Rector Magnificus Prof. Dr. Rutger Engels
Rector Magnificus Prof. Dr. Rutger Engels

Originally posted on 2 August 2019 

When internationally respected scientist, Prof.Dr Rutger Engels was appointed as Erasmus University’s new Rector Magnificus in June 2018, he brought with him a wealth of academic and research experience. After studying psychology at the University of Groningen and receiving his Doctorate from the University of Maastricht in 1998, Professor Engels worked at Radboud University Nijmegen (where his positions included Vice Dean of Research and Director of the Behavioural Sciences Institute), was the President of the Board of Directors of the Trimbos Institute (2014 - 2018) and Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at Utrecht University’s faculty of Social Sciences. But, alongside this extensive and impressive career, Professor Engels also brought an abiding passion for the world around him into his new position – one that is visible in the prestigious Huibregtsen Prize awarded to him in 2011, in recognition of the immense societal impact of his work. We spoke to him about the importance of diversity and gender equality within, and beyond, academia - and the road ahead.

You’re being welcomed as a Rector Magnificus who has a deep understanding of diversity. Can you elaborate on your personal journey to this?

My understanding of diversity is directly related to having really strong female role models in my journey so far. After I finished studying psychology at Groningen. I applied for a PhD in Maastricht and I was fortunate enough to have Professor Riet Drop as my PhD promoter. She had made history in 1980 when she was appointed professor of Medical Sociology at the then Rijksuniversiteit Limburg, becoming the first female full professor at the university. I was lucky enough to work with Riet for four years and grew to know her as someone who was really strong and opinionated, who worked extremely hard and who lived her truth as a gay woman. The advice and guidance she gave me during that time was invaluable and it was a real loss to the academic teaching community, and myself personally, when she died soon after I completed my PhD.

It’s been more than 20 years since that time. What does diversity mean to you in 2019?

Currently, I see several different perspectives on diversity. Firstly, I believe that diversity is a given and is part of where we should be as a society. Secondly, there is a moral dimension to it – particularly in terms of the equal opportunities that are intrinsic to it. Thirdly, I believe that diversity is absolutely required when striving for excellence in academia – both in research and education. Individuals, including myself, profit from a context that is culturally and intellectual diverse. We learn more from people who have different opinions to us. If you teach students to function well in inter-disciplinary teams, where everybody brings their own expertise, experience and background, you get better outcomes. This happens on an individual level, a team level and also a university level.

Does the context of Erasmus University have any particular bearing on how you approach diversity?

Universities are strongly affected by the context they are in. Rotterdam is a pluriform, multi-cultural city with a great deal of variation in terms of nationalities and cultures. Given this, it is really important that we have a broad representation within our university community. However, we also need to be aware of the barriers that members of this community may face – many of which are not always explicit. Implicit barriers can include the challenges faced by first generation students who enter university with no idea about what the implicit rules of the institution are. This can make these students feel more inhibited in the initial  stages of their university career. Barriers like this prevent full inclusivity and the full participation of all members of the university - and we need to be aware of them.

Becoming conscious of our own implicit biases and working to change these is crucial

Gender equality is a central part of ECWO’s work. Can you give us some insight into how you’re approaching this, in the university context?

There are several different layers to this. It starts with establishing norms – that is, what exactly we expect when it comes to gender equality within this institution. This is followed by an analysis to see what is needed to reach what we consider our norms, and then putting procedures in place to give effect to this. For instance, we know from research that people are generally inclined to select those who are similar to them when it comes to appointments. Our procedures therefore need to ensure that we have recruitment committees reflective of the diversity and gender equality that we want to achieve. A key element in achieving this has been the implicit bias training that we did with the Deans of the different schools and their professional services. It’s important for all of us, myself included, to become conscious of our own implicit biases and work to change these. At times it was quite confrontational but the training was very good and effective. Of course, we know that this training measure alone will not make a difference but when it is included within a variety of other measures, it will have impact.

Your own work has been recognised for its societal impact. Given this background, why do you believe that gender equality is important for society as a whole?

We are a university so we should always start with the evidence – and, more and more, that evidence shows that mixed gender teams, whether in academia or society, do so much better than homogenous teams. They are also fundamental to innovation and competitiveness. I sometimes think that we don’t emphasise this enough. Creating positive societal impact is very important for the development of our university and the programmes that we implement. It is therefore crucial that we share this evidence with society more broadly.

Goal: Women to make up 25 percent of full professors by 2025

You are just over a year into your new position. Do you have a vision for achieving gender equality within the university?

Again, there are many different layers. But I would say that, first and foremost, it’s really  important that gender equality is high on the agenda at an institutional level – that people like me and other members of our executive board are vocal about it. Other key elements are our Diversity and Inclusiveness Team, the diversity officers in each faculty as well as our Chief Diversity Officer who is doing excellent work. We have also set a norm that we believe is achievable – and that is having women making up twenty-five percent of our full professors by 2025. Of course, this will not happen overnight but we have started by undertaking an analysis of the current situation. The total university data shows that there is about a 50-50 balance between men and women at assistant professor level. But we have to establish why women do not get promoted or drop out in the progression to full professorship. In pursuit of our 25% by 2025 norm we’ve also been talking to other institutions and organisations that have successfully moved to a position of gender equality. Among these is Rector Curt Rice of Oslo Metropolitan University. I am excited because we now have a plan that is ready to be rolled out. I cannot reveal its details as it is still in the process of being approved by the Deans and the University Council - but the momentum is definitely gathering in the right direction.

How can all the departments within the University contribute to this?

Each department is unique and the responsibility for gender equality lies with the Deans and the professional services. But again, it is about keeping it high on the agenda and appointing people to leadership positions who can make a meaningful impact in the direction of gender equality. We also need to work towards having more role models. There is no doubt that we are not yet achieving this across every department and we can get much better – but I do think that we are making progress.

ECWO playing key role in gender equality

And what can we do as individuals?

Each of us can start by becoming aware of our own value system and our own history in the area of diversity and gender equality. Introspection can reveal our biases and our mistakes. If I think back to the many PhD students I supervised and the departments I led, I know I should have put these more explicitly on the agenda. I believe that the work that ECWO is doing in applied research, advocacy, and executive development is very important. Within the development arena, the work that ECWO does inside the university and with companies and individuals externally plays a key role. Its programs include leadership training, building confidence, skills and knowledge, and creating a larger networked community of professional women—aspects that are essential. We should also not underestimate the importance of mentors. Whenever I ask business leaders about the role of mentors in their success, they tell me that they could not have done it without one. It’s a no-brainer but we do not profit enough from talking to those who are more experienced, who have wisdom and who can be reflective and guide you. I was lucky enough to have Professor Drop mentor me and it really was life-changing. ECWO plays an important role here as well with mentoring and sponsoring forming an important element of its development message.

Your own research and education work has been particularly focused on young people. What role should diversity and gender equality play in the lives of the younger generation?

I have thought a great deal about this over the years, as I am really interested in developmental psychology. I’m a strong advocate for the secondary school curriculum having more training for students, on their own development. How they approach others and how they set up relationships is crucial – and gender equality and diversity is a huge part of that.

You are in this position for a period of at least four years. Do you have an idea of the legacy you would like to leave?

To be really honest, I don’t know yet. I don’t have a history at this university so when I started here I was quite new and so my first year has involved a great deal of getting to know people, analysis and partnership building. But I will say that I am fully aware of the fact that we are not there yet in terms of diversity and gender equality, that we will make mistakes and that some of the activities and measures we put in place will be more successful than others. There will also be debates and dissatisfaction and incidences of academic harassment against women academics. So I am realistic but I am also very positive about what we can achieve.

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