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“Fine, I’ll be the token woman from time to time”

“Fine, I’ll be the token woman from time to time”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes

Appointed for a 2nd term, rector Rianne Letschert looks back and ahead

A charming rector’, ‘the embodiment of UM’, ‘ambitious’, ‘authentic’: Dutch media outlets were very generous with their praise in recent articles about ‘Top Woman of the Year 2019’ and current rector of Maastricht University Rianne Letschert. Her own reaction to winning the annual competition for Dutch women in top management positions is a little more grounded. “I’m not a superwoman. I, too, make mistakes.” And she, too, gets “ticked off” sometimes, like when she’s accused of being power hungry. “Anyone who knows me knows I’m not like that.”

A few days after being named Top Woman of the Year 2019, Letschert is still “overwhelmed” by all the media attention, messages of congratulations and bouquets of flowers she received. “The value of this prize to me?” She’s silent for a moment. “It’s actually very sad that we need a competition to celebrate female leadership. I sincerely hope it’ll be obsolete in fifteen to twenty years, when my now eight-year-old daughter Julia enters the labour market. Hopefully, women in senior management positions will be the norm by then and it’ll no longer be about the lone role model at the top. I hope Julia will get to look back and laugh at the ‘silly women’s prize’ her mother once won.”

Token woman

That said, she did deliberately nominate herself for the award this year (it was the third consecutive year the organisation approached her about it). “I work in a male-dominated environment and I’ve seen how rare it is to be able to break through that. There are only three female rectors and three female presidents at universities in the Netherlands. Watch the video clip of the UM academic procession during the opening of the academic year and you’ll see very few high heels – they zoomed in on our shoes. Look, being in the spotlight isn’t my ambition in life, but this time I decided ‘I’ll do it, so I can show people what I’m capable of’. Fine, I’ll be the token woman from time to time, but only because I hope the status quo will change: more women in senior positions and a change of tone in the debate about working women. Women who work part time aren’t just obsessed with achieving balance, that’s such a disparaging view. Doesn’t everyone want balance in their life? And all those decisions you have to make? People should be more understanding. Combining work and family life is often quite difficult.” Letschert speaks from experience: she works more than eighty hours per week, travels regularly (she just returned from the Science and Technology Forum in Japan), has a son (12) and a daughter (8), and feels lucky to have a supportive network at home (husband, parents and friends).

Winning this competition also gives her a chance to show that women at the top “can stay themselves”, don’t have to be aggressively assertive, don’t have to be perfect at everything all the time (“you can become a rector even without always excelling at everything”), and can and should let themselves be “vulnerable” at times. “Sometimes you just don’t know enough about certain topics yet, which means you have to catch up. It’s important to be honest about that and to find people who know more about the topic. This will make you look vulnerable to some, but I think it’s a mark of good leadership.”

Talented women

To get more women in senior positions, Maastricht University will obviously need more female professors. “Thirty percent of our professors must be female by the end of my first term in 2020, or else I’ll set quotas for a few faculties.” The School of Business and Economics (SBE) and the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences (FHML) in particular are lagging behind in this respect, even though “there are many talented women in the pipeline there”.

Does the rector actually get to decide whether quotas are set, though? Letschert bursts into laughter. “I’ll have to check that, but the executive board can do quite a lot.” Then, seriously: “These kinds of decisions are always taken in consultation with the university council and the faculty councils, but Peter [Møllgaard, the dean of SBE] wants this as well. The faculty is already taking steps to change the situation.”

Fresh ideas

Letschert stresses that merely appointing more female professors won’t be enough. “It has to be broader than that. Most directors of research schools at FHML are male, for example. We have to look at our leadership: crucial management positions are still too often occupied by men.” And, last but not least, “We’re also very white. I’m not necessarily talking about skin colour, but we are very Dutch. UM is international in terms of our study programmes, research, staff and students; I want this to be reflected in our leadership. We want the best of the best, and the best people don’t necessarily come from your own culture or institution. Take Martin [Paul, who came to UM from Germany to become dean of FHML and, later, president of UM], or me [came to UM from Tilburg to become rector], or Peter, our dean of SBE. He brings in so much international experience, so many refreshing ideas and different perspectives. It’s enriching. I’m not saying we’ll follow all of his suggestions, but I want to throw open the windows and let in fresh air while preserving the good things. That’s very important.”

Not a coup

Letschert is committed to proper appointment procedures: transparent, fair, and open to people from both within and outside UM. But recently there has been controversy over the new procedure for appointing deans in the university council. Some are concerned about the amount of power the executive board wields now that not just the rector, but the entire board will be part of the appointment advisory committee (BAC). Firmly: “The executive board’s involvement makes sense. We’re ultimately responsible; we have to put together a senior management team and make sure UM is being run properly. I think calling it power politics is quite unfair. It’s not top down, it’s not a coup, it’s not centralist – anything can be framed negatively, damn it. This gets to me. Anyone who knows me knows I’m not like that!”

“It ticks me off a little. If I wanted to overrule everyone, I should’ve kept things the way they were: under the old procedure, the board could very easily reject the recommended candidate at the last moment. We can’t very well do that now that the three of us are in the BAC. With all due respect, the new procedure is much more transparent and democratic. Just look at the increased role of the faculty council [which can now recommend two BAC members].” Opinions are divided on this, though. It’s true that the faculty council couldn’t recommend members under the old procedure, but it did have to be consulted about the candidate “at such a time that the consultation can actually influence the decision-making”. This phrase isn’t in the new procedure. But, says Letschert, “It’s still in the BBRUM [UM Administration and Management Regulations].” In other words, it’s still valid.

And then there’s the fact that, under the new procedure, the BAC will also actively look for external candidates – another sensitive issue for the university council. “Of course, I’m not going to look for a dean the faculty doesn’t like. But it’s not as though faculties are making every effort to train their future leaders, either. There’s no line of people waiting to take on this difficult task. I have to be proactive in this.”


One final comment on this: “I think the whole coup accusation is also disdainful of the other BAC members. It implies that our academic staff, administrative and support staff and students don’t dare stand up against me and only tell me what I want to hear. I’m sorry, but that’s never been the case in the last three years. On the contrary.”

Rianne Letschert doesn’t want to be surrounded by yes-men, she says. “I immediately told the directors to be critical. We board members also have heated discussions. Nick [Bos, vice-president] and I sometimes clash over some things, but always from a safe basis of mutual respect and understanding. After my reappointment, I invited the deans to a dinner for a peer assessment. I told them I wanted to hear about their positive experiences as well as the negative ones, as I could learn from those. It was a special evening. I don’t like to beat around the bush. It’s OK to make mistakes; I do, too. For example, I said ‘yes’ too much to all kinds of requests in my early days as a rector. I’ve learnt to be more selective. And I don’t always agree with the criticism, of course, but I don’t have to. As long as we try to convince each other with arguments.”

Exciting times

“You’re in for some exciting times with me”, she said in her very first interview with Observant, just before she took office in 2016. She chuckles. “Exciting” might not have been the right word, she says now. But she certainly hasn’t been sitting on her hands.

Diversity, for example, has become a common theme within UM, not least because of the appointment of a diversity officer and the organisation of various diversity events and projects. “A male employee recently said to me, ‘Since you’re here, we talk about diversity during coffee breaks.’ That’s the highest compliment you can give me. It means the concept was truly embraced by employees. Other people say, ‘Oh, you and your diversity.’ Yes, they feel comfortable saying that to me. They might not entirely agree with it, but they’ve become aware of it as well.”


More attention has also been paid to #MeToo since she took office. “I talk about it a lot, which raises awareness. I have a zero-tolerance policy. It’s a difficult subject: how do you find evidence? How do you protect all parties that may be affected? How do we ensure a safe working environment for employees in which bystanders no longer look away, but take their responsibility?” The number of reports is still increasing. “We’d hoped that appointing an ombudsman would take some of the pressure off our confidential advisor, but it didn’t. An external agency is currently looking into our procedures and capacity. You just can’t encourage people to report sexual harassment and then place them on a waiting list.”


According to Letschert, the time when faculties and even service centres were separate ‘islands’ is largely over. There’s cooperation – “all faculties are working together on the new bachelor’s programme in Global Studies, which is something to be proud of” – and a greater awareness of the fact that “we form a whole. That we’re responsible together. If we jointly agree to maintain a certain student intake – which directly affects our funding – and one faculty goes back on the agreement, all of us are affected. The same goes for a professor making headlines for a possible conflict of interest. It hurts everyone. Even if you’ve got everything figured out, you’re still a representative of UM.”


As for the future, one thing is clear: the rector’s packed schedule and eighty-hour work week aren’t changing anytime soon, judging by the number of plans and intentions she expounds on. Enthusiastically: “We’re making great strides in terms of HR. We’ve mapped out a transparent career path for young, talented researchers, with clear criteria and a transparent procedure. Both the university council and the Local Consultative Body [employee organisations] are enthusiastic.”

She’ll also continue the political lobbying efforts she began this spring on behalf of UM, Tilburg University and Erasmus University Rotterdam, against the Van Rijn Committee report and for diversity and internationalisation. “I didn’t train to be a lobbyist; I haven’t yet been able to get everything out of it. I’d be lying if I said I did. But I can establish relationships by being open, that’s my style.”

April or May 2020 will see the release of a new vision on education, building on the Edview project that examined Problem-Based Learning at UM. “It’s really big. It’s about the entire university.” She also wants to improve the process of research grant acquisition, is working together with President Martin Paul to put Data Science (“everything we have”) on the national and European map, and has a new plan for internal communication coming up. “Marketing and Communication (M&C) recently became one of my responsibilities. I think it’s important that the things that happen here also make it to the workplace. Newsletters don’t work, so we’re going to do things differently. In a way, everyone is responsible for internal communication, not just the board or the head of M&C.”


And then there’s her national project, a new compensation and remuneration system for researchers on which she’s working with the rector of Eindhoven University of Technology on behalf of the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU). In the future, assessments should no longer revolve entirely around impact factors and h-indexes, but also take into account the social impact of research and the teaching performance of the researcher in question. “This project can potentially have a major impact, but a policy memo won’t cut it. It requires a cultural change. I’m prepared to fight for that.”

Bed and bath

Letschert posts a few tweets per day: always full of praise about students and staff, but often critical about Dutch politics. “Twitter doesn’t take much time. I tweet from the bathroom, from my bed, from the bath or while walking from one meeting to the next. Empty moments only. It’s the least time-consuming social media platform. I get a lot of support from people who agree with me and it also helps in ‘political The Hague’: they know what I think and where to find me.”

And – just like with the Top Woman of the Year 2019 competition – no, she doesn’t do it for the media attention. “I do it because it’s effective. It’s not about me.”





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