Baller stepped down as 3mE Dean: ‘The years of extreme growth and workload are behind us’

Dean Theun Baller bids 3mE farewell after 10 years. How does he look back at his time there? A chat about space, diversity, the future and why the name 3mE will disappear.

Theun Baller is not leaving TU Delft yet, but will become an advisor to the Executive Board. (Photo: Monique van Zeijl)

Theun Baller (65) will step down as Dean of the Faculty of Mechanical, Maritime and Materials Engineering (3mE). While he will not yet leave TU Delft, we asked him for a farewell interview. We talk to him in his modest room right above the main entrance to the Faculty.

If you now look at 3mE, what are you most proud of?
“We are a great group of people with enthusiastic researchers and students who have a positive attitude and create a positive atmosphere. I have played a part in creating this over the last 10 years.”

What do you look back on with less pleasure?
“While we got through it well in the end, it was not nice having to place limitations on people over the last few years because of Covid. We had to say to staff members that they had to work from home and to students that they had to follow lectures online.”

Across the country it seems that many students do not attend lectures physically anymore after Covid. Do you see this too?
“Fifty per cent of our curriculum consists of projects and there has hardly been a time when project teaching was not allowed. So, the bachelor students kept the routine going of studying here. We do see this phenomenon in lecture attendance though. Some students find it convenient to follow lectures online. We should not be overly dramatic about it though as before Covid many were already using Collegerama.”

‘Space is tight’

The Faculty’s building was already too small when you became Dean. Is this a welcome development?
“There are enough lecture halls on campus for the students. In general we do the projects in our own building, but we cannot always give the project groups enough space. That is a big thing for them. Space is tight. I do have the impression that although it is inconvenient, they look for a place for it somewhere else on campus or in a private place.
It is even more difficult for our members of staff, it is very tight in the faculty. At the moment, this fits the general preference of staff members to work from home two days a week, but it is a real art to match the two.”

The Faculty building is a listed historic building so you cannot do much. Have you thought about other options in the last few years?
“We made use of the only option available: an extra storey on a building on the back terrain. As a dean, I cannot develop my own property. We asked the Executive Board if a sizeable new building can be constructed behind this building. This is currently not in the Campus Strategy (TU Delft’s real estate plans, Eds.). We first need to be included in this before anything can be done.”

Reading your welcome interview, I noticed that things were tight for 3mE then too. Short of space and of people to teach the students.
“Some things have changed as there are now twice as many students as then. The huge increase in student numbers started in 2013. More young people are going to university and a Faculty like 3mE offers a very wide range of degree programmes so they can still go in all sorts of directions.”

Is this why almost one third of the first years stop studying?
“This is indeed a feature of wide degree programmes as we accept everyone, also students who come out of high school with lower grades or who are simply interested in technology and do not yet want to specialise during the bachelors. We also have the Clinical Technology course here at 3mE that has a cap on student intake of 100 students. Those students do not drop out. On top of this, the percentage of students that earn a bachelor’s degree after four years has risen from 22% ten years agi, to 70% now. This is because we turned the whole curriculum around and the programme is much more structured now.”

A hot topic in the academic world is gender equality. In May 2022, only 7.9% of the professors at 3mE were women, compared to an already low TU Delft average of 17.1%. 3mE is bottom of the table. Only 24% of the students are female and change is not really in sight. Does this worry you?
“We are not proud of this. The women who are professors now graduated 20-25 years ago and they were in the minority. We are fishing in an almost empty pond. Of the tenure trackers that we took on last year, 35% are women so that is not too bad. 24 percent women among students is also quite something, as it was 1 percent. Last year, we celebrated our very first female graduate exactly 100 years before that. The second was only 50 years later. We have a long way to go and it takes time.

‘We do not yet realise that our values can exclude people’

When you became Dean, you thought that the Faculty 3mE was not a very cohesive community. What is it like now?
“We have done a lot about this (in Dutch) and that has helped, because with mechanical engineering we are number five in global rankings. We have clubbed together and devoted a lot of attention to teaching. Previously, researchers’ attitude was that teaching was something they simply had to do. But without teaching there is no university. Teaching is not a punishment. To emphasise this in the changes to the curriculum, we decided to have the large subjects in the bachelor’s given by professors. So our tenure trackers start with the master’s. Imperceptibly, this change increased solidarity. Are we doing everything well? No. We are still not inclusive enough and are doing little to encourage diversity. If we put more thought and energy into it, diversity will follow.”

What sorts of things are you thinking about?
“From the way information is shared to active engagement of mentors, or whether or not to walk around in overalls. Everything and anything can help make people feel at home. How do we deal with first generation students and who do not know if they should go to the introduction week or not. We in Delft do not yet realise enough that our standards, values and mores can exclude people.”

There are a lot of students now. Can 3mE cope with a larger influx?
“We do not want to grow. We want to motivate all young people for whom our courses would be a perfect fit. TU Delft will never be a perfect reflection of society, but hopefully it will be so of the people that fit here. It is a shame that there are whole groups of secondary school pupils that do not start at 3mE. We do not reach them, have difficulty getting them on board or cannot make them feel at home on open days. Should we manage to get some of these pupils in, others may then not come and things may even out.”

What is the perfect number of students for 3mE?
“You cannot say. If you compare us to Aachen or Munich or other universities with mechanical engineering and see how big their degree programme is compared to others like electrical or civil engineering, then we were in fact too small in the past. We are now comparable and I do not expect further major growth unless something significant changes somewhere. The years of extreme growth and workload (in Dutch) are behind us.”

How high is work pressure now?
“It is still high of course. University jobs are busy anyway. You have to learn to deal with it by not doing certain things, for instance. There simply is pressure and it is mostly the young people who are in uncertain positions. But I find it hard to say whether it is too much. The one tenure tracker has no problem with a temporary contract while it makes another really nervous. We are now looking into whether things could be different across TU Delft. But the start of the career ladder is uncertain for everyone. It is even more uncertain in a company.”

‘On 1 January 2023, 3mE will get a new name’

During your term as Dean you filled positions that opened up several times, such as the third member of the Executive Board in 2020 and the position of Dean of TPM in 2016. During Covid you coordinated the investigation into reopening TU Delft. How do you combine all of these?
“Well it means that you are busier, and that the people around you are busier too. But if I am asked to do something and I can fit it in, I will do it.”

What are you going to do now?
“For the first time in 46 years, I am going on holiday for two whole months. I agreed with the Executive Board that I will then act as an advisor on certain subjects should they need help, such as the current tenure track policy. I do not yet know the other subjects. They are all related to processes which are relevant to TU Delft as a whole. I will be one of the Policy Advisors at the Strategic Development Department. That way, the university can benefit from the fact that I am available for two more years.”

Do you have any tips for your successor Fred van Keulen?
“He is a highly experienced Professor in this Faculty. So my only tip is to enjoy the job and support people in developing their talents.
I will leave something else behind though. On 1 January 2023, 3mE will get a new name: Mechanical Engineering. We are changing it because the current name is not inclusive with the three Ms. We also work in robotics, health care, systems and control, and in the energy transition. To attract international staff, we have looked at what comparable faculties are called and this is Mechanical Engineering.”

Before you became Dean you worked in industry for a long time. Looking back, what is the difference?
“I have been thinking about this. Being bottom-up organisations, universities can adapt to the kind of work that needs to be done. The dean or the board then comes up with a matching strategy. This is the other way round in companies. Then you may be unlucky that the board has got it wrong. This accounts for many companies going under at a certain point. Universities have existed for a long time for a reason.

Editor in chief Saskia Bonger

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