‘TU/e is teeming with drive, élan and warmth - keep it that way’

June 20, 2023

Farewell interview with Nicole Ummelen, departing Executive Board vice president.

After eleven years, Nicole Ummelen is leaving TU/e. Photo: Vincent van den Hoogen
After eleven years, Nicole Ummelen is leaving TU/e. Photo: Vincent van den Hoogen

For as long as she has been working, Nicole Ummelen has gone straight for her goal, jumping on the barricades when necessary. As she says, “My nature is ‘come on, solve immediately’.” In her years as vice president of our Executive Board, she has learned to ‘coax a bit of magic’ a little more often. “Sometimes it works better to be patient, stir some pots, add some ingredients and let it brew for a while to see what happens. Often people then come to the right understanding themselves.”

Naturally, Nicole Ummelen (55), vice president of our Executive Board, had doubts about applying for the position of Executive Board president of the Open University. At a time when our Executive Board was undergoing many changes - with Rector Frank Baaijens made way for Silvia Lenaerts in May and University Secretary Susanne van Weelden being succeeded a month later by Patrick Groothuis - her departure would be anything but good timing.

“For that reason, I told the Open University that I didn’t want to start until September. I felt it was important to be able to transfer things well here.”

Not searching

Sitting at a table in the Zwarte Doos, she says, “I wasn't looking for another job; this came my way. I would have continued here with a lot of love otherwise. Ideally, this vacancy would have come in two years' time, then I could have finished my second term,” she says with some regret.

“I had a lot of trouble letting go of TU/e, of the environment that I feel so strongly attached to. I knew that Silvia would come and that Susanne would leave and yet, last December, I had to choose whether I wanted to engage in talks with the Open University. I wanted to make that consideration in advance, because I didn’t want to withdraw at the very last minute. There’s no class in that.”

Distance education

Ummelen was already involved at the Open University, where she was a member of the advisory board for the OU's institutional plan. “This job at OU suits me down to the ground. It combines management work with tasks in the social and educational fields.”


About the Open University

The Open Universiteit is committed to providing online distance learning and research. Its headquarters are in Heerlen. The OU has just under a thousand employees and over seventeen thousand students, who can study individually and remotely. Examinations are held in seventeen study centers in the Netherlands and Belgium.

Ummelen: "The OU is a special university that makes academic education accessible to a completely different target group than TU/e. The squeeze in the job market is tremendous and people want to upskill and do so as much as possible in their own, individual way. The OU offers that with its online distance learning. I'm really looking forward to getting started there.”

Nicole Ummelen. Photo: Vincent van den Hoogen
Nicole Ummelen. Photo: Vincent van den Hoogen


Meanwhile, Ummelen has reached the point where she is confidently trading TU/e for the Open University after the summer break. “I am leaving after eleven years. It is healthy when a fresh wind blows, also within the board. We have now had two Executive Board meetings with the new rector and secretary, and you can see that a new dynamic is emerging. It’s nice to still be part of that for a while.”

I am leaving after eleven years. It is healthy when a fresh wind keeps blowing, even within the board.

Nicole Ummelen, vice president of the Executive Board

“Since last week, the realization has started to sink in that I have to start handing things over. I still work at the same pace and intensity as I always have, but also realize that I am doing things for the last time now. That's odd, but okay. The right people are in the right place here; I’m confident that things will work out after I leave.”

And, she adds, “Right now, I still sometimes function as the board’s walking memory. Fortunately, I won't disappear from the face of earth; they know where to find me if they want to know how things were done in the past.”

Governing like Switzerland

When asked what she has learned in her eleven years at TU/e, she parries that others can actually answer that better. But moving forward, “The biggest change I went through was when I moved from the role of university secretary to the Executive Board in 2019.”

“I was looking for 'my way' of governing and sometimes felt that something different was expected of me than I was doing. As secretary, I gave direction by standing between people, having a conversation here, giving a gentle nudge there. And I also steered major processes, such as the institutional audit ITTK and the reorganization of educational organization and support at the university. I sometimes got feedback that in the Executive Board things are managed in a different way, a little more at a distance. From a kind of neutrality stance.”


"I have become more administrator over the past four years, and less manager. I’m less part of the processes themselves and regularly step back and leave processes and conversations to the people who matter.”

Nicole Ummelen. Photo: Vincent van den Hoogen
Nicole Ummelen. Photo: Vincent van den Hoogen

Sometimes it's more convenient to ‘coax a bit of magic’ instead of trying to solve everything as quickly as possible.

Nicole Ummelen, vice president of the Executive Board

Witches and knights

That turnaround was not easy for Ummelen, with her drive for problem solving and her direct manner of discussion. “If I see that something is needed, I find it very difficult to stay away from it. I had that in my younger years as a university lecturer in Delft; I wanted to get involved in everything, out of the drive to make things better.”

“At my farewell there, I was told in a speech that I was a true knight, jumping on the barricades, going straight for her goal. But sometimes it's more convenient if you ‘coax a bit of magic’: stir the pots, add a little something, let the mixture brew and see what happens. I've always remembered and embraced that. Although coaxing the magic also has elements I’m averse to, like manipulating and not being transparent.”

Coming to understand yourself

She concludes with a smile, “It's a continuous learning process. The direct path is not always better. It is important that others come to the understanding themselves. Sometimes you have to be patient and wait to see how something develops. Don’t dump a whole package on people right away but give them a bit to think about. A week later the conversation will be completely different.”

Resilience as a task package

From a strategy perspective, the vice president’s duties include everything under the heading of Resilience. The image above pictures these priorities.

Ummelen talks passionately about SQUAD, the process of self-evaluation in which all TU/e services take their turn through four rounds. “We have grown enormously and become more diverse; we are no longer the same organization as ten years ago. The quality of service has to match that and you have to invest in it. That was sometimes quite complicated, especially when it came to allocating funds between departments and services.”

On this basis SQUAD was conceived with the key question: How can we better organize our services to researchers, teachers and students? “And then in such a way that it is also feasible for our service staff. Because they often run till they drop to satisfy customers.”

A lot of crumbs

"SQUAD is a huge operation, we are now in the final stages of the second round. It takes a lot of effort, time and energy, but I am very proud that the services themselves are so actively working on their future and that of TU/e. In the end, it results in better service, but you only really notice the effect when the changes are implemented and the people on the shop floor start working with them.”

The first round of self-assessment among the services included Data Management and Library and Information Management and Services. These services eventually merged into Library and Information Services (LIS). “A great example of how things can work out,” Ummelen says looking back. “These services worked together a lot in the process - where there was overlap, they collaborated. Now you see synergy coming because things are no longer being done twice.”

Students gather at night at residential tower Aurora on the TU/e campus. Photo: Bart van Overbeeke
Students gather at night at residential tower Aurora on the TU/e campus. Photo: Bart van Overbeeke

Our campus has become a community that goes on 24/7

Nicole Ummelen, vice president of the Executive Board

Special campus

Developing our campus has been a big part of Ummelen's work in recent years. “We have a very special campus: close to the city and everything is concentrated around the Green Strip. And our campus is green. It always was, but I’ve seen it blossom in recent years since students also started to live on campus. Life and activity are now 24/7, we have become a community.”


At the start of construction of the residential towers, which will be located where the Pavilion used to be. Nicole Ummelen (left), Executive Board president Robert-Jan Smits, alderman Mieke Verhees, students Thomas Lippens and Sidney den Engelsman, mayor Jeroen Dijsselbloem and Woonbedrijf director Ingrid de Boer.

Space is a major issue

With growing student numbers, space is a major pain point, Ummelen says. “That has hefty implications, because not only are there going to be more students, but also more staff, and we need more labs for them to work in. And student rooms, of course. That really creates a jam. At our campus as well as in Eindhoven.”

“Fortunately, we do not have to tackle this challenge alone; we are doing so together with other educational institutions and the municipality. It will remain a bottleneck for years to come, but we are putting our shoulders to the wheel together. 2024 is an important year in that regard. That’s when, for example, the 735 student housing units being built on our campus will be completed.”

Security in a broad sense

While as secretary she dealt with the physical safety of people on our campus, as Executive Board member and within the Universities of the Netherlands she dealt with integral safety and security. “That's about more than bits, bytes and multifactor authentication,” Ummelen says. “It's about making sure our people can work safely and securely.”

When Maastricht University was hacked, the security of infrastructure, devices and systems received more attention at other universities as well. “As a university, you want to be and work open, but that makes your organization extremely vulnerable. These are challenging processes for both researchers and support staff. We are constantly balancing between autonomy for our employees and protecting our organization. Laboratories have a lab manager who arranges everything, but despite that, the differences remain significant. It is challenging to ensure proper coordination for safety because each research situation has specific requirements. Nevertheless, good steps are now being taken there.”

Well-being and workload

“Workload is a major concern for the entire Executive Board,” Ummelen says decidedly. “Scientists experience great workload, but the situation for support staff is equally pressing. It remains a difficult issue to tackle. And that workload does not get less if you want to grow and if you have qualitative ambitions arising from SQUAD,” she realizes.

“This is not a problem we will solve tomorrow, and we have to take care of our people in the here and now. I think it’s important that people feel comfortable here, despite the workload that we can’t relieve in the blink of an eye.”

More people

More people need to come in, both in the departments and the services. “We don’t always succeed in bringing in the right people. This applies not only to academics and scientists but also to service staff. Mobility is high, and we often cannot offer people the same salary as in the business world, but I am hopeful. TU/e has a good reputation and we hear that people find us an exciting environment to work in.”

Nicole Ummelen: "I'll definitely miss the TU/e campus." Photo: Vincent van den Hoogen
Nicole Ummelen: "I'll definitely miss the TU/e campus." Photo: Vincent van den Hoogen

Do you have a final message for the university?

“The tremendous drive and élan that people have here makes it so much fun to work here. I hope that that vibrant and warm feeling remains. That people also encourage each other in that. And, very indulgent perhaps, but still: that everyone keeps looking out for each other.”

She continues: “If we can achieve the growth plans, we have to be careful not to get bogged down in too much pragmatism and detachment. Professional drive is, of course, enormously important, but with sincere commitment to the brilliant researchers and support staff who walk around here.”

How will you close the door for the last time?

“With a hint of nostalgia and a small tear for what I have to leave behind. But mostly with pride and satisfaction and a warm feeling about the past 11 years.”

Her vacation starts on July 5, with a trip to the American west coast, postponed for years by corona, awaiting her and her two sons. “I will start a new job, Joep will start his master's degree in Biomedical Engineering and Revi will start his studies in Mechanical Engineering here at TU/e. Everyone is experiencing a milestone this year, which is a great time for such a trip.”

Last month

But first, she's going to have one last month of full-on work. “Transfer discussions, intense sessions to get that right, creating files for my successor, making sure everything can go on until there’s a new vice president,’ she sums up. “People are getting a little anxious as my farewell approaches. It’s fast approaching, but we’re going to organize it neatly.”

A profile for Ummelen’s replacement is currently being prepared. She hopes that person will make the Executive Board complete again in the fall.


We walk together after lunch back from the Black Box to Atlas. Across a sun-drenched campus packed with students and staff enjoying their lunch around the pond. “I will definitely miss this,” she says with a bit of wistfulness in her voice.

Nicole Ummelen. Photo: Vincent van den Hoogen
Nicole Ummelen. Photo: Vincent van den Hoogen

I made an agreement with my son that anything discussed here at the kitchen table about the university stays at the kitchen table.

Nicole Ummelen, vice president of the Executive Board

Fortunately, with her two sons (soon to be) studying at TU/e, Ummelen remains connected to the university. “My oldest son Joep is studying Biomedical Engineering, and we regularly talk at the kitchen table about what we experience at the university. We made the agreement that everything discussed here at the kitchen table stays at the kitchen table. For him it is very interesting to know how things are put together, and for me it is very nice to see how he experiences TU/e.”

“During the corona days, I watched him attend lectures at the living room table, then I saw the impact of what we discussed with the corona crisis team. I really like the fact that I got to experience it from the other side as well.”

MomenTUm as a mother

“I will continue to feel that sense of connection to TU/e without having to interfere,” she says with a laugh. “It’s a cut-off I will make when I go to the Open University. And if all goes well, Joep will get his bachelor's soon and I'll come back to campus during MomenTUm. But then as a proud mother.”

Nicole Ummelen bids farewell to the university on August 30.

Written by

Brigit Span
(Corporate Storyteller)

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