Meet the Campus • the new SBE Dean: Arjen van Witteloostuijn

As of early this year, the School of Business and Economics has a new dean: Arjen van Witteloostuijn. Get to meet him in the next blog of our Meet the Campus series and read on to see what vision he has for the Vrije Universiteit! Also, he gives some very useful tips about the political game we all have to play in order to reach our goals.

Could you please introduce yourself shortly?

I am Arjen van Witteloostuijn, the new dean here, who once graduated in Groningen in Business administration, Economics and Psychology. I did my Ph.D. in Maastricht, a few years later, in the micro-foundation of macroeconomics.  I then made my way through about 9 universities, to end up here. That is it, in short.

What is your career path?

I became a scientific assistant in Groningen. I was asked to do so during my studies. But very quickly after that, I left for Maastricht, and I got promoted there. After a little bit of this and a little bit of that, I became a professor an then became the dean in Maastricht. After my deanery, I went abroad to Warwick (the UK). Then, Groningen gave a ring, if I didn’t want to come back. They needed someone to set up a new department and a new study, so I did that. In the meantime, I went abroad to Durham the UK), and I was a member of the faculty board of the Business School there. Shortly after that, I received the Flemish Spinoza price, called Odysseus. They give you 2.5 million euro to conduct research, plus a research professorship for five years. So that it is what I did. I also was a professor in Cardiff. I gave that up, also because of the Brexit. That was very irritating. Many universities there are simply facing difficult challenges. You have the top schools like the London Business School, Oxford and Cambridge etc, and they will be okay, but the rest will have to concur some hard times. They will be cut off from all EU research resources if nothing changes. They will not be in the Erasmus program anymore. International students will have to get a visa to travel to the Continent, and maybe that will prevent lots of students from coming.

Most recently, I was affiliated with Tilburg. I was department head, vice-dean of research, and I set up a new school there: The Tilburg School of Governance. And now I am here.

You are the dean of the School of Business & Economics since February 1, what is exactly your position?

In fact, I am, well how would you call that, the boss? That sounds a bit silly. It is all regulated according to the law, but the dean is the head of this entire faculty and reports to the Executive Board. You are not a boss here in the sense of an autocrat, but you are the director, the ”CEO”.

Why did you apply for this position, you mentioned that you have a lot of experience, but why particularly at the Vrije Universiteit?

I have been a dean once before, and was a member of several boards and/or run institutes. So I always managed teams. In Tilburg, it was either time to become a dean again, or just stay back, and be a professor and do research behind a glass door and do not interfere with anything. It was really one or the other. Somewhere in between is annoying. I did not know the Vrije Universiteit very well, actually. I hardly knew any people here.

What is your favorite thing about your position? Why does this position appeal to you?

The main point of the job is that you need to try to make many decisions that facilitate the faculty and staff so that the people can do their job right and flourish. Ideally, in the upcoming 3 to 4 years, the School can become the best of the Netherlands. I think that is possible. It is now in second or third, that means that we have to beat Rotterdam and Tilburg. You need to create a space were beautiful things can happen in the fields of education, research and impact. It is important to internationalize, so to bring more international students here. Also with commercial education, called executive teaching, there is still lots to do. The revenue of executive teaching in Tilburg is 3 times as much as here. So we can have that here as well. These things are promising because of the location of the Zuidas. Targeted alliances, in terms of promotion and promotion education, we will intensify the collaboration with Rotterdam and the UvA. We also expand towards Business, which we now mainly do with Economics and Econometrics.

And what are the downsides?

It is a bit childish, but there is a saying that “you do not wish your worst enemy employees”. But it comes down to: there is always something going on with people. Either someone is sick or cannot work, or there is a department where they fight a lot with each other. There is a lot of fun with people, but there is always a group that needs a lot of attention. In fact, it means that you have to spend 95% of your time on 5% of the people. Also, but I do not find that annoying, you also have to be a politician on campus. You must play chess on multiple boards at once. You have to make sure that things go as they should. You have both a university and faculty interest. You need to obtain a relationship with other faculties and the world of services. In the latter case, there is really a lot to be gained. The quality of IT really needs to be increased. The scheduling really needs to be improved. Marketing and communication is really no longer up to date. And so on. There are a number of important things that need to be brought up to level. It is difficult because it is now centralized, and then you cut costs, but that does not mean the quality increases.

Are these also your points of improvements?

Absolutely, but you cannot do that alone This is complicated, because each participant has his/her own interests. It is politics, right! From the moment on that you have a group of two people, politics is involved. As soon as two people interact, when the utility functions do not have an overlap, politics are involved. Politics are everywhere. Where ever you end up in your work later on, some form of politics will be there. When you are young, you are naive, and you might not get that. But the older you get, the more you will realize this. But the first step is, whatever you do, and I can totally recommend you doing this: try to understand everything about the other person and find out what the other thinks is important. If you master this, you can better play in the game. It is not always easy. Sometimes you will make mistakes because people can sometimes pretend very well.

Does this help you to advance?

Yes! It really depends what you want. If you want to make a career and have an impact on bigger groups, then it is important to master the political game. So good luck!

Could you tell what the future vision of the SBE/University is?

Well, I said this during my speech; the strategy of a university is not rocket science. It is really simple. You must provide good, preferably excellent, education, try to do that as best as possible, and improve that; nicer, more beautiful, different, innovative, new training, new combinations, stay on top of it. It is going very well now, but you have to stay busy with it. You have to conduct good, preferably excellent research, and make sure it is made possible. But also, I find this a slight change of direction, looking at where you can do research with outside parties, so that this has an immediate impact. Do not just write for your own academic parish. Thirdly, that has to do with this, that you have to think about your place in the society. You have to do things that contribute something good to society. Our main contribution is actually that we educate people who join in the labor market later. The training of young people who then go into society is of course the foundation. Also in education, it is really important to think about the two things that happen at the same time, digitalized and personalized education, because different people need different education, which can be facilitated by modern technology. There is still too much uniformity. Also, It is important that you develop important skills. Only knowing the text and the sums from the book is not enough. It is also important that we take online teaching into account because this is evolving very quickly.

What do you think of the University as a workspace?

This university made a mistake during the financial crisis, by having money in a bank account in Iceland. This bank went bankrupt. They also bought derivatives, to hazard against increasing interest. The interest percentages have done a lot of moving since, but it never increased. So, to cut a long story short, this university had to face some hard financial times compared to other universities. By now, it is going a lot better. But it can always be improved.

How was your student time?

Amazing! I studied in Groningen. I only studied in one city, so I cannot really compare. But according to me, it was the best city of all. I was a member of a place where you could go if everything else was closed, called the Walrus. I also went to the Vera regularly, something you can compare with Paradiso. I can still remember that I came in contact with hazing stuff during my introduction week, but I did not want to do that at all. I simply refuse to participate in such activities. I guess am too much of an anti-authoritarian for that.

What do you like to do in your free time?

Family, fun things. Reading the newspaper, walking, watching tv, cycling, swimming, going on vacation, visiting the cinema, listening to loud music – quite standard stuff. I have 2 daughters: one is 24 and is doing a master in Utrecht, the other is 29 and is writing her thesis at the UvA. Getting children young, also means that you are free again earlier.

What is the weirdest thing that you have experienced recently?

I do not know much about it, so I cannot really say, but everything about the Verrekijker. I do not know what is going on there. I have not been involved in any way. There should come something vivid there. But, yet again, I cannot judge, but it still has a weird feeling to it.

Curious to meet other people on the campus? Find the rest of our Meet the Campus series here!