Jo Ritzen Jo Ritzen

“I always look on the bright side”

Written by  Femke Kools Monday, 03 January 2011 12:48

Farewell interview with Jo Ritzen

At some point he chose to study both physics and economics, because he wanted to be the CEO at Philips. “I’ve always thought that I’d have to be the boss somewhere. That’s a real character flaw, I think. But I never wanted to be the boss purely for its own sake; that’s never interested me. I wanted to really give shape to something, give it direction, take action. This drive is something that I’ll hold on to until my very last breath; it’s just who I am.” Ultimately he opted not for Philips, but for Maastricht University, because: “well, if you have the choice between a light bulb factory or an education factory …” Here, Jo Ritzen looks back on his eight-year term as president of the Executive Board.

The interview takes place when Ritzen still has 500 hours left on the clock. An A4 sheet hanging on his door signals the countdown. “500 hours is nothing! I’ll have to choose carefully what to spend my time on.” Eight years on, the board president is still as enthusiastic and inspired as the day he started. “I only noticed my patience waning in the last year. That’s also one of the reasons that I didn’t aspire to a third term. Still, it was a very difficult decision to take. The bond with the university has become more intense than I first intended, and I’ve enjoyed it immensely.”

What were you looking for when you came to Maastricht?

“An organisation with people who don’t just sit around to earn their bread and butter, but who also want to create something special. An open-minded university that responds to a societal need. A university that doesn’t just do things that are seemingly obvious at one given point in time, but later prove to be a poor fit. Maastricht has all that. At the same time, the university was in need of a positive impetus. PBL was on the decline, the opportunities for internationalisation weren’t being fully capitalised on.

“I’m still very happy with our choice to place education centre stage. But also with our internationalisation efforts worldwide. Our reputation has grown exponentially over the last few years and I find myself almost emotional to have been able to play a role in that. Our research profile is also on the right path. If it were up to me, in the coming 10 years the whole world would be looking to Maastricht when it comes to the neurosciences.”

Your tendency to set the bar high can inspire people, but also frustrate them.

“I have an energy that verges on the impractical; I’m well aware of that. That’s why I discuss everything first with people and I don’t strike out ahead of the troops. Instead I try to gather the troops and set out on the march together. I have to force myself to do this, because my favourite thing is to start four new projects every day that seem straightforward in my view. But in this job I’ve learned that I first have to talk with people.”

Have you become a bit frustrated over the years with the perhaps limited extent to which a university can be managed?

“Quite the contrary! The misconception is that organisations exist where a leader says: ‘We’re going to go this way’ and that it actually happens like that. No ministry works in that way, no parliament, nor even any company. In fact, as a minister you’re nothing but frustrated: after Cabinet meetings in which you’re torn to shreds, you still have to be able to tell the press that you’ve made only fantastic decisions. This is nothing compared to that. In a setting in which you’re not the only one who has a say, things don’t always happen exactly how you’d like. But when I’m convinced of a change of course, I really commit myself to it. Sometimes I’ll actually take on someone else’s point of view and think that I’ve come up with it myself.”

In hindsight, are there any things that you’ve been less happy with?

“I’m an optimist by nature, but also by conviction. I don’t think it sets a good example for young people to be negative about what happens to you. There are certainly things that have gone wrong, but on balance the image has to be that if you just push on, if you really believe in something, you’ll also achieve things. Look at our strategic plan 2006–2010. The Supervisory Board was quite sceptical about it when we presented it to them. Perhaps not every single objective has been realised, but we’ve come a long way and that’s important.”

So you’d prefer not to give concrete examples of less successful projects?

“A few years ago we had a conflict with the University Council, which was the result of a breakdown in communication. For that I blame myself and the board. The relationship with the University Council is tremendously important; it’s a congenial body with a great deal of added value. That’s also a tip that I’d like to share with my successor: make sure that you continue to prioritise the University Council. Inform them in good time, have them think along with you, because you’ve got support there.”

Couldn’t you have better served your ideals if you’d been an academic rather than a director?

“When I was still active in academia, I did think at some point that my research could perhaps one day win a Nobel Prize. But the urge to work in management was greater than my academic ambition. After this I’ll go back to publishing, campaigning and researching. Politics based on genuine insight is a good combination, in my view. Sixty-five is supposed to be an age when you can take things a bit more slowly, but that’s not on the cards for me, I’m afraid.”

“I hope that UM will continue to look critically at itself as well as decisions not to do certain things. That’s the most important thing that we’ve done, I think: make choices about what we will no longer do or will do differently. The quality of your strategy lies in excelling at the things you really go for. External perspectives will always be necessary, so that you can stay informed of the developments in Asia and the US, but the regional business sector, too, should be more closely tied with the university’s development.” Before assuming his current position in February 2003, Jo Ritzen was Vice President of the World Bank's Development Economics Department and Human Development Network. Prior to that, he was the Dutch Minister of Education, Culture and Science, after holding academic appointments at Erasmus University Rotterdam, the University of California-Berkeley and other institutions.

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