Huib Pols says goodbye

The final word

Huibert Pols (Dordrecht, 1952) is leaving his job as Rector for real this time, a position he held for almost five years. ‘That drive students have, that critical attitude that keeps you from becoming mechanical, I’m going to miss that.’

It’s unexpected, chickens in the Rector’s room. And yet, they’re here: in frames, as sculpture, and perhaps most notably in the analogy the university boss uses to describe his departure. Pols: ‘These days, you’re expected to spend sixty percent of your time on teaching and forty percent on research, but scientists need some room to range free. I’ve always rejoiced in the fact that my boss was not breathing down my neck. One needs freedom to develop ideas.’


NAME: Huibert Adriaan Pieter Pols 
AGE: 65
STUDY: Medicine
CAREER: Doctor at AZR Dijkzicht, Professor Internal Medicine at Erasmus University, Chief of Internal Medicine, dean FGG, vice-president of the Executive Board at Erasmus MC and Rector since 2013.


In 1971 you went to study Medicine, and you graduated in 1977. Why did you pick Erasmus University?
‘I actually wanted to go to Utrecht, the place to be for a student in those days, but I was eliminated by lottery. Nowadays Rotterdam has become equally allluring, but in the seventies the city was still up-and-coming. It took me years to recognise there was such pioneer spirit involved, and that can-do mentality they never lost.’

What kind of student were you?
‘A good-natured one, I would say. One of those ‘nominal = normal’ students, I managed to finish it all within the allotted time. My true passion didn’t arrive until the second phase of my studies, when thing suddenly became about actual patients. It wasn’t just about knowledge being passed on, it was about knowledge being applied. Then it all became so much easier to retain.’

What, would you say, are the greatest differences between then and now?
‘The methods used for studying are very different to begin with, I read from a book; they’re on-screen. Whenever professors asked us a question, they’d give us a day or two to find the answers in the library. Now I can find one within fifteen seconds on my smartphone.’

What is the upshot?
‘Things are more fleeting; knowledge becomes less sticky. Because now you’ll have the answer alright, but you don’t really know the background mechanics. Whereas if you have to look things up, you tend to read everything associated with that. On the other hand, the agility contemporary students show in being able to deal with all these possibilities, connecting dots and thus connecting areas of interest, I think is an amazing asset. In addition, students have become much more assertive. We used to occupy this and that and the other building, but once they ran out of beer, we just went home.’

So there’s less free-range activity.
‘People’s everyday lives are much more scheduled these days. In that respect, we reflect society. That rat race, that jumping through accountability hoops is noticeable in many work areas, but the impact is even greater at university. I have found the government lacking, in terms of trust. Then if you take into account – and this is Manager Me speaking – that the resources we receive per student have decreased with 25 percent since 2000, it chafes. Overall, the student body has increased with 20 percent. Can we handle those ballooning numbers? We need to make sure not to wear people out. In the end what it all comes down to is, ‘How can we create talent?’ By giving students the resources to discover that talent, to experiment with that talent. That also includes unhindered thought. So, talent is the overarching theme of the transfer of Rectorship.’

You were appointed Rector in 2013. What were your goals at that time?
‘I wanted to create better connections between faculties, build bridges in that archipelago. Given the specialized character of our university – we’re not a broad, comprehensive university like the University of Amsterdam, to name one – we have a responsibility towards society and the enormous challenges it presents.  The assumption that you’ll be able to solve those from your monodiscipline is pure hubris. In my days it was self-evident: you went to college, declared a specialty, found a job and your expert opinion was untouchable from that day forward. But those days are over. People will have to choose several careers and we will have to support them in it.’

Looking back after four years, do you consider the mission accomplished?
‘Well, accomplished... there’s still lots to do, ha ha.  But the Erasmus Initiatives, the Community for Learning & Innovation, Challenge Accepted and its Endowment Fund, as well as the willingness among deans to share their best practices, those are things that give me joy, as a liaison officer.’

What sort of hurdles did you encounter on the way?
‘Faculties prize their considerable independence, shall we say. Not just typical for Rotterdam, to be honest. Although I don’t crave power, as a doctor I’m used to making split-second decisions. It was a learning curve to embrace the fact that the orientation and interests in exact sciences as well as humanities and behavioural sciences are different.’

Did you have to extend yourself?
‘Certainly. Yes. But I also managed to establish connections.'

You believe it’s important to have more female professors. Out of all fourteen universities in the Netherlands, Erasmus University lags behind with only thirteen procent. What’s going on?
‘Two things come into play. When I first arrived, there was this diversity committee that could tell you exactly what was wrong, but didn’t do anything about it. That only soured the mood. I appointed an officer to develop an actual policy, Hanneke Takkenberg. I took her for a tour around the faculties. I won’t tell you where it happened exactly, but the things you hear... It made me blush. Comments such as, ‘Surely you can’t let a woman get in front of a lecture hall.’ So we immediately appointed a diversity officer at the faculties as well. A second hurdle is that people tend to start as distinguished professor before moving on to a regular position as professor. That’s very different from other universities, and we really need to look into that. It will happen eventually, but not overnight. Fortunately, we’ve made significant progress.’

Does it embarrass you?
‘It does, in part because at Erasmus MC I did manage to get things off the ground. Mixed teams perform better. You’re sellling yourself short scientifically if you decide not to choose that approach.’

Is Erasmus University an Old Boys Network in the end?
‘I’d say they’re saying goodbye to that tradition as we speak. But we have come a long way, that’s true.’

Will you predict an expected outcome?
‘I think in Medicine, thirty to forty percent will be female around 2025. At Erasmus School of Economics and Rotterdam School of Management we have a more substantial revolution coming.’

That will fall to your successor, Rutger Engels.
‘Among other things. Getting management in order is eminently important. The Erasmus Initiatives deserve further development, and opportunities exist to create intersections within several fields of study. But this subject requires maintenance as well, certainly. I have a good feeling based on the conversations we’ve had on the subject.’

‘How do you create talent? By providing students with the resources to discover their talent’

What will you miss about Erasmus University?
‘That dynamic mood. I’m an early bird, I’m usually at the office by seven, so I will have to get used to the fact that it’s all going to change. I’ll miss the students, especially. I used to have walk-ins in the mornings, and sometimes I’d have deeply confidential conversations. What those students gave me, was a unique insight into the lay of the land within certain faculties. The one reason I always stuck with university is that drive that students display; students who go the extra mile, who are willing to rail against all that’s good an holy to defend their opinion. Sometimes they would ask me questions, and I’d think: I really have no idea. That drive, that critical attitude that keeps you from becoming mechanical, I am going to miss that.’

A little bird told me your wife Lientje is the secret force behind Mister Pols.
‘Without a doubt. Lientje is my social conscience. In the morning she’ll tell me, ‘It’s your secretary’s birthday, so there’s a present in your briefcase.’ She stops by as well, keeps an interest, knows everybody. I’m sure at some time or other they must have thought, ‘Who’s in charge here, him or her? Ha ha.’

Did she manage to have her own career?
‘Lientje most certainly had a career, she was a teacher, although I think she did sacrifice a lot for our communal happiness. Says the man who fights for diversity. She’s three years my senior, which is part of the reason why I wanted to retire now. We want to be able to do fun things in good health.’

You will also be conferred emeritus status. What will you do with all that spare time?
‘Well, I’m already doing things. I’m Captain of Science at Topsector Life Sciences & Health, I’m on the Supervisory Board of the Doelen theatre, I recently became vice-president of the Supervisory Board at  St. Antonius Hospital…’

Don’t you have any hobbies, Sir?
‘Indeed I do, I want to refurbish old furniture. With my sons I maintain an old Citroën Deux Chevaux, and I’m thinking of restoring a second oldtimer. But I also want to be able to take Lientje to an exposition in Groningen spontaneously.’

Finally, what message would you like to give to the new crop of students?
‘Choose your passion, never compromise about what you really want, and mobilize everybody out there to have faith in your passion. That’s how I did it. Solo, I was not such a hero. It took connections with others to help me grow.’ 

TEXT: Eva Hoeke
PHOTO’S: Michelle Muus

Huib Pols