The students are treated to a kiss, a bottle of wine (“my favourite, Austrian, Grüne Veltliner”) and a multitude of compliments. “Oh, it smells delicious in here”, says Letschert, and “You’re spoiling me again.” When the Observant photographer shows up – after a similar battle with the doorbell – and the rector learns that it’s his birthday, she immediately launches into a rendition of Happy Birthday.
“I always see you working”, says Bohdi Bakker when the wine has been poured. Nearing the end of the bachelor’s in Tax Law, he has worked as a waiter for several years at university events and at the neighbouring Italian restaurant Gio’s. Yes, she often has an inauguration to attend on Fridays, she says. And yes, recently she opened the company day for tax students, which Bakker also attended. “I was completely underdressed”, Letschert laughs. “Not that I was in jeans, but it wasn’t exactly a suit. I studied law myself and forgot that it’s normal to dress up, with heels and makeup. If they ask me again next year I’ll be sure to wear a suit.” During that event Bakker met with representatives of Van Doorne, the Amsterdam law firm that will host his internship this autumn. Immediately, Letschert congratulates him and asks what he plans to do after that. “A master’s in Tax Law in Maastricht.” And then, she wants to know – will he stay in Maastricht? There are more work opportunities in the Randstad, he says, but if his salary permits, he’ll buy a house in the Maastricht city centre. For the weekends.
“I saw you at the debate on the elections for the city council”, chimes in Kristina Haarbeck, a second-year student of Economics and Business Economics. How does the rector manage it all, asks Bakker. “It’s a balancing act. You can never sit back for a moment, because every half hour there’s a new topic on the programme. Mentally, being the rector is much more intensive than being a professor. But I really enjoy it, it gives me energy. And I definitely don’t want to just do the high-profile stuff. I also want to make time for smaller things, like this dinner with you.”
A lot has changed in the last year. Two residents – Analena Schnorbach and Clemens Hannen, both third-year International Business students from Germany – are abroad for a semester, coincidentally both in Lisbon. Flemish Eva Carron, a third-year psychology student, will probably move this summer. She is still deciding between a master’s in Work and Organisation in Maastricht, Italy or Spain, or an internship, or perhaps a course at the conservatory. “But first I just need to get my bachelor’s”, she says. Letschert suddenly feels like an “old lady”. “In my day we had a four-year programme, the last year being the master’s. You had much less choice back then.”
Towards the end of the starter – bruschetta with mozzarella and tomatoes – Philipp Gretscher shows up, a third-year student of International Business and new flatmate. He was presenting a business plan to his tutorial group and it ran overtime. “How did it go?” Letschert asks. “Pretty good.” The conversation ranges from evening tutorials (which all four try to avoid: “I block those hours out”, they grin) to the number of study places at UM. “We’re being assessed on institutional quality assurance by the education minister and this is one of the topics”, Letschert says. “We have the highest number of study places of all universities in the Netherlands, but still students complain.” Those places are popular, the four nod. Maybe because the student rooms in Maastricht are so small, Gretscher says. “You can’t study in them.” Haarbeck has a different view: “At home there’s too much distraction. In the UL everyone’s studying, I like that peer pressure.” Bakker – who is sent away from the pans, the women prefer to manage the food – finds himself distracted by all the people at the library.
“After summer we’re going to experiment with being open 24 hours, at the students’ request,” Letschert says. Haarbeck and Gretscher are immediately enthusiastic. “In Germany you can study till 3 am and then the library opens again at 6.30”, says Haarbeck. Gretscher: “If it stays open longer the crowds should thin out.” That said, he never went to the UL in vain; there was always a spot available. As for the famous ‘German run’: “That’s a thing of the past”, according to Haarbeck.
The pasta with salmon is delicious, the rector says. Then, to the reporter: “Did you write that down?” The conversation turns to the topic of internationalisation and the summary proceedings brought against UM due to the large number of English-language programmes on offer. The students are not in the least concerned. The language this evening is English, and Letschert asks the two Germans at the table, “Did you learn Dutch?” Haarbeck understands it, but regrets not taking any of the free courses on offer at the Language Centre. “My boyfriend did, and he now speaks Dutch fluently.” Gretscher plans to learn it. “It’s not that hard for a German. And it’d be strange if I had to say to an employer that I don’t speak Dutch after having lived here for three years. Besides, I enjoy learning an extra language.”
How did you enjoy the last two years, Bakker asks the rector. “Can you make a mark, really bring about change?” It’s early days yet, she responds. “Ask me again in two years and I’ll take stock. If enough change has come about, I’ll want a second term. But I’m impatient, I always want things to go faster than they do.” Gretscher learnt a wise lesson during his studies: “It’s about micro speed and macro patience. You have to have patience; macro goals take time.”
Last question from the students: What’s it like to be the youngest and the only woman on the Executive Board? “I work well with my two colleagues”, Letschert says. “That’s important. You have to like each other in one way or another. After all, I see them more than I see my husband Rob. We don’t always agree, definitely not, but we’re honest and open. I wouldn’t be able to do the work if the atmosphere wasn’t good.”
And then, after some final rambling, the name of the statistics lecturer Christian Kerckhoffs comes up, just as it did last year. According to Haarbeck and Gretscher, Kerckhoffs is the best teacher at UM. “He has a sense of humour, he knows you, he challenges you and he explains things well.” Bakker has another name in mind: “Hans van Mierlo from SBE, I want to nominate him as the best teacher.”
See you in 2019
“Until next year”, they shout after dessert; the rector has offered to take them to Gio’s, the Italian next door, for their reunion. “I’m there”, says Bakker. Haarbeck: “Me too.” “I’ll try to be there”, Carron chips in. Gretscher: “I’ll be doing an internship, but if I say I’m going to dinner with the Maastricht rector, they’ll let me off.” To be continued.