De Volkskrant, one of the biggest Dutch newspapers, ran a long profile piece on Rianne Letschert when Maastricht University chose her as rector magnificus.
Her appointment in the post, equivalent to a provost at a US university, was seen as something different: the youngest female rector ever at a Dutch university (she is 40) and an appointee from outside Maastricht. Traditionally, a Dutch university chooses its rector internally from the ranks of its own professors.
The newspaper’s headline described her as goedlachse powervrouw, or the “smiley power lady”, as Professor Letschert noted (no doubt with some amusement) in her inauguration speech in September.
Before that, she had been director of Tilburg University’s International Victimology Institute and also chair of the Young Academy, the section of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences devoted to younger researchers. In 2015, she and her team at Tilburg had won a prestigious grant for a project on how to offer redress, and implement rights to reparations, after genocide and war crimes.
But that led her to rethink her direction. “I realised that the reason I was so happy that I got the grant was not so much that I could do that research – which I really, truly love doing – but it was because I could give younger team members a decent contract instead of these very short-term contracts,” Professor Letschert told Times Higher Education.
Speaking to younger researchers, she found them increasingly becoming “cynical and very negative about career prospects and also very competitive”.
So in her rector’s role, Professor Letschert wants to further a different vision of academic life. “I very much believe in what I call team science,” she said.
Professor Letschert reached for a Dutch expression to outline another aim: “We don’t want…the sheep with five feet.”
That refers, she continued, to the widespread trend for academics to be required to excel on an impossible number of fronts: winning grants, publishing, having research impact and teaching, among other things. She praised Maastricht for allowing academics to become professors based on excellence in teaching, for example, rather than demanding excellence on all fronts.
Another issue Professor Letschert wants to work on is “inclusiveness” for students.
“What you see is that sometimes educational programmes become more and more selective…A large group of students that do have the proper pre-diploma to access higher education are now excluded,” Professor Letschert said. But she added: “That’s not what we want in Maastricht; to be only an elite university, where only the most bright students come.”
In her career, she added, she has taught students “from very different backgrounds”, including those who “brought a lot of societal knowledge, coming from post-conflict countries, or coming from marginalised communities in the Netherlands. I think to have that mixture in your classroom will bring a lot to each and every student in the classroom.”
Professor Letschert wants to increase Maastricht’s numbers of Dutch-born ethnic minority professors and female professors. On the latter issue, she said that “within our own university we have to put some higher targets”.
She said Maastricht was “love at first sight” for her, given the university’s international and interdisciplinary nature. She has also been impressed by its distinctive use of problem-based learning in the classroom, seeing how students “become active and understand what they are learning instead of only consuming and then forgetting when they leave Maastricht”.
In her inauguration speech, Professor Letschert noted that the city of Maastricht has long had the reputation of being internationally oriented, which is “not always easy”, particularly now when “the attraction of the importance of diversity is under pressure. And yet, diversity is the answer to many of our concerns, [including] for an organisation such as a university.”
What she did she mean by that point?
“It’s to do with the current atmosphere within our country and several European countries towards people coming from other countries, be it as a refugee or a migrant,” Professor Letschert said.
She sees a responsibility for academics who have researched in these areas to “join the public debate” and set out the facts.
Professor Letschert said: “Sometimes you read stories that are not giving the facts: when it’s about numbers coming to the Netherlands, when it’s about failures in integration, when it’s about criminality. There’s so much rubbish being published that there is an importance for science, for academics, to counter that and enter into a discussion that might be an answer to that fear.”
She chose to use the word “diversity” in her speech “because often if you use the word…it’s almost like a swear word”. There is a view, she continued, in some quarters of society that “we don’t want to talk diversity, who wants that now?”
“I will fight against that,” she added.