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Annetje Ottow back in Leiden

Annetje Ottow is the first female president of the Executive Board of Leiden University, which means a return to her Alma mater.

She has cycled from Leiden station to the Academy Building. The sun is shining and spring is in the air. Annetje Thecla Ottow (1965), the new president of the Executive Board of Leiden University, is back in Leiden. Terrific! She couldn’t imagine a better job.

Real contact

Ottow is delighted that the interview and photo session are ‘live’ and that she also gets to speak to her secretary in person today. ‘That’s a real bonus at this difficult time, with so much having to be online. It’s hard for all of us, students and staff alike. It’s driving me crazy, spending all day at my computer. Even a standing desk isn’t helping. You miss your colleagues, popping by their desks. Real contact is so much better!’


In that sense a coronavirus lockdown isn’t the best time to start as new president of the Executive Board, with Rector Magnificus Hester Bijl and Vice-Chairman Martijn Ridderbos. ‘Introductions have to be online at the moment, when what I would like more than anything would be to jump on my bike and meet everyone in person – together with Hester and Martijn. Once that’s possible again, that’s exactly what I’m going to do: cycle through town on my bike.’

All-girls house

Ottow is the newest of the three board members, but she’s no stranger to Leiden: she studied law here and lived in the city for several years during the 1980s. First as a student in a house on 2e Binnenvestgracht and in ‘a fantastic all-girls house’ in the professorenwijk neighbourhood. And she also lived in Leiden for a while later on when working as a lawyer at the renowned firms in The Hague, De Brauw Blackstone Westbroek and Houthoff Buruma. From her current home in Heemstede she then spent many years travelling back and forth from Utrecht University, as professor of European public law, then dean and then vice-president of the Executive Board.

Why have you returned to Leiden University?

‘I’m very content focused. I was vice-president in Utrecht and had specific portfolios there. The role of president suits me better and Leiden is a wonderful university. I also like a challenge, and there’s plenty of those here. Leiden University is a university of traditions but at the same time it’s at a crossroads. That’s something I really want to contribute to. As the new board we will spend this year working with the deans and all the students and staff on a new strategic plan for the coming years. That’s hugely inspiring. A university has the power to change the world. I’m convinced: a university is an agent of change. If you just want someone to mind the shop, you’ve got the wrong person.’

Annetje Ottow walking through Leiden with her bike

What makes Leiden University special?

‘It feels like coming home. Leiden is a warm university, with clear lines of communication, a university where it’s easy to contact others and where you know everyone. I’ve been away from Leiden for a while, but I immediately feel that again. The man at the bicycle parking says “good morning” to you. You don’t get that in big cities. It feels like more of a family here. For an administrator it can also be a challenge to dare to make business decisions. The pressure to make decisions is increasing all the time. Resources are becoming scarcer and the competition is increasing – and so too are people’s expectations. And we want to carry on being a university with a wide range of programmes, when we really should make our own choices and focus on our strengths. This is an interesting time and it demands a lot from people. That is a challenge for an administrator.’

What kind of student were you?

‘I was a bit of a swot – yes, I’m afraid I was one of those students who loves studying. I left Belgium, where I grew up, for Leiden, on the advice of my father. Not only because the city is so cute, but also because law here has a strong international focus. That’s something that really appeals to me: Europe, international relations. As a student I spent my time in the buildings on Hugo de Grootstraat, where the faculty could be found at the time. When I got a high mark in an exam, I was allowed to attend a small class given by Professor Hein Schemers (professor of law of international organisations, 1978-2006, ed.). That helped make me the person I am today.

‘It was a special time, where your contact with professors was often personal. You were invited for dinner at their house, for instance, together with other students. My husband, whom I met while we were both studying law in Leiden, was a student assistant for the private-law group, and his professor came for dinner with us once – I can still see him cycling up on his folding bike – only to discuss annotations after we’d finished eating. That’s almost unthinkable now!

‘The Leiden professors also advised you about your future: your PhD, your career. After graduating, I went into the legal profession. That’s what I really wanted: first the practice. There I learnt how to identify the key points from enormously thick files, something I still benefit from now. When I did my PhD later, 18 years after my degree, Professor Schermers sent me a personal congratulations card – I’ve still got it at home somewhere. That was in 2006 and it meant a lot to me. He died soon after.’

What do you think it’s like to study now?

‘The coronavirus pandemic means you can’t compare this time with any other period. The social consequences are huge for our students. This will affect them for the rest of their lives. And then there’s the uncertainty about the financial and economic effects. In that respect, I can see a lot of similarities between the 1980s and 2021: they are both difficult times of economic crisis that mainly affect young people who have just graduated and are looking for their first job.’

An archive photo of Annetje Ottow and Professor Schemers
Annetje Ottow and Professor Schermers

What do you do in your free time? What wouldn’t you mind getting up for?

‘Planting a tree! It gives me a lot of hope: green for the current and future generations. The topic of biodiversity really interests me. I devote a lot of my free time to it too: in my own garden, for instance, where I’m trying to coax back insects and bats with indigenous plants and seeds. When I left school I played with the idea of studying landscape architecture in Wageningen, but law in Leiden appealed to me more.’

What do you want to achieve as president?

‘I’m really glad to have sustainability in my portfolio. I want to make a real difference: not just saying that you’re a sustainable university but actually being one. I’m looking forward to tackling this theme, together with the students from the Leiden University Green Office (LUGO) and the university staff. What I’d like to do, together with the students, is make the paved courtyards by our buildings visibly greener, to make a mini hortus there with lots of biodiversity. As a child already I was fascinated by plants and flowers, and was always fiddling around with seeds and propagators. I featured in Leidsch Dagblad in 1994 with the biggest pumpkin in Leiden, grown at our allotment by Cronesteyn park.

‘Diversity and inclusion are also important topics that I want to focus my efforts on as president. To me it is such a basic principle that you can be who you want to be, and I’ll do all I can to promote this. Let’s be open to others, to people who are different, and give everyone the respect they deserve. I have a strong sense of justice and want to support people who are less fortunate and have fewer opportunities. I can’t cope with injustice. It’s something deep inside. I’ll therefore be a firm advocate of the topic of social safety at the university.’

Which hotspots in Leiden would you like to visit again, coronavirus permitting?

‘Pieterskerk, of course. I sat exams there in the past and was there again on 8 February on the Dies Natalis. As a student I enjoyed being a member of De Blauwe Schuit, the sailing club, which was on 5e Binnenvestgracht at the time. And not to forget the Hortus and the medicinal herbs in the Clusius garden. I spent many an hour there as a student imbibing all the knowledge about plants and trees.

‘And then of course Leidse Rechtswinkel [an organisation offering free legal advice, ed.], which still exists today. At the time is was on a side street of Breestraat. Now it’s on Langegracht. As a student, I volunteered there for a few years, helping Leideners fill in their tax returns and suchlike. Hugely rewarding work. I’m still on the supervisory board of Juridisch Loket, a similar organisation. Molen de Valk is a pretty sight as you cycle from the station to the centre. And a coffee wouldn’t go amiss at what is now Stadscafé van der Werf, on Stationsstraat, with its huge terrace. I celebrated my graduation there in 1988.

‘You’ll see me there and at other spots in town over the coming months, and I’m looking forward to becoming personally acquainted with the students and staff. One thing I’m convinced of: as a university we can make the world a better place. Hester, Martijn and I can’t do that alone. Divide the task, multiply the success, as Carel Stolker said so fittingly when he retired. So it’s together that we can achieve great things – together we can make a safer, healthier, more sustainable and just world.’

Text: Caroline van Overbeeke

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