Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes
New rector Rianne Letschert glows with self-confidence
She didn’t believe it, when Ursula Nelles, a member of the supervisory board and chairperson of the advisory selection committee, called her on 18 March. “Ha ha, I asked if she was sure she had the right number.” Yes, Nelles had the right number. Rianne Letschert (39) “was completely taken by surprise, had never thought about a rectorship, yes, maybe later, but certainly not now. But I thought it was interesting and because I am fairly intuitive, I immediately said that I would come for a chat.”
Before that meeting (the first of three) took place, she did “some research”. And she became “more and more enthusiastic” about a number of characteristic features of Maastricht University: international, interdisciplinary, young and dynamic. Of course these are the clichés that the UM uses all the time to sing its own praise, but clichés seldom turn out to be untrue. Letschert liked the image quite a lot and when the charm appeared to be mutual, her appointment was settled quickly.
The press jumped on it: Maastricht was getting the youngest female rector ever. And it is exactly this fact that was an extra reason for Letschert to praise the UM: “Yes, well let’s face it, it is extremely brave that they are willing to take a chance with me. Right? It is a step for both parties, I am taking a leap into the deep end.”
Not that it seems to make her nervous. On the contrary, she is glowing with self-confidence: “I will have settled in by the end of December.” Transfer of the rectorship is on 1 September. “No, that is not too optimistic. And I don’t think that it is a disadvantage that I am new here. I would even go as far as to say that if this position had been offered to me in Tilburg, I would have refused it. I have worked there for fifteen years and know everything through and through: the fights in the faculties, what the professors are getting up to, what is happening in the service departments, everyone’s little issues. Here I will be making a fresh start and I am a quick learner, kind of like a sponge. I will only introduce myself as ‘the new rector’ in the first week, not after that.”
She was almost the new dean and not the new rector. In Tilburg that is, at the Faculty of Law. That was the next career move that lay ahead, in January 2017. By the way, not on her own initiative, “because I am not focussing on my career, not in the sense that I am thinking: that is the direction I want to head in and that is what I must do to make it happen. Yes, I read in Observant that Theo van Boven referred to me a career-conscious, that I make plans. I don’t know where he got that from exactly, I will have to talk to him about that.”
An example: she was a member of the Young Academy of the Royal Dutch Academy of Science and was asked to be chairperson at the beginning of 2015. “Didn’t work towards it, but it came at exactly the moment that I wanted to ‘play outside more’ after all those years in Tilburg.” She thinks that her experience at the Academy partly contributed towards making her an interesting candidate for the rectorship. “You are dealing with all the important developments in Dutch research policies, the top sectors, the science agenda, career policies, Open Access. And you sit around the table with Executive Boards, with ministers, with VNO chairman Hans de Boer, with the member of the European Commission for research and innovation. Those contacts resulted in me being asked to be one of the people to select the scientific council for the EU. And now I do the same [research financer] at NWO, which is getting a completely new and larger board. Developing new research policies was my main task at the Young Academy, and yes, because of my age I focus more on my generation and the generations after me, young people and what they are doing.”
Not too soft
The fact that she ended up in the field of human rights, minorities and victims is not so strange when you consider the kind of family she grew up in. Her father worked with migrant groups, as the director of a multicultural foundation. “So we - I also have a brother - grew up with a strong awareness that not everyone was as well off as we were. When I was old enough, I went to all kinds of meetings and then you see that it makes a difference where you are born.”
A “strong sense of justice” made her choose the study of Law. “I also considered Psychology, but the dean at school felt that I was too soft for that, that I would take the suffering home. I don’t think he was right.”
So it was Law, in Amsterdam. It was her second move. The Letschert family had moved from Doetinchem to Helmond, when Rianne was 11 years old. She went to secondary school there, first HAVO, then VWO. “When I started studying at university, I thought: I will never live in Helmond again. But then, you have a busy job, want children, your parents still live there and when it comes to baby minding, it is very pleasant and handy. So we find ourselves living there again, and enjoying it. It has improved a lot, Helmond has, ha ha.”
After one year at the University of Amsterdam, she left. “Education on such a large-scale did not suit me. Enormous lecture halls, exams in the Jaap Eden hall, it was all too easy for me. I scored eights and nines, was not being challenged and thought that I wasn’t going to learn very much there."
She switched. No, not to Maastricht, even though they were the champions of small-scale education; it was just not in the picture, “I have no idea why”. So she chose Tilburg, “the law faculty there had a research profile, which appealed to me.” After two years, she went to Montpellier for a year, European and International Comparative Law, “and I wanted to learn the language properly, become fluent in French. I managed that.” After her graduation, she was asked to become a trainee researcher and she completed her Ph.D. in 2005. On the rights of minorities.
Her field of science is a niche, she says. Those who want to know more about it, can find everything on the Internet. She recently recorded a series of lectures for the ‘Universiteit van Nederland’. In these, she deals with her favourite topics: genocide, dealing with traumas, apologies from governments for suffering caused. Instructive lectures that highlight one thing: legal solutions are often the least successful ones, Letschert feels. An MH17 tribunal, for example, which many called for immediately after the disaster, will take years to come about and even then presumably not one single suspect will turn himself in. This will only create frustration rather than satisfaction among survivors. Sometimes a memorial can mean more to them. Or take the judicial process after the genocide in Rwanda, which Letschert has visited often; it went differently to what people in the west would expect, with a lot of room for reconciliation between perpetrators and victims.
“My passion lies with how justice works. Does it achieve the intended goal? This is an empirical question. A victimologist is interested in the consequences for the victims. Also in a psychological sense, one creates a bridge between justice, psychology, criminology and sociology. That is partly what attracts me about Maastricht, the room there is for different perspectives.”
She says that the very fact that this is a niche, made her obtain a Vidi grant from NWO last year. Eight-hundred thousand for five years. Which she is very pleased with, but in an interview with NRC Handelsblad there was something strange: she would have stopped doing research if they hadn’t won the grant. Really?
“Yes, it was more or less the last chance for me to acquire a large amount of money. The kind of research that I want to carry out, is very expensive, as it is often carried out on the spot in the country where the violations have occurred, so there is a lot of field research. If I had not received the grant, I would be a professor-director who can’t get grants. My research institute Intervict is a terrific club, they deserve someone who can actually get grants.”
What would she have done in that case? “Oh, I wasn’t worried about that. A job with Foreign Affairs, or the legal profession, for example along the lines of Liesbeth Zegveld [a lot of victim cases against the state, Srebrenica, Indonesia], or the United Nations, or Amnesty International. I have a large network.”
Anyway, the Vidi grant was awarded, she had made the big catch, and nevertheless she is stopping to become a rector. “Yes, that sounds strange, I realise. The thing is, I have two passions, my field of specialisation and the university. I find myself worrying more and more about the latter. Doing research is becoming more like a rat race, you go from grant to grant, people are being appointed for short periods of time, and the pressure is increasing. This leads to complaints, burnouts and other undesirable effects. I would like to try and do something about that. Of course I was happy when I got the Vidi grant. But at the same time, I started to ask myself questions. Was it about my personal career or was I happy that I could hire good people and offer them a decent contract, not just a contract for one year? It was the latter, actually. I thought: will I go after important grants for myself, a Vidi grant, an ERC grant or the Spinoza Prize? No, I have come to the point where I prefer to make a contribution at a managerial level.”
She is going to work really hard, she says, and that doesn’t appear to be an empty promise. “At the moment, I work six days a week, also in the evenings. Don’t forget, I actually have four jobs. Director of Intervict, chairperson of the Young Academy, the Vidi grant that I received, and NIAS in Wassenaar [Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences, a KNAW institute], of which I am a fellow. I don’t work on Saturday, which is reserved for football and ballet. Ha ha, no, not for myself, my son Joep (9) and my daughter Julia (4). Also part of Sunday, I like running and then I try to run ten or twenty kilometres. I have just signed up for the marathon in Barcelona, which is in March of next year.”
Her severe working schedule takes its toll on the family, but, she says, “I am extremely lucky with my social environment, my husband Rob, my parents, they provide me with the space to do the things that are important to me. My father and mother often mind the children. Rob works in the events industry, arranges the catering for festivals, such as Paaspop and Zwarte Cross and is also home a lot. The children are not burdened by it, they are well balanced. If that wasn’t the case, well, I would find that hard. Then I would arrange things differently: travel less, have fewer sidelines.”
What is she going to do at the UM once she is here? She will be a part-time professor of International Law and Victimology, and she will most likely also be involved in University College. And as a rector?
She hesitates, says what she has already said in other media: she doesn’t want to “make a preselection” for the future, the present rector holds his position until September, she doesn’t think it would be right to make announcements at the moment. But anyway, in the press release concerning her appointment, the supervisory board stated that Letschert had “a convincing vision on the UM’s strategic development”. So, of course, we would like to know what that vision is.
She laughs, then gives a few bits of information. To start with, she has “complete” influence on the realisation of the UM’s new strategic programme, she says with emphasis. Deliberations on that matter have been on-going for some time. “You didn’t think that I would implement a plan that I didn’t agree with?”
She would also like to tackle the academic rat race and the high number of temporary contracts. For that she can tag along with the UM’s new HR policy, which points in the same direction. What she would also like to work on, is a broader international profile, “that is now rather regional, with a lot of Germans and Belgians”. Anyway, that is also already an existing policy. And yes, she will do her very best for more women in high academic positions, and of course more diversity, ethnic too, within the university. Furthermore she would like to encourage lecturers to make more use of their networks to help students find work. “Students are often too shy to approach a lecturer in that role. They don’t know that a lecturer has such a network. Ask a student ‘what do you think I do? Then he or she will say: teaching and having lots of holidays’. There are many enthusiastic and motivated students whom you could give a push in the right direction. But others too. I feel it is the responsibility of lecturers, you could make a contribution to someone’s life.”
Anything else? No, that will all come later. “In a year’s time, people can tell me whether I am doing a good job or not. To my face of course and not behind my back, because I hate that. No matter what, you will experience exciting things with me, you can rest assured.”