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Acting Dean of the Faculty of Science: Paul Wouters shares a glimpse of his double life

Paul Wouters came to the Faculty of Science for a few months to help with organising day-to-day issues after the previous dean left. This has involved rather more than he expected. ‘I can now really understand why every faculty has its own dean.’

How are you doing?

Having two jobs is obviously very intensive. But I’m doing fine, because it actually gives me energy. Everyone is very friendly. Our teamwork in the Faculty Board and with the Scientific Directors runs smoothly, and the same goes for the support departments. At the moment, I’m not setting a good example because I'm working quite a lot. But it’s going fine. As I explained to you before, I find it easy to relax. I don’t lie awake at night, worrying about problems.

What did you tackle first?

I was struck by the fact that the institutes in the Faculty of Science are quite separate from one another. We’ve been talking about this a lot over the last couple of months. As the Faculty Board, we want to work with the Institute Boards on moving forward with the Faculty’s development. The report produced by Bert Meijer and Wim van Saarloos has now been well received by the Executive Board. They’ve asked the Faculty Board to implement this advice over the next three years.

What is the most important recommendation in the report

We will be introducing a shared framework for the Faculty. It will still leave a lot of freedom for the institutes, but they won’t be separate from one another and from the Faculty. The Institute Boards will soon be sharing the Faculty Board’s responsibility for Faculty policy. The management philosophy is therefore centred around a collective approach. 

And that’s what we urgently need. Society has changed, and so too has the way you need to organise your research. For instance, there are now more demands in terms of safety and security, ethical accountability and quality management. You can only achieve this if you organise it together.

What items have been on your agenda the last few months?

My main task has always been to ensure that when the new dean arrives, there will already be a structure and culture where he or she can achieve results rapidly. I’m talking here about important tasks like representing the Faculty to the outside world, establishing strong research consortia and promoting interdisciplinary collaboration. 

And we’re also making preparations for September. We want to be operating as normally as possible by then. There have also been several important financial items on the agenda. How should we invest the funding that we’ve received? Such as the compensation to cover the coronavirus crisis, the quality-improvement funding for education, the stimulus programme for research and high-profile prizes that we’ve won. These are all issues that the Faculty Board is discussing with the Scientific Directors and Programme Directors, and together we’ve made some excellent progress.

Can you say anything about the situation in the Mathematical Institute (MI)?

The situation in the MI had been difficult for quite a while. It’s extremely unpleasant that it was placed under a magnifying glass by an article in Mare and discussions on social media. The Faculty Board has emphatically distanced itself from this article. Both from the statement of a discriminatory nature and from the story about the investigation of the evaluation forms. The way in which staff members are characterised and identified by name in that article is unacceptable.

Our top priority is to provide care for staff and students

Our top priority is to provide care for the Institute’s staff and students. We concentrated our efforts on that immediately. We will also be providing additional support from 1 September, in the person of Frans de Haas, a highly experienced administrator who will temporarily work with the MT and staff of the MI as the Scientific Director- Change Manager. The main focus will be on improving the organisation, establishing a transparent staffing policy and creating an inclusive environment where everyone feels accepted and safe.

How long will you be staying at our Faculty?

My appointment at the Faculty of Science ends on 1 October. I think I may be staying a little longer, but I will certainly have left by the end of the year. And that’s a good thing. You can’t use the neighbours’ help forever. We’re now actively looking for a new dean and we’re certain to find one, of course, because it’s a very attractive faculty.

How will the organisation be affected by Dirkje leaving?

Dirkje has been an excellent Executive Director and a strong presence in the Faculty, so she will be hard to replace. However, the University isn’t a prison, fortunately, and people are permitted to leave. But I was surprised to hear she was leaving. I do understand it, though: it’s obviously exciting to seek a new challenge somewhere else. 

Dirkje has achieved a great deal and leaves us with a strong network of professional support. I’ve noticed that the support departments are particularly well organised in the Faculty of Science. Dirkje will be leaving quite soon, so we’ll start by appointing an interim executive director. And in the meantime we’ll be looking for a new dean and a new executive director. The advantage of this is that we can look for administrators who are a good match for each other.

Where is there room for improvement in the Faculty of Science?

Diversity and an inclusive atmosphere at work are very important to me. This may be because I myself belong to a minority in various ways: I’m a first-generation student and my sexual orientation places me in a minority as well. I’m also accustomed to living in a diverse environment: my home is in the Bijlmer, a multicultural city district in Amsterdam. It’s a deliberate choice, of course; an academic neighbourhood isn’t for me. 

The Faculty is still very male-dominated

Although the Faculty does have quite a few different nationalities and cultures, it’s still very male-dominated. This really has to change, and also the ratio of board members. So I’ve spoken with colleagues in RISE, the network of women in the Faculty. Equality between people needs to be achieved in all respects, so that women have more freedom to advance in the exact sciences. This isn’t just an issue for the HR department, it’s a key responsibility of all the boards in the Faculty. The main question is actually whether we use all the available talents and give everyone the chance to produce knowledge.

We know from research that diverse teams are more creative. You can see it in music too, the way that cultures all influence one another; these are the wonderful things in the world. People dancing together, sharing enjoyment and inspiration: that’s what it’s really all about.

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