I hope a solution is found soon, or people will start to leave. And they are the school's capital, right?”

De Neubourg himself says that he felt it was time to respond to one of the attractive offers made to him over the years. “Previously I did not want to leave because of the people here. But this new job, I would also have taken if things had been going well with the school.”

He will be Chief of Economic and Social Policy Research at UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Center in Florence. “The centre had a good reputation until a few years ago, my predecessors were respected economists, but UNICEF was unclear about whether they wanted to continue or not. That phase has now passed, I am going to rebuild and carry out research as well. I am 59 now, retirement at the United Nations is at 62, then I will return to Maastricht. Where exactly, we will see when the time comes.”

 

Wammes Bos

(The passage about the financial problems was put before the Executive Board for their comments on Tuesday. A reaction was not given; ed.)

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