Goodbye, Rob!

By Rens Bakker & Ivo DimitrovRob van der Vaart

With the end of his final semester approaching, Dean Rob van der Vaart sits with the Boomerang for one last interview. We talk about his vision of our college, the student body and, you guessed it, Dining Hall.

Walking through the door of Rob van der Vaart’s office in College Hall almost feels like visiting a fellow student. Looking out over the quad, student-made paintings hanging on the wall, it is strongly reminiscent of the well-known ‘personal link between UCU students and staff’. In many ways remaining a student, Rob is the embodiment of this principle. A teacher since UCU’s very beginnings and Dean since 2008, he has not shied away from direct involvement with students, whether it be listening to their stories outside of College Hall or bartending during a party.

Early years

Having seen the college grow and develop, how does he look back at those early years? At the beginning, Rob mostly experienced the atmosphere in his own courses. “There was a more adventurous, let’s-all-go-for-it type of spirit back then. Everyone who came here had chosen to do something completely weird in the Dutch system. It was a completely new concept.”

Replacing Hans van Himbergen as Dean widened his perspective on all aspects of the college. Rob speaks of a smooth transition. “UCU was in a good state. The year before we had officially been labeled as ‘excellent’ and there were no major concerns among students. It’s a very nice moment to step into an institution, when everything is running smoothly.” His plans revolved around protecting UCU against the risk of stagnation. “After the takeoff phase, there is always a risk. Students can apply for the wrong reasons, teachers can become bored. You have to cherish what is going well, but also try to develop new growth cycles.”

“There was a more adventurous, let’s-all-go-for-it type of spirit back then.”

Soon enough, however, much bigger problems arose. In spite of UCU’s growing status and popularity, the college was confronted with severe budget cuts. How was this dealt with? “It was clear that the regular costs of education were going to be a lot higher than the income. We had to do something. We had an internal debate with teachers, students, faculty members.”

So classes were enlarged, tutors took on more students, unpopular courses were cut. Although UCU’s core principles were not compromised – the tutor system and seminar-sized classes were kept largely intact – the decisions were not liked by everyone.

“Of course, that’s always the case. What you do then is: First, communicate well the urgency that this is a real problem. Second, you look for consensus.” It worked. “We came into a stable situation after that, which was sustainable for quite a long time.”

The students then, the students now

Besides the financial situation, Rob has also seen other things change over time, starting with the student body.

“Students are now more interested in governance and the quality of the program. It’s the ASC / ASIC achievement – when I started this was a very unpopular type of thing. Trying to involve more students in teaching and academics is now higher on the agenda.” Engagement has increased in other areas as well. “A larger group of students care about sustainability, green issues, energy. I mean, it was nobody seven or eight years ago!”

However, the past few years have seen stress emerge as a priority issue for many students. Does Rob agree that UCU has become more stressful?

“There is more complaining about stress – it is inevitable. UCU has become such an attractive option for many young people, that they might not oversee the implications of coming here as much as students ten years ago. It is the commodification of UCU. Nowadays many students find it demanding to work 50 hours a week, while you could say in the beginning more people were just consciously buying into the formula of working hard.”

Though he calls the problem “limited”, Rob stresses that he takes it seriously. “Students feel pressure. Whether it is justified or not does not matter, because it is a perception-issue. But they are here, we selected them, so we have to do something about it.”

“They might not oversee the implications of coming here as much as students ten years ago. It is the commodification of UCU.”

Is UCU managing to select the right type of student, then? “There’s so much anticipation in school nowadays, for parents and children. We get many more applicants that you can call ‘high achievers’.” He emphasizes that he does not find this a positive thing. “It is a risk in admissions. We are not very interested in people who just have high grades. But of course we have some.”

At the same time, the change in the student community is not limited to UCU. “It is probably also a function of the impossible labor market. Compared to ten years ago, many students feel they have to deliver something extraordinary on their CV to be successful. So the internal cultural change – which is slight and should not be exaggerated – also reflects the outside world changing.”
In the end, he does not think the pressure on students has changed substantially. “We just expect 50 hours of work per week. It’s also nice if people spend five hours on something that benefits the community. And then there’s so much time we make no claims about.”

Solidly the best?

With all the talk of pressure, competition and achieving, the question of UCU’s current position is inevitable. To use the classic expression, are we still excellent? This is especially relevant considering the greater numbers of University Colleges that students can choose from.

“I know that we are very much a benchmark for all the other colleges, and a source of advice for everything. In terms of the authority and the image we have among people who know us, what colleagues tell me who want their children studying here, or people from the business world, they clearly see that Utrecht is the most solid.”

But we used to be number one in the rankings. Not anymore.

“You have all these student questionnaires who give you a stamp based on a mixture of data. Who will actually react? How many students? It’s something you can only partially influence, so I do not bother much with these things. But judging from peers, from international universities our students go to, from the quality of work our graduates deliver, from awards and prizes they win and the other things they achieve, I think we are very solidly the best college.”

The fact that we get beaten in the rankings once in a while can be explained easily, in Rob’s eyes. “We were very strong in the beginning because when you have a pioneer attitude, there’s a joint feeling of pride shared by faculty and students. So it might well be that Leiden, not being that old, still has that spirit and comes up best in the rankings. Does that mean they are better than us? No, they just have more positive filled-in questionnaires, from more students. For the UCU community, it is natural that fewer students take pride in being part of it than ten years ago.”

While academically we might be strong, students have also shown concerns for the non-academic parts of the package. Dining Hall remains a problem in the eyes of many, despite multiple efforts to change that.

“It used to be much worse before the current formula,” Rob points out. “When I became Dean, students were complaining a lot. They asked us to improve the quality of the food, the variety, the freshness of the ingredients. That we did, and the costs went up for the whole college. So a new round of complaints started, because it became too expensive – much more expensive than it is now.”

Eventually the current system was implemented, with each student having their own individual budget. But students are still not happy. Why are the problems so difficult to solve? “People want very good quality for a low price. But this just doesn’t exist. It’s so obvious that the prices are realistic, but students don’t get it, or maybe they just don’t want it.”

“And I wouldn’t want it either. I would want to do my own thing. Yes, it is probably nice to have a general meeting place, but mandatory eating is no longer a realistic option. I don’t think we can develop it into something that students would really like. So it would be nice to get rid of it altogether.” UCU is currently exploring different catering options, and changes might be implemented in the long run.

The path ahead

Having discussed all of this, where does Rob think the college is heading? In fact, UCU recently developed a new strategic outlook, which also received input from UCU’s future Dean James Kennedy. “The quality of the study experience should obviously remain the focus. Creating new options and tracks for students, but also weeding out the curriculum every few years. We have to improve the student facilities as well; currently we have rather primitive classrooms. Next to it, I think we should promote more faculty involvement and interest in student life.”

Is this not rather difficult with a looming budget cut of 1.3 million euros?

“If the university wants a strong college, they will have to invest in it. Like they did in the past. Like they will always do when needed. I don’t want special treatment, but this is a different story.”

In the long term the college will continue to evolve as well. “Twenty years from now, I expect third-years will no longer live on campus. There might be dedicated student houses of UCU in the city. Also, I think the online component of our education will be much stronger, perhaps through online courses. It’s a natural tendency you can’t stop and it will bring diversity to our education.”

But in the end, Rob does not believe the college needs major changes. “If you have a place like UCU where all parameters are fundamentally in the right direction, something good will always come out of it. Teachers will be different, students will be different, but the essentials should be kept the same. Don’t change it! It’s the small classes, it’s the motivated students, it’s the promotion of student life.”

“I find it tragic how many people consider things to be stagnant if they don’t change. But I strongly believe that when the world changes, you need to try to keep what is good. Sure, it might not sound as spectacular… But the college is such a precious thing. Don’t spoil it!”

“If you have a place like UCU where all parameters are fundamentally in the right direction, something good will always come out of it.”

Indeed, this has been the guiding principle of Rob’s tenure as Dean. Guarantee that we continue firmly on the current course, and engage students as much as possible. “I have a real interest in individual students. I always tell them, if something is the matter, just come to me. And I really mean it.

Perhaps it is exactly that very particular openness that students will remember Rob for. “I am happy with this image. Because in the end it’s all about how individuals feel in this larger place. It reflects what I want – to be the Dean of the students.”


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