is a doer. She is still getting used to the idea that as from 1 September, she will be the new Rector Magnificus of the University of Groningen (UG). But she already has plans for the future of our university. As decisiveness is one of her defining features, her new role will involve a lot more than devising policy.
Scherpen prefers short lines of communication. ‘People with good ideas must be able to voice them, irrespective of their position within the organization’, says the new Rector Magnificus. This is why she has always been approachable as a professor and as director of the Groningen Engineering Center. Her door is always open, unless she is in a meeting. She would like to continue this open-door practice as Rector Magnificus, but realizes that this may not be feasible. Anyone who comes to pitch an idea with the new Rector Magnificus should ensure that it is well substantiated. As an applied mathematician, Jacquelien Scherpen is a logical thinker. ‘If you have sound arguments, you’ll convince me. That's my style.’
Scherpen intends to work with the staff and student populations to uphold the quality of our teaching and research. ‘Our research is held in high esteem across the globe. We need to uphold this reputation and ensure that we raise our profile in areas where we are less visible’, she says resolutely. ‘This is the way to attract and keep the best researchers.’ She considers a good balance between monodisciplinary and interdisciplinary research to be essential. ‘People must be able to develop their ideas, whether they are successful or not. Having said that, it is also our job to search for solutions to the major challenges currently facing society. You do this by forging connections and conducting high-quality interdisciplinary research.’
The UG is well-equipped to contribute to the required transitions, Scherpen ascertains. ‘We have the broadest range of disciplines of all Dutch universities; arts, sciences, and humanities, as well as technology. Other universities are gradually catching up, but we've had all these disciplines in house for much longer. Here in the Northern Netherlands, we are already playing a major role in transitions in the fields of energy, resources, digitization, agriculture, and food. But also, of course, thanks to our partnerships as the University of North, and the four Schools of the UG. We must continue to expand this collaboration.’
Universities in the Netherlands are in troubled waters. But recent developments relating to internationalization, collaboration with the fossil industry, and social safety did not put Jacquelien Scherpen off applying for this position. On the contrary, they served to strengthen her resolve, but in a nuanced way. As an example she cites the energy transition, in which her field means that she plays a major role. ‘Like so many other disciplines, science and technology are universal and not linked to a specific country. Our students live in an international world, and we obviously need the whole world on board for the energy transition.’ Scherpen thinks that restricting intake by setting language criteria or imposing strict knowledge safety measures is counter-productive. ‘We have a duty to do our best to help with ongoing shortages in certain sectors, such as technology, education, and healthcare. And we must organize our degree programmes so that we can cope with any challenges that the future may hold. At the same time, we mustn’t be naive. We need to think about solutions to the housing crisis, for example, and the pressures of work.’
Creative teaching and research, fuelled by ideas, is high on Scherpen’s wish list. ‘Minister Dijkgraaf (Education, Culture & Science) has stated that he wants to instil peace and space in the higher education sector. I would like our university to provide people with the peace and space they need to think creatively, in socially safe surroundings.’ She considers social safety to be essential. The UG can do more in this respect, says Scherpen. First of all, we must never lose sight of it. ‘You can’t completely eradicate unacceptable behaviour, it’s a fact of life, but we can arrange our structures in a way that minimizes the possibility of unacceptable behaviour.’
Polarization within society is a point for concern, she says. Personally, she prefers to think in shades of grey. ‘I’m not quick to voice a radical standpoint. I like to listen to various points of view before I form an opinion. We must keep talking to each other. But not only talk; we must also listen. However, this is complicated when you come across people who are unwilling to listen to reason.’ Here too, Scherpen looks for the nuances when putting the changes in society into an international context: ‘Throughout the world, young people (including our students) are instigating important changes. I see this as a very valuable contribution. But let's keep the dialogue open.’
Scherpen is due to go to Japan shortly, where she will attend a large conference before taking a holiday. She will use the time to take a break from the hectic plans and preparations for becoming Rector Magnificus. ‘The thing I will miss most is the substantive contact with students. I have always enjoyed this part of the job.’ She will probably still bump into her students in the sports hall, where her volleyball team regularly pits its strength against a student team.’ But first of all, we hope that Jacquelien Scherpen will have a relaxing holiday, so that she can start her job as our Rector Magnificus with renewed vigour on 1 September. Full of fighting spirit.
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