‘Seeing each other, that’s what it’s all about’
Edwin van den Heuvel is one of the three new deans appointed on September 1. They are introducing themselves in a three-part series. This final episode features Edwin van den Heuvel, dean of Mathematics and Computer Science.
For Edwin van den Heuvel, who has held the office of dean of the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science for just over half a year now, workload reduction is a big priority. Just like clarity and transparency.
The door to the room of the new Dean of Mathematics and Computer Science Edwin van den Heuvel (55), at the end of the hallway on floor 3 of MetaForum, is closed when I arrive for the interview. He quickly finishes his conversation and invites me in. After the interview, his next appointment is already waiting. It’s been like this ever since he started his new position in September.
“It’s busy, very busy,” Edwin van den Heuvel says with a smile while sitting at his desk in his new office. “My schedule is so full of appointments that people can’t just walk in spontaneously. Which is a shame, because it’s important for me to be there for everyone and for everyone to trust me. And I would love to be able to walk around the department a bit more to have a better idea of what’s going on.”
Both feet up on the table
Van den Heuvel’s vision is for a dean to be able to sit back and put both of their feet up on the table, with their door wide open. “When I visited chemical companies back in my days as a consultant, I was amazed by the process engineers whose only job seemed to be to sit on a chair next to the equipment. At first this was strange to me, but over time I learned that this is the ideal situation, as it means the process is going exactly as it should. I think that’s a great goal to work towards.”
“I want to foster a department where people know exactly what the processes are and how things go. I want to provide more clarity and transparency, so everyone knows that anything the board does is in the interest of making a better place for our department and staff,” he says.
“And I hope that when my first term ends, we can say that people experience more wellbeing - that they enjoy coming to work and feel like they’re more in control - and that we’re more visible as a department,” he adds.
Van den Heuvel is aware that one of wellbeing’s worst enemies is work pressure. “You just asked me if the dean can take any vacation. At our department this question applies to a lot of people who feel like they only have the space to work on their own projects or finish up things during their vacation.”
His eldest daughter is a math graduate, who regularly holds up a mirror to him: “ ‘Dad, all you do is work, and I’m afraid I’m like you and will start doing the same.’ I’m a bad example for my daughters,” Van den Heuvel observes. “Working a lot and just going on and on is part of my character. But it’s not a good signal to either my children or the department.”
We have to pay attention to a better balance between work and leisure time.
Dean of M&CS Edwin van den Heuvel
“If you could see the emails I receive over the weekend… Our people devote their free time to working on things that really give them energy, because they are too busy to do so during the week. We have to pay attention to a better balance between work and leisure time. People need to have and feel space to spend time with their families and do other fun things outside of work. If we can make this happen, I’ll be very happy.”
So, workload reduction is high on the agenda and the board is working hard on solutions to this issue. “More time needs to be freed up for research and to make this possible, we’ll have to take tough decisions to let other things go. Not everyone likes that, because everything has been infused by people’s energy and if you take that away, that’s rough. But in the long run this will be better for all of us.”
As part of its efforts to reduce workloads, Mathematics and Computer Science is firmly committed to hiring 25 new scientists in various positions throughout the department. So far, over 600 applicants have responded to this ‘broad hiring campaign’, 90 of which will be invited to the Candidates Days. “It’s very good to see there are so many applicants. It shows our popularity as a department and as a university,” Van den Heuvel says.
Between mid-April and the end of June, fifteen Candidate Days will be organized, screening six applicants at a time. In addition to a job interview, the program includes research talks, a trial lecture and a tour of the campus and the city. Applicants are offered two overnight stays in Eindhoven to familiarize themselves with the city and the region.
“We’re very pleased with the support of the university board for this initiative, which will go a long way in bringing down the workload. A prerequisite is that the newly hired people will help us teach the existing courses and won’t come up with new ones, except to replace outdated program elements,” the dean emphasizes.
The vacancies have been published on Academic Positions, Research Gate and platforms such as Mathjobs.org. In addition, the board asked all employees to share a LinkedIn post about the vacancies within their networks. This resulted in over a hundred reposts, with a considerable reach.
The success of the broad hiring campaign hasn’t gone unnoticed. Other departments already came knocking on the board’s door to find out how it was organized.
Van den Heuvel has mixed feeling about the university’s planned Scale Jump, intended to double the number of master’s graduates. “We acknowledge this is a real good challenge. If we grow as a university, there will be more money, which in turn will create opportunities to do new things.” At the same time, he knows the growth ambition is somewhat of a sensitive issue at Mathematics and Computer Science.
With 450 employees and over 2,500 students, his department is the largest at TU/e. “Over the past decade, we’ve already tripled or quadrupled in size in terms of student numbers, but not in terms of staff. This growth was realized with retroactive funding and our people had to jump through a lot of extra hoops to make this possible. It’s important for us as a board to show our recognition and appreciation of this fact.”
That future growth ambitions will be realized with ‘prior pre-financing’ is a positive thing to Van den Heuvel. “But the conditions need to be very clearly defined.”
THE FOUR CONDITIONS FOR GROWTH
The university is prepared to grow along with the Brainport region, subject to four conditions:
Up-front government funding to facilitate growth and to prevent the current workload from increasing further.
Growth should not come at the expense of excellence.
Growth should be gradual to keep the workload manageable.
The region must ensure that the infrastructure and facilities are in order.
Van den Heuvel hopes there will be enough space for independent research in the future. He sees the kind of pressure scientific staff is under to secure funding. “It’s such a competitive world out there. There are many scholarships and grants and we have great researchers, but even they sometimes narrowly miss out on funding.”
As a token of appreciation to researchers that stick with their efforts, at the end of last year the department board came up with the Perseverance Award. “As the board, it’s our task to keep supporting good researchers,” the Dean says.
Seeing and hearing
Seeing - and hearing - each other is an important aspect for Van den Heuvel. “If you’re experiencing high work pressure, you run the risk of losing sight of one another. But it’s actually talking about what moves you and what you like or don’t like that contributes to better mutual understanding. If two colleagues know each other better, they’re more likely to take each other’s interests into account. Because of our workloads, we often skip these kinds of talks and this may cause people to pull in opposite directions.”
He often sees people leave because of the high work pressure within the department. “Of course not everyone will stay here for the rest of their career. But I would love for someone who’s saying their farewells to think they’re leaving a nice place behind. I want us to be a place of work that you like visiting and that allows you to do the things you take pleasure in. That’s a major challenge for the long term,” he says.
I asked myself what I should do. Isn’t there a better way to contribute than through being a researcher?
Dean of M&CS Edwin van den Heuvel
Before being appointed to the deanship, Van den Heuvel had been a member of the M&CS department board as a vice dean for a number of years. He didn’t aspire to the deanship. “But when Johan Lukkien left, I felt like we weren’t done. I looked at my resume; I’ve got twelve years to go until retirement. I asked myself what I should do. I can spend those years writing more projects, supervising PhD candidates and doubling my number of papers, but isn’t there a better way to contribute?”
Research hasn’t lost its appeal
“I’m a researcher and always will be, but I’m not the leading researcher in my field. My greatest strength is developing statistical methods for certain problems, but I don’t know if I’ll ever devise an entirely new theory on something like causality. As a dean, I hope to be able to do more and make a greater contribution to our department.”
He feels supported by the department, even though sometimes it’s a bit like he’s hovering between three domains. “At math they wonder if what I’m doing is real math, as I’ve moved on to statistics and its application. At data science they think I’m in the margins, as I came from math and my data science is completely different from theirs. And at computer science it’s very clear: he’s not a computer scientist,” Van den Heuvel says with a chuckle. He shrugs and concludes: “Maybe it’s a good thing for a dean not to be clearly linked to any of the three domains. I think all of them are important and I’m there for everyone.”
At the end of the interview, Van den Heuvel stresses he’s proud of the department. “As an administrator you often focus on stuff you want to improve, but let’s not forget a lot of great things are already happening here; people are working on magnificent research with great enthusiasm and we’re teaching loads of really good education. Everyone’s very motivated and self-starting, so I didn’t have to do a whole lot in this regard. Our department is an awesome, dynamic organization consisting of great people. And together we’ll create something even greater.”
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