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A flash interview with our President and alumna Annetje Ottow

In this flash interview we get a flash introduction of our President and alumna Annetje Ottow.

What did you study and when? And why did you choose Leiden University?

I studied business law and graduated in 1988. I chose Leiden because it was the university my father considered to be the best. The small size of the town was also a plus because I was going to be far away from my family for the first time. The international aspect of Leiden University and the Europa Institute also appealed to me enormously.

Did Leiden meet your expectations? What did, and what didn’t? What were you like as a student?

I liked studying, and studying here in Leiden was great because there was such a wide range of electives to choose from. It was easy to make contact with professors and I soon got to know Professor Schermers who would become a major inspiration for me. I had a great social life as well. I was a member of the Blauwe Schuit, the sailing club, and lived in a nice student house. I also had a very close-knit group of friends who were fellow students, one of whom I ended up marrying! One thing I did need to get used to was the directness of the Dutch. The culture shock was enormous. I was surprised at how blunt people were in how they communicated. I also had to learn to stand up for myself in the student house where I was living. Though I have Dutch nationality, I was raised in a very Belgian way. I was really quite homesick to begin with and it took me a long time to settle in Leiden.

Do you have one memorable moment from your time as a student that you would like to share?

One memorable moment that I often think back to was the day I was walking along one of the canals in Leiden with Professor Schermers. He gave me some very sound advice and tried to convince me to do a PhD.

What was your favourite restaurant/pub/place in Leiden back then?

I was certainly not a big pub-goer, so I don’t have a favourite pub. My favourite places for coffee were ’t Suppiershuysinghe, opposite Gravesteen on the Papengracht, and of course the Bruine Boon.

Looking back, is there something extra that you might have wanted in the law curriculum? Perhaps a specific subject that wasn’t taught, or an internship or something else you missed?

That’s a difficult question. I think learning to be more assertive and learning more skills would have been good. The degree taught you all you needed to know in terms of content, but when you start at a law firm you really are thrown in at the deep end. So learning to be more assertive, and acquiring negotiating and mediation skills would have helped. It would certainly have been useful to learn how to apply the theory in certain situations. For instance, in contract law – you didn’t really learn how to write and review an actual contract.


Photo credit: Melissa Schriek

Can you explain why you chose not to remain in the legal profession? 

Although I did listen to Professor Schermers’ advice and was always interested in working on publications and conducting research, I wanted to work in legal practice first. At one point I joined the law firm Houthoff Buruma as a partner. My reasons for switching to academia after 12 years were personal. I became very ill after the birth of my son. It was impossible to combine my career as a partner with my illness. I had actually wanted to write a dissertation for a long time, and now, while convalescing, I seized the opportunity to start working on it. I had been thinking for some time of focussing more on a specific area and dedicating myself more to public affairs. For a while, I stayed at Houthoff Buruma as a consultant. But when I was writing my dissertation, I found that working in the public sector appealed to me more. So I never returned to legal practice.

To me, this is also an important lesson. We seem to be very focussed on the importance of academic experience and career only. So there’s enormous pressure to think only in terms of a pyramid. But it can be very healthy to step away and then maybe come back again, or to start in the legal profession and then switch to the academic world. This kind of interaction between the two worlds should be promoted more. That said, it is quite difficult to return to the academic world once you have worked in practice. It’s not something that happens automatically. Yet the links between practice and academia are much stronger. There are all kinds of possible cross-career variations, and I would like us to be a bit more relaxed about how we approach this.

You are our first female president. You already spoke about this in Leidraad. I think our alumni would be interested to hear if you still apply something in your current work that you learnt during your law studies. I was recently talking with the deans about how wonderful it is for an administrator to have knowledge of legal aspects. As an administrator you are faced with all sorts of legal snags, and a legal background helps you to know how to assess these. What’s more, working in the legal profession teaches you how to get through files fast, processing the information and getting to the core of an issue. This is a huge advantage for all administrators.

When you are no longer president, how would you like to be remembered? Hmm, another good but difficult question! Your style and vision develop on the job. I’m very focussed on (work) culture and core values at Leiden University. It’s very important to me that everyone enjoys working here. I want to pursue a culture of openness, so that a good discussion is always possible. Leiden University also has so much to offer, but it is still rather modest and we can improve how we promote ourselves in the outside world. Within the University, I want to stimulate connections between faculties and departments. Outside the University, more outreach and interaction is needed so that we give back more to society and also learn from it. I think I would like to be remembered as the ambassador of Leiden University – a special place to work and belong to, where open debate is always possible, where the world can see what we have to offer and where everyone is welcome and can be themselves.

Let’s return to who Annetje is before we close with the final question. What’s your guilty pleasure?

I love swimming in the sea. I went yesterday! (14 November, ed.)

Is there something that as an alumnus you would like to see at our University/faculty that we don’t have yet? I’m responsible for the University’s alumni policy, so I have looked into what the Leiden University Fund (LUF) and the central alumni department does and organises for and with alumni.  I think Leiden Law School is a wonderful faculty. A lot of interdisciplinary research is conducted there and it’s a leading player in that respect. We need to promote that far more, also among our alumni. The Law School is still seen too much as a classical faculty even though it is actually very progressive. The postacademic training courses on offer in Leiden are also fantastic, and have a very good reputation. Something to consider perhaps is that when I worked at Utrecht University, we organised evenings around a certain theme and invited various social partners. We could do that here too, perhaps linked to developments with Leiden Law Park, the interdisciplinary SAILS programme, or on sustainable development and law.

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