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Dean Paul Wouters: ‘By working together we can bring out the best in each other’

The digital society is vulnerable, as we have seen over the past weeks. Our Dean Paul Wouters shares his thoughts and encourages to recover during the time around the holidays.

Dear colleagues,

At the end of this year, I want to share with you an experience about the vulnerability of the digital society and how we want to handle that at our faculty. On 23 November 2021 I received a letter, signed by many of you (170), in which you expressed your concerns about the cameras that were installed by the University Services Department (UFB) in university buildings as decided by the Executive Board in consultation with the University Council. Of course I replied by return of email (unlike what Mare suggested recently) that I take this very seriously and would discuss this with the board. It has been two weeks now, and we and our Scientific Directors have been elucidated by the UFB, the UFB is informing the Faculty Council in great detail this week, and it is clear that the video published by Mare is, unlike suggested, not a recording of one of those cameras. As it turned out, the university was not infringing on privacy after all.

Is that the end of it? Was the urgent letter redundant? I do not think so. On the contrary: I am glad to see that the vigilance within our faculty about the risks of the digital society is so very present. This commotion has taught the university that we must take much more care when introducing technology that is collecting data, even when that data is anonymized immediately (as is the case here). The goal was creating a safe work environment in the ever-continuing corona crisis. Because the risk of contamination is directly linked to the number of encounters a person has, it is important to know how many people are present in a building at a given time. It is even more important because our staff and students differ in the risk they face and the way they experience that. And we want that each and every one of them can work while feeling safe. Counting technology is helpful to reach that goal. But more than counting is undesirable.

The careful set-up of a data-rich society where technology is permanently connected therefore requires a larger understanding of the fact that often not utilizing but rather restricting the technological possibilities should be the goal of policy. And for that, social and behavioural sciences are useful and necessary. This end-of-year holiday (during which my husband and I will prepare a delicious Christmas dinner) I plan to read the large tome The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Soshana Zuboff, because I have not had the time yet the past year.

I hope that you too can find the time to recover these coming weeks. I see how our faculty community is searching for balance: how much space do I take, how much space do I need, how much space can I give? The caretaker cabinet strongly urges us to work from home, but education remains open under certain conditions. It is and remains a challenge to carry out work at your home office, whether that is a study or your dinner table. Work and private life blend together more easily this way. It is difficult to really pull the plug at the end of the day. Because of the passion and motivation that we share for our beloved social and behavioural sciences, we can overstep our own boundaries again and again without noticing. That is something we have to keep an eye on. Also – and especially – when it comes to each other.

During the last almost two years, we have learnt a lot about working from home and hybrid work. But it remains complicated. The balance between giving and taking up space is easier to find when in conversation with each other. I want to encourage you to engage in and continue the conversation about this with your colleagues and superiors. Share your experiences and learn from each other. By working together we can bring out the best in each other.

I recommend you to take time off around the holidays, just like my fellow board members. Throw a bed sheet over your home office, lock the door of your study or put your stuff away in the shed and take the time and space to calm down and connect with your family or close friends.

Besides that, we the Faculty Board have decided to not have meetings between 22 December 2021 and 11 January 2022. We already put this to practice: many meetings have disappeared from our agendas. After a refreshing walk along the city moats of Leiden, the meetings will cease. The New Year’s reception marks for us the start to dive into our work again with renewed energy.

Take the time for good talks, start moving to gain new insights, tackle that one job that you keep putting off. The holiday season can be a time of contemplation for us all. If any excellent proposals are the result of that, then I am awaiting those with interest.

I wish you all a good December month.

Paul Wouters
Dean Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

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