Jeroen van der Veer: ‘It is only logical that TU Delft concentrates on the energy transition’

After eight years, Shell’s former CEO Jeroen van der Veer is stepping down as Chair of the Supervisory Board of TU Delft. How does he look back on his years of service?

Jeroen van der Veer: “The rate of study delays in the Netherlands is high, and maybe that culture should not be considered the norm.” (Photo: Philips)

Some readers won’t know what the Supervisory Board does. Can you explain?
“We do three things. We monitor what is going on, share our own experiences and select the Executive Board. The Executive Board can take all sorts of decisions, but if its plans are very expensive, it needs to explain to the Supervisory Board why it needs such a large amount.”

Over the last eight years, we have hardly ever heard you, the Chair, in public. Why is this?
“This is how the system works. The Executive Board is the public face for students, staff and the political scene in The Hague. The Supervisory Board is tasked with ensuring that the Executive Board has the right people and takes action should there be any conflicts at the top level.”

How was your successor, Tijo Collot d’Escury, elected?
“The process starts with the candidate’s profile. For the external image it is always good if the person studied at TU Delft. We also look for experience on boards, understanding of issues and with selecting the people. The candidate also needs to prove that he/she is actively involved in the world of TU Delft, in this case in the University Fund. Then there are external factors. We now wanted someone who stands behind the convergence of TU Delft and Rotterdam and Leiden universities. We compiled lists of names and assessed them against all these factors. When we came up with a name, we presented it to the Minister of Education who appointed him.

‘The tendency to denigrate rankings is over’

The scientists who want to change academia believe that supervisory boards should be disbanded. They believe that researchers themselves should have the biggest say. The researchers should form a senate and appoint deans and rectors who are accountable to the senate. What do you think of this idea?
“If you think in abstract terms, you always need checks and balances. There are different ways to put these in place. The point is to do it effectively. I know that academics enjoy finding new ways to do things, and that is fine. It does not matter to me as long as there are checks and balances.”

The current Executive Board was appointed under your leadership. What is its most important task?
“First of all, I have the greatest respect for them. A company the size of TU Delft would have a larger executive body, but universities may not have more than three trustees. These three people thus bear a huge responsibility. They run the operations and at the same time adapt them for the future. The first job is very complicated given the huge growth in student numbers – about 50% in my time. This has major repercussions on money flows, human resources policy, buildings etc. You need to constantly think about how to best handle that growth. On top of this, they are now thinking about what post-corona TU Delft will be like. The fashionable term is ‘hybrid’, but what about policy? Should it be laisser-faire, or should there be ground rules? I would have liked to have gone through this.”

What do you see as your greatest achievement for TU Delft?
“I am extremely grateful to TU Delft for everything I have learned here. This is why I held this position. I will leave it to other people to say what my greatest achievement is. I would rather be modest and simply do my best and try to keep an eye on everything. What we do in the Supervisory Board is teamwork. If you had described a scenario of exploding student numbers while receiving less Government funding and a convergence with Leiden and Rotterdam eight years ago and asked me if we would be high in the rankings, my answer would probably have been that I didn’t think it likely. But TU Delft is high in the rankings and that makes me feel good.”

How important are the rankings to you?
“I have always found them important. When I started, there was a tendency to denigrate them somewhat, but that has changed. The idea of benchmarking and ranking has spread. It is a good indication of your reputation. It is like a self-fulling prophecy: if you score well, you will improve.”

‘People are always ready to judge’

Academia is almost begging the Minister for more money to avoid drowning in work pressure. You were appointed by that same Minister. Did you argue the case?
“You also need to understand the other side. It is tax payers’ money and you need to spend it properly. I know that most economists agree that investing it in education and science is beneficial for society. Universities can set standards on the study speed. Apart from in exceptional circumstances, protracting one’s studies is expensive. You want people to complete their studies in an average or close to average time. I know from my experience abroad that students in England on average graduate at a significantly younger age, while they are just as good and have had just as much fun as students do here. People need to learn early to study quickly and well while enjoying themselves.”

Is it wise to raise the pressure on students while they are having a tough time psychologically and financially?
“The rate of study delays in the Netherlands is high, and maybe that culture should not be considered the norm. Of course the supervision needs to be good and the pressure reasonable, but do not forget, if you work for a company or start your own company later on, you will also experience work pressure.”

During your service TU Delft wrote an activist pamphlet called ‘Climate Action’. Collaboration with Shell, where you were CEO, is coming under greater discussion. Any new collaboration with Shell has to be sustainable. How do you view this?
“First of all, Shell is bigger in gas than in oil, has a large renewable division and is big in the chemical industry. It works with a lot of sustainable materials in its chemical division. Apart from this, issues regarding particular companies and cooperation with them are rarely on the agenda of the Supervisory Board. I always stayed away from these discussions as people would think that I would be talking as an ex-Shell man. If I do discuss it, I then clearly state my role. I was Chair of the Future of Energy Council on behalf of the World Economic Forum for nearly six years and have quite a lot of knowledge outside the oil and gas industry. But people are always ready to judge. Let them. Whatever the situation and however TU Delft handles the energy transition, the Supervisory Board is not the primary decision-making body.”

‘Working abroad adds a lot to your life’

You must have an opinion?
“It is only logical that TU Delft concentrates on large new societal developments. Climate change and its associated energy transition are part of this. A Supervisory Board is not involved in the content of the relevant research programmes. We do discuss societal developments and speculate about the implications for TU Delft. In general, the Executive Board proposes and the Supervisory Board approves.”

Have you ever withheld approval?
“The answer is neither yes nor no. Our discussions sometimes lead to modifications. I will not give a juicy example.”

You studied Mechanical Engineering at TU Delft and this was followed by a long career. If you would start studying now, what would you do differently?
“I am interested in geology. I may choose geology but when I was 17 I had barely heard of it. I also thought about architecture but my mother said ‘You can hardly draw a recognisable face so how could I ever live in a house designed by you?’ So I went and did Mechanical Engineering. I am very happy that I did such a broad technical degree. I was ready to head abroad when I was 23.”

Would going abroad be a tip for today’s students?
“Maybe it was easier in my time than it is now with so much competition from Asia and more two-income households, but indeed, it adds a lot to your life.”

Editor in chief Saskia Bonger

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