“It gives me very mixed feelings,” says Letschert. In four months’ time, she will take over from Martin Paul, who is leaving for the Ruhr-Universität Bochum (Germany). Letschert loves being rector, loves education and research. And yes, she will certainly miss her role at academic events, such as farewell speeches and inaugural speeches. “I received a lovely e-mail from Andries de Grip, former director of ROA, who left last week. Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend his speech. He wrote that he felt it was such a pity, because I always speak so well and involved. That is true, I love doing that, and I won’t be doing that any more. I will no longer wear that chain around my neck.”
On the other hand, as President Letschert will be given the opportunity to spread her wings, outside the walls of the institute, in the region, The Hague, internationally. Her recent chairpersonship of BEST, the Broad Economic Social Taskforce, an initiative by the province of Limburg, is a good example. That is the platform that took a close look at the future of Limburg after COVID-19. And no, Letschert didn’t join to feed her own ego, she emphasised, “that is not who I am. Also, if I look at the Limburg Educational Agenda, in which we are looking at how we can strengthen primary and secondary education, that is not directly relevant for the UM, but it is important for Limburg. If things are going well for Limburg, that also reflects on our own institute. We have to carry the responsibility together.”
She realises all too well that she occasionally encroached on the President’s territory over the past years, “but I was given that space. Martin could also have said: ‘Mrs. Letschert, please restrict yourself to your own portfolio.'
“I almost joined the Executive Board five years ago because I am worried about the academic system, work pressure, and insufficient funding for universities. These are the themes on which I would like to be heard louder. Also in The Hague. And it is not that Martin stopped me, certainly not, but I personally didn’t always feel it was appropriate. Now is a great opportunity to fill in this agenda from that role of President. The brake can be fully released.”
Martin Paul has always embraced his portfolio of internationalisation with a lot of dedication: he is vice chairman of the Young European Research Universities Network (YERUN), of the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN), and chairman of the Young Universities for the Future of Europe (YUFE) alliance.
Will Letschert continue on with Paul’s work? “My power lies in maintaining and building networks, I really like doing that. I will take over YUFE, which I would have done anyway, even if I had stayed on as rector. YERUN and WUN are very important, but I have to think about the role I could best fulfill in these networks.”
Letschert is an experienced researcher in conflict and post-conflict areas. As a victimologist, she researches the impact of international tribunals on society and victims of serious breaches of human rights. She did fieldwork in countries such as Congo, Rwanda, Lebanon and Pakistan.
“Global engagement suits me,” she says. “Our faculties have really great initiatives in the world, at SHE Collaborates, Mundo, UNU-Merit, we have Global Studies, global citizenship education, the Maastricht Platform for Community-Engaged Research, but we can connect them and put them on show much more.”
A theme that Letschert as President will certainly ‘take on’ as well, is Recognition and Rewards; after all, she is one of the initiators of the national project that gives more attention for diverse academic careers. Other things that she will pour her efforts into are leadership and HR. As President, she can “broaden” the leadership programme, she says, “on every level,” from academic to support staff.
She will also strengthen the relationship with MUMC. “The university and the hospital are linked to each other in a complicated construction, but we work together with the same people, we need each other. For example, in a joint strategy on future developments, such as medical technology and the project to become a healthy region.”
Furthermore, she is soon going to speak with Vice President Nick Bos about their future portfolios, because “both positions have common ground”. The Brightlands campuses will be one of the topics.
We versus them
The fact that the deans backed her decision, as does colleague Bos, was “the confirmation. The deans know what they can expect,” she laughs. “I feel that we think too much in terms of we versus them, in the ‘Berg’ versus the faculties. I don’t think it is very constructive. I am all for faculty space and individual detailing, but as far as the main lines are concerned, we are one organisation. We follow a joint course.”
When Paul leaves, Letschert will combine her new job as President with her position as rector, “for a few months, till the end of January”. Hasn't she thought about taking on both roles in the coming years? “It was discussed briefly, but aside from the fact that it didn’t fit in with the board regulations – which would have had to be adapted – it is not feasible from a practical point of view. It was a huge temptation, because then I could continue to do what I like doing as rector, but if you look at the portfolios, the size of the university and the challenges, no, it is not an option.”
She realises that she shouldn’t interfere too much with the themes of the new rector. “I know those through and through. Yes, he or she will have to push me back,” she laughs. “But I can handle that.”
Letschert has a preference for an internal candidate. Not just because they know what is going on, but they will also know the education system of Maastricht University. “I would also prefer to have a rector who will stay on for eight years, that gives you much more clout. Anyway, I may be on the Appointments Advisory Committee, but it is the Supervisory Board’s decision.”
Climbing the ladder
Does Letschert have an unbridled ambition to ‘climb the ladder’? “As President, you have final responsibility of the whole institute, but Martin never emanated that. That is because of our amicable board. Besides, I have read messages that I would become a minister, well, now you know that I won't do that. Climbing the ladder is not my motive. Also, let’s be honest, you don’t need to become President for the title, the Dutch title of ‘Rector magnificus’ sounds much better, doesn’t it?”