Departing supervisor: ‘What has already been done, is less interesting to me’

Architecture alumna Laetitia Smits van Oyen was a member of the TU Delft Supervisory Board for eight years. How does she look back? An interview with the woman of wild ideas.

Laetitia Smits van Oyen: “I’m less interested in tram 19 than in the Hyperloop.” (Photo: Personal archive)

Can you explain for those who ask what a member of the Supervisory Board does?
“I served on the Auditing Committee (one of the three committees of the Supervisory Board, eds.) so it was simply a question of adding up and subtracting. We checked that the books were balanced and were in line with guidelines and strategies, see whether risks were in focus and procedures in order. If I had any doubts about anything, I asked for an explanation.
Apart from that, I tried to challenge the Executive Board. With only three members, it has a lot to manage. It is sometimes good to ask different kinds of questions than the usual questions, or propose alternatives, just to shake them up. Take the huge growth in student numbers, for example. How should this be handled? You need to talk about these things openly.”

Do you mean, for example, the position that some bachelor programmes should remain in Dutch? Does the Executive Board first discuss this with the Supervisory Board?
“Of course it does. It would be odd if it did not do so and we would then wonder what else they do that they do not discuss. The relationship must be transparent, open and based on trust.”

What subjects were closest to your heart over the years?
“The EEMCS building (Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science, eds.).”

‘Hang a parachute in every classroom’

EEMCS was going to be made obsolete and its staff were moved. After that it was uncertain for a long time what would happen to the building and then other staff moved back in. What happened?
“We discussed this a lot. There were positive and negative points to both keeping the building and letting it become obsolete. Another issue was that the building had so much character and was a TU Delft icon. So we talked about its future at many levels, even with valorisation experts. We even talked with the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment about issuing an architecture competition.”

If the building was so distinctive and one of a kind, should that not have been the immediate determining factor?
“The reason that the building was to be removed in the first place was 9/11 (the attack on the Twin Towers in New York, eds.). High rise buildings were only permitted if the top floors had such direct access that you could literally walk out. This was not the case with the EEMCS building. That meant that the top floors could not be used anymore unless a lift or staircase was added to the exterior shell. There have of course been broader considerations within the Supervisory Board around EWI, such as sustainability. And just to be clear, the entire building is being renovated and is safe to use. The upper floors are empty. The investigation into how we can use them is still ongoing. There can’t be a hundred people there, that is clear, but maybe there can be three. And then we could hang a parachute in every room.”

Jumping out of EEMCS with a parachute? Do you always have these wild ideas?
“Yes, definitely. What has already been done, is less interesting to me. I’m interested in what else can be done. These are the type of suggestions I raise when we meet with the Executive Board. I’m less interested in tram 19 than in the Hyperloop. If we run out of teaching space, just install one end of that tube on the Mekelweg and the other end in the region of Twente. Students could be there in 20 minutes.
In theory you could deepen the collaboration with the other technical universities so that there would be one TU Delft with one campus in Eindhoven and one in Twente, connected by the Hyperloop. It is not a question of actually doing this, but of being able to open your mind.”

‘I do not want women just because they are women’

TU Delft is bottom of the list of the number of female professors. Do you have any ideas on addressing this issue?
“I do not want women just because they are women. Competence and quality must be good. The point is that a lot of women are simply not interested in these positions. Jobs at the top are no joke. You have to work hard for many years to earn them.”

What about you?
“I had an IT company which I sold to Getronics. I could then join the company’s Board. After that I went to Curaçao with my family. I could spend time with my children and set up a business. That was much more fun than meeting at Getronics all day. Coming back after that was very hard though. You may think that you can start work again when the children have left home, but then there will be no opportunities. So I went for board positions, initially in the non-profit world.”

How did you come to TU Delft’s Supervisory Board?
“It was a man, Gert-Jan Kramer, who had to guts to ask me even though I did not have the obvious profile. I had never been a CEO or CFO. I was able to draw on my female qualities and raise questions that were more oriented to society and were wider than just today and tomorrow. Societal in the sense of more social, less focused on money and more on societal impact.”

Do you have any advice regarding the future of TU Delft?
“The goals should not be just to collaborate with more partners or retain or do away with courses. These should not be goals in themselves. Do not strive for more just for the sake of it, but concentrate on quality. Ensure that you are the best. And measure this against students’ perceptions and what they do after they graduate rather than measuring it against citation scores.”

  • Laetitia Smits van Oyen had a seat on the Supervisory Board for eight years, the maximum length of service. She is currently working as a trustee for various organisations including DKG, the holding group of Bruynzeel Kitchens. She also sometimes coaches young entrepreneurs. What tips does she give them? “Think about your customers: who could benefit from your product? This is more important than your believing in your own product.”
Editor in chief Saskia Bonger

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