Rianne Letschert Rianne Letschert Sacha Ruland

“I don’t like hierarchy, status and egos”

Written by  Femke Kools Thursday, 01 September 2016 08:30

Anyone who followed the media coverage of Rianne Letschert over the last six months could draw but one conclusion: she is an angel on Earth. The new UM Rector Magnificus as of 1 September bursts out laughing when she hears this. “I’m no Mother Theresa.” Later she says, “People do think I’m nice, I think, but I can be tough if something isn’t right. I’m also very impatient, especially if things are moving more slowly than they could. Take the number of women in leadership positions: I always used to see quotas as something for fishing, but I might need to change my mind about that.”


Early this year, Letschert was invited to meet with the committee looking for UM’s next rector. She came to Maastricht prepared to perfection, but with no expectations; curious and with nothing to lose. Though the setting was formal, the atmosphere soon felt casual and comfortable. “The same thing happened with the six deans. That was an important meeting, because if they all thought: she’s still young, she doesn’t come from Maastricht and she has no administrative experience at this level, then it would have been over before it began.” But there, too, was the same click. “I can be formal when I need to be, but if it’s not necessary I don’t like hierarchy, status and egos. Putting on a show. I really sat there thinking: what a nice club. I realise everyone has to stick up for their faculty and we’ll occasionally exchange strong words – and that’s fine, as long as it’s done in a respectful way.”

Maastricht’s interdisciplinary, international profile was another immediate draw card. “That fits perfectly with how I work. Which is not to say everyone has to do it that way. At many universities the trend is emerging that if researchers don’t publish internationally, they don’t really belong. Not everyone has to be able to achieve the impossible.” In Letschert’s view, it is more important that people get the chance to do what they’re good at – be it monodisciplinary research or basic research with no obvious social application, or students who do something completely different for a year. “I see people trying to push boundaries right across the board in Maastricht. This university has always had something of a rebellious character: collaborating across faculties, doing research and teaching in a less traditional way. Not to mention my appointment. A year from now I might say we can push things further still, but so far it’s a good fit with my vision and way of working.”

She gives the example of one of her PhD candidates, whose research had been ticking along via crowdfunding for a year and a half in Tilburg, but ground to a halt because the university could not provide a formal appointment. “I came into contact with SWOL by chance and within a few weeks they’d sorted everything out. That mentality really suits me: ‘yes, we’ll figure it out’ instead of ‘no, it’s not possible’.” Other than this, she is not bringing with her anyone else from Tilburg; she wanted to remain loyal to the university that gave her every opportunity over the course of 20 years. Even ‘her’ Vidi grant will stay behind. “First of all it’s nonsense to call a Vidi an ‘individual’ grant; I got it with my entire team. Also, I’d find it financially irresponsible to take €800,000 away from the institute just like that. If UM were some kind of impoverished organisation, it might be a different story.”

She will still be involved in the Vidi project, in her free time. Just as, over the last decade, her research has largely been a hobby alongside her management tasks. “So this job isn’t such a strange step for me, although I realise it’s not necessarily logical because I didn’t serve as dean first. In that way it’s pretty scary, but also very cool and above all a real honour. My strength lies in creating groups, inspiring people to think about what can be done differently.” She has little time for the attitude “that’s how it has to be, because that’s how the system is”. “We, all of us, we are the system. People and universities in general often point to third parties, but we’re also personally responsible.”

As rector, she intends to actively invite colleagues to critique her performance. That keeps her sharp, she says – and if there is one thing she doesn’t have, it’s a big ego and a readiness to take offense. “Perhaps that’s also a weakness, because it means I accept things for too long. I rarely take things personally, so you won’t get into an argument with me all too quickly.” What she does have a problem with are people who badmouth her work or her decisions behind her back without saying it to her face. “You can do that once or twice, but the third time you’re out; then I’ll just ignore you, after telling you why.” And it won’t keep her up at night – this is a woman who slept soundly even after meeting with victims of the Rwandan genocide for her research on legal procedures and victimhood. “When I see emotions running high for no good reason, I’ll say, ‘We’re not trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict here, are we?’ Which is not to say I compare everything to that, but we should focus on the content.”

Island culture
Such as the temporary contracts that mean many academics spend years living in uncertainty. Or the island culture that sometimes prevails at universities, where faculties put their own interests above those of the university as a whole. “I don’t want universities to be centralised, but why is there always so much tension there?” Or more women in leadership positions: “I was at the umpteenth symposium on this topic at the Young Academy and I said, ‘This is the last time I come to one of these. Because we talk about the same thing every time and we do nothing at all.’ Recently I heard an expert say that at the rate we’re going in the Netherlands, we still won’t have achieved our goals by 2080. Then I start to get impatient and I think: maybe here in Maastricht we should show how things can be different.”

Letschert hopes to throw her weight behind women at UM who deserve a promotion. She has seen how, at other universities, women bear the brunt of sometimes outdated HR policies. “Only in universities does a single manager have the power to hold back someone with talent. Sometimes it’s just because they have no idea, so maybe coaching could be an answer. When we see that happening, do we take responsibility, or do we look away? The argument that there’s no money for a promotion to associate professor or professor is often such a load of rubbish.” She plans to fight, too, for minorities and over 65s who are not yet ready to retire – not because she is Mother Theresa, she says, but because she looks at what someone has to offer the organisation.

Letschert considers herself lucky. “I have work I enjoy, two healthy children, a wonderful partner and I live in a rich country … to my mind that’s the objective conclusion.” Finally, the question everyone has been asking her: will she be moving to Maastricht with her partner and children, aged 9 and 5? “We really like Maastricht, so it’s definitely not out of the question. But for the time being our home in Helmond is a good jumping-off point for the meetings I’ll be having around the country. In the car I can make calls, listen to music, wind down. Someone suggested having a driver, but that’s really not for me. I already feel uncomfortable about the parking spot reserved for me at the Minderbroedersberg.”

Rianne Letschert (1976) is professor of Victimology and International Law. At Tilburg University, she worked on the development of the International Victimology Institute (INTERVICT) and was appointed director of the institute in 2015. She joined the Young Academy of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) in 2013, becoming its chair in 2015. Letschert is an international expert on the victims of war crimes, genocide and terrorism. As of 1 September 2016 she is Rector Magnificus of Maastricht University.

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