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Ab de Jong new academic director of LIAS: ‘Feels like home’

Ab de Jong, professor of Comparative Religion, was appointed as the new the academic director of the Leiden Institute for Area Studies (LIAS) with effect from 1 September. We asked him about his plans for the future of the LIAS.

A familiar place

Within the Faculty of Humanities, LIAS is home to both area studies and religious studies. For de Jong, who is familiar with both fields of study, LIAS feels like home. ‘I study religion and my specialist fields are Iran and Central Asia. But I’m interested in all religions and areas that are the topic of study at LIAS.’

His first task as academic director? ‘Getting a grip on the institute,’ De Jong replies firmly. That’s easier said than done: ‘I don’t want to resort to platitudes, but it will be a real challenge. LIAS covers more than 5,000 years of history as well as a complex contemporary world. I hope that together we can maintain that full scope and allow it to flourish.’

The three key aims: finance, identity and workload

The LIAS has set out three core objectives for the coming years. ‘It's a bit of a cliché, but the first objective is a healthy financial future; quite simply, that’s crucial.’ The second objective is to maintain the identity and sense of community present within the institute. ‘An institute is not something people naturally affiliate with, and it doesn't have to be. It’s not that we all need to have some sort of collective “LIAS feeling”, but it is important that there’s a broadly shared sense among all our staff that the institute means something to them and represents something they want to identify with.’

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, De Jong mentions tackling the issue of the pressure of work. ‘It’s an issue that transcends LIAS, but one that requires our full attention,’ he says. ‘Within  LIAS, we need to look for solutions that can contribute to reducing the workload. In the past year we have added staff where possible and experimented with setting up tutor groups for first-year students.’

‘In the coming period, I would like to discuss the issue of thesis supervision with programme chairs. We should look at whether thesis supervision can be distributed more evenly among staff. We sometimes have situations where one staff member has to supervise more theses than others. There is some wriggle room here that could give some short-term relief.’

‘Researchers are first and foremost human beings’

De Jong stressed that the three main objectives for LIAS - financial stability, the identity of the institute and the workload issue – are not separate issues but are, in fact, all related. ‘Over the last ten years, LIAS has seen an immense growth in the institute, both in terms of numbers of staff and students as well as study programmes. That’s wonderful, but this growth and the related issue of significantly over-worked colleagues has got in the way of taking the time to sit down together, step back and reflect on the things that bind us. I would like to play a part in creating the necessary space for doing that.’

Over the years, the expansion of LIAS has also caused tensions within the institute. ‘LIAS has the reputation of being a troubled institute. Indeed, LIAS has seen difficult times, but among the staff there are many warm and intellectually fruitful bonds that generate a lot of very positive effects.’

‘During a history of science lecture series, the most important lesson I ever taught students was that researchers are first and foremost human beings. They are people who display every conceivable form of human behaviour. This also applies to LIAS, which is a complex institute with very different kinds of employees. Fostering a widely shared feeling of safety and stability should be a primary task for every management team, and certainly for us too.’

Most of all, De Jong is looking forward to working together with colleagues. ‘The most exciting aspect of my work as academic director is to talk to as many people as possible about what they are doing and what vision they have for the future. It goes without saying that keeping up to date with the latest research plans of our staff is part of my job, but it’s a part that doesn’t feel like work. I’m genuinely very curious about everyone’s projects and aspirations, and I enjoy listening to those stories.’

Ab de Jong was appointed academic director of LIAS with effect from 1 September 2020 for a period of three years. He succeeds Erik-Jan Zurcher and Nira Wickramasinghe, who have shared the chair of academic director of the institute since 1 June 2018.

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