Why TU Delft is not challenging the future

Today, I witnessed the downfall of our university. Between half pas three and five in the afternoon, I became aware of the fact that the very foundation of our institution is crumbling.

I was taken by surprise. I expected to attend a meeting that would reassure me that I was working, no, putting a large part of my life’s energy into an institution that ultimately had only one thing on its mind: improving human society. I could not have been more disappointed. All that I aspire to as a scientist, all that I want to become as a teacher, and all that I want to achieve professionally as a human being, was marginalized.

The story I heard, through a haze of amazement and disbelief, was something about Inside Out and Outside In. While the Rector was checking new messages on his iPhone in first row, I listened to an argument about all kinds of planets around the center of the universe, which, obviously, is our university. Looking to the universe from the center, seemingly Inside Out, we could see segments of managerial domains together with neatly bulleted goals and targets. An inspiring universe indeed.

One of the segments in the analysis presented to us said something about human resources. Funny. World leading management scholars are arguing that the term ‘resources’ is an insult to the very core of any modern economy, namely: motivated and passionate human ‘beings’. The world’s leading organizations, whether a business venture or a university, show that excellence can only be acquired by making people feel part of something significant. Everybody in these organizations, from the CEO to the night janitor, knows that they belong to an enterprise that nurtures and appreciates any creative or intellectual idea that adds to its collective pursuit. The leaders of our enterprise here in Delft, however, refer to us with a the term that reduces us to a relic from the industrial age. Human resources. What a joke.

Another segment that came up in this so-called Town Hall Meeting at the Faculty of Architecture referred to scientific excellence. The rector made it clear once again that the amount of ISI-listed journal papers is central to his way of judging the quality of all scientific staff, including those working at Architecture. Questions were raised. However, nobody tried to set fire to the straw man put up in front of us. Deep down, everybody knows that the actual proposition posed is that there are many in Delft today who do not fit into the rector’s idea of an excellent University of Technology. Well, to be frank, he does not fit into mine.

What is important is that scholars position their scientific work within a wide, preferably global community of peers. These peers test the work that has been presented to them, and examine its questions, methodology and findings. When reviewing written material, they provide each other with critical but constructive comments and reviews. At conferences and seminars, they discuss research findings and help each other to improve and develop their theories and applications. This, in short, is the scientific process in practice. As it should be. However, scholars who have investigated and reflected upon the mechanisms that test the vitality of the scientific process in practice – such as ISI-listed journal procedures – have thoroughly argued that this man-made system, like any other, is inherently flawed. This, for one thing, teaches us that we have to be extremely careful with measuring the quality of scientific work only in quantitative terms.

All of the above, I’m afraid, is merely symptomatic to the real disease that is undermining the very existence of our beloved university: it’s lack of vision. Sure, we are facing a lot of budget cuts. Yes, we do have a national and European government who are unable, or perhaps unfit, to solve our most urgent societal problems. But all of that does not prevent us to think, act, invent, and start challenging the future.

What I missed most during the meeting today was a simple story, a perspective that provides us with a clear and honest view of the world’s challenges as we currently understand them, and an inspiring image of what role we as a university could play in efforts to meet those challenges. The story could have outlined how technological innovations and processes of globalization have changed, and will continue to change, the way knowledge and creativity is produced and spread across the planet. It could also have given us a glimpse of how student-professor relationships are shifting towards interactive, pick-and-choose models, and what this means for the way we teach. All of this should have been built on a critical reflection as to the role universities, and particularly universities of technology, have played in western society during the last century or so, and on a substantive discussion about the current state of Delft University of Technology with a selection of its brightest students and staff.

I love my life as a researcher and lecturer. And I love what I thought our university stands for. I have not been reassured of that today. No doubt, I too have to shape up and meet my peers, and prove that I am worthy of faculty. All I ask of the leaders of our university is to do the same. The task is to lead Delft University of Technology vigorously into the future, and your peers are those at other universities who are expected to do likewise for their institutions.

Now that I have explained my view of the problem our university is dealing with, I would like to conclude with pointing out some solutions. As an engineer, I think I should be so inclined. First of all, it is evident that the most significant inventions of our time challenge traditional boundaries between science, art, and craft. Scientific knowledge should empower, not paralyze, human creativity and experience. Favoring the first over the others, as our Rector clearly does, is to alienate the talent and gumption Delft’s academic community needs to actively shape our world – and not to simply let it shape us. This implies, secondly, that we should stimulate cross-overs between scientific disciplines and fields of research. Even Nature, to quote but one journal, has acknowledged that ‘much of the most important research today is interdisciplinary in nature’. I sincerely hope that we are still taking one of the world’s most highly esteemed scientific sources seriously.

Thirdly, I would like to finish modestly, not giving privilege to my own voice, but rather to one of the peers I hope the leaders of our university will consult with. It is the voice of a President Emeritus and Professor of Georgia Tech, who already wrote down years ago what I wanted to hear something of at the meeting today: a vision for the university of the future. In the following quotation, he states boldly what it would take to realize that vision.

‘A key element involves to provide our institution with the capacity to explore new paradigms that are better able to serve a changing society and a changed world. We must remove the constraints that prevent our universities from responding to the needs of a rapidly changing society and remove unnecessary processes and administrative structures. We must question existing premises and arrangements and challenge, excite, and embolden the members of our university communities to embark on this great adventure. Our challenge is to work together to provide an environment in which such change is regarded not as threatening, but rather, as an exhilarating opportunity to engage in learning, in all its many forms, to better serve our world.’ I hope the Board is advised.

Tom Daamen, faculty architecture

Key sources referred to in this statement are:

  • Mintzberg, H. (2009), ‘Managing’. Harlow (UK): Pearson Education

  • Hamel, G. (2007), ‘The Future of Management’. Boston (MA): Harvard Business School Press

  • Latour, B. (1987), ‘Science in Action’. Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press

  • Flyvbjerg, B. (2001), ‘Making Social Sciences Matter’. Cambridge (UK): Cambridge University Press

  • Duderstadt, J.J. (1997), ‘The Future of the University in an Era of Change’. Atlanta (GA): ‘The Association of the Collegiate Schools of Planning’, Georgia Institute of Technology College of Architecture. Download at: milproj.dc.umich.edu/publications/change/download/change.pdf

Rik Leunissen (23) is zevendejaars student werktuigbouwkunde. Hij begon in september 2004, rondde zijn bachelor in vijf jaar af en is in januari – na tweeënhalf jaar – klaar met zijn master. “Ik heb één jaar niet gestudeerd maar bestuurswerk gedaan voor Virgiel. Daar heb ik twaalf garantiemaanden voor gehad van de TU. Daarnaast heb ik commissies gedaan voor Virgiel, waarvoor ik ook nog drie maanden heb gehad. Samen met een bestuursgenoot heb ik tijdens mijn master
KlasseStudent opgericht, een bedrijf waarmee we studenten inzetten op middelbare scholen, in functies van surveillant tot en met docent. Dat kostte tussen de tien en twintig uur per week, maar daardoor ben ik juist harder gaan studeren: hoe drukker je het hebt, hoe beter je plant. Met aftrek van die garantiemaanden studeer ik netjes nominaal af. Mijn studievoortgang is juist zoals de TU die zou willen”
“Ik heb ervoor gekozen me breder te ontwikkelen en heb ervaring opgedaan die je niet bij de TU opdoet. Je zou je op meer vlakken moeten ontwikkelen om succesvol het bedrijfsleven in te gaan. Met deze ‘langstudeerdersmaatregel’ werp je daarvoor juist drempels op. Ik begrijp dat je je nu op kosten van de belastingbetaler ontwikkelt, maar als je een jaar bestuurswerk doet, betaal je ook collegegeld zonder dat je naar colleges gaat. En straks draag je als hoogopgeleide meer belasting af.”

Editor Redactie

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