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University Council chair : ‘You have to be patient but you really can make a difference’

The university elections are approaching. Are you going to represent student and staff interests this coming year? University Council chair Pauline Vincenten gives a peek behind the scenes at student and staff participation at Leiden University. ‘I get so much energy from collaborating with the students and staff. They’re an intelligent, engaged and driven bunch.’

How would she describe being chair in one word? ‘Fascinating’, Pauline immediately responds. ‘It’s an incredibly fascinating job. Although I hadn’t realised beforehand that it would also be such a political job.’

It was an eventful first semester too. There was a debate about collaboration with the fossil fuel industry and the conflict between Israel and Palestine was responsible for heightened tensions and increased security in the university buildings. ‘These topics were essentially about what kind of organisation we want to be as a university’, says Pauline. ‘I see it as my role to ensure that all opinions within the council are addressed and all voices are heard.’

Good atmosphere

She is proud, therefore, that the atmosphere on the council is good. ‘The members treat each other with respect and are never condescending to each other, even if there’s the odd clash in politically sensitive discussions.’ She gives the example of a meeting right after the teach-in in the Wijnhaven Building in November. ‘I then said in all honesty that my background as a social scientist guides how I think and that is good that we have completely different viewpoints on the council. We went round the room and gave everyone the chance to say how the events had affected them and what they wanted the Board to know.’

‘I am proud that the atmosphere on the council is good’

Because that is the role of the University Council as the university’s main participation body: to monitor the Executive Board and offer it advice and sometimes to co-decide on important issues.  Anything that affects students and staff can crop up at council meetings: from PhD supervision and digitalisation of education to sustainable Billie cups and free menstrual products. ‘Luckily there are 15 of us council members together with an incredibly helpful clerk’, says Pauline. ‘I get so much energy from collaborating with the students and staff. They’re an intelligent, engaged and driven bunch.’

Vote on the budget

These are just some of the issues the council has worked on in recent years: cancelling the second-year binding study advice, appointing an ombuds officer for staff and switching off the people counters in classrooms. A recent example is how the council used the discussion on the workload as a bargaining chip in the vote on the university budget just before the Christmas break. ‘It was a tense time’, says Pauline. ‘I thought it was a shame that the discussion had to escalate like that. But I do feel that something has shifted with the Executive Board.’

And that is why it is so important that university managers have the opportunity to talk directly with students and staff through the participation bodies, says Pauline. ‘At the higher management levels, there are a lot of people who are that bit older and more experienced and at a greater distance from what is currently important to students and staff. They are less able to understand why small things can have such an impact.’ She gives the example of the − since scrapped − extra confirmation on registering for an exam. ‘That had huge implications for students and created extra work for staff. So it’s good for a lot of people that that one checkmark has now gone.’

Not very patient

Pauline’s biggest challenge is the decentralised university organisation. ‘Our faculties are really quite different and each has its own interests, which can make it difficult to get them all on board. Now, for example, maintaining the status quo is often seen as a neutral choice, or in other words, keep on doing what we are doing. This means that change can take a long time, and I’m not a very patient person. At the same time, I can see that we are not standing still. That the whole examining committee at PhD ceremonies can now wear academic dress is a good step forward, for instance.’

‘You learn about the management of a large public organisation and engage directly with the people at the controls’

She therefore calls on students and staff who also want to do their bit to make this progress happen to stand for election in March. ‘The participation bodies are the place where you can have your opinion heard about university policy. You learn about the management of a large public organisation and engage directly with the people at the controls. So you need a lot of patience but can really make a difference.’

‘You’re allowed to be human’

And what might reassure anyone who is wavering: you really don’t have to have an opinion on everything from the beginning or already possess a lot of knowledge. ‘You learn that along the way, by reading documents and talking to others’, says Pauline. ‘I also hope that it makes a difference that someone like me is at the table and presiding over meetings. I tend to blush a lot when I’m nervous about something, like a job interview or an important discussion with the Executive Board. So it’s okay to be a gentle type as a student or staff representative. You’re allowed to be human and above all to learn a lot in the role. I think that’s only to be appreciated within the council.’

Stand as a candidate for the University elections 2024!

Would you like to represent the interests of students and staff this year? The University elections will be held from 22 till 25 April 2024. You can submit your candidacy here on 26 and 27 March. As a student, you can stand this year for the University Council, all faculty councils and the LUMC Student Council. As staff, you can stand this year for the University Council and the faculty council of Humanities.

Text: Evelien Flink
Banner photo: Rob Dorresteijn

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