Who: Geert ten Dam (1958)
What: Professor of Educational Sciences and President of the UvA Executive Board
Studied: Andragogy, major in adult education
First job: Strawberry picking
Favourite place at the UvA: The Roeterseiland complex: a beautiful, interdisciplinary campus that has an open connection to the city both literally and figuratively.
Essential: My bicycle. I cycle from campus to campus and use the bicycle as a place to think.
‘Studying was highly encouraged in our home, especially by my mother. Because of the crisis in the 1920s, she had to drop out of secondary school and go to work in her parents' flower bulb business. It was a lifelong source of regret for her. Because she never had the opportunity herself, she really encouraged her six children. At 18, I left for Amsterdam. I enrolled in Andragogy at the UvA, in the adult education and educational sciences track. In the process of obtaining my initial university degree, I was a student assistant for two years. Since then, teaching and research have always been an inspiration for me.’
‘When I was appointed president of the UvA Executive Board three years ago, I immediately made it clear that I wanted to continue teaching. Together with a colleague, I currently teach a Master's module in Educational Sciences on educational systems and policy. In the lectures, I link the experience I’ve gained as a member of the Education Council to theory about policy and the system. I go over policy dossiers with the students. They really appreciate it and I enjoy it. I love the combination of education and research, so I’ve kept research doing as well. I’m involved in a number of cohort studies and effectiveness studies on civic education and the development of democratic values in young people. It's a busy schedule, but it gives me energy.’
‘The university has to be a part of its community.’
‘Combining my work as president of the UvA Executive Board and my work as a researcher and lecturer is nice because it enables me to stay in step with the University. No one can tell me that I have no insight into the practical end of things. That’s also the reason why we moved the administrative offices from the Maagdenhuis to the Roeterseiland Campus (REC). The Maagdenhuis is a beautiful, traditional administrative building, but you don't run into any students or lecturers there. I have a nice workspace at the REC and the campus is a hive of activity. People talk to me in the hall, the lift and the underground bicycle shelter. Having spent forty years in all of the various layers of the University, I know the organisation and the people here well; I’m a part of this University. That's why I can be part of the executive here, and why I wouldn’t be able to do it in a healthcare institution, for example. I lead from my own experience. Education and research are part of this.’
‘As president of the Board, I see intellectual richness at the UvA. Only now do I realise how well the University is doing across the board. Societal challenges such as sustainability, artificial intelligence, migration flows, growing inequality, social segregation and the circular economy cannot, by definition, be captured in a single discipline. Politics and policy are now primarily focused on science and technology, but that is taking too narrow a view of the needs of society and the labour market. Innovations require technological knowledge, but in order to implement them it is important to mindfully introduce them into society. To do this, it is vitally important to consider social behavioural aspects, for example, or legislation and regulations. The UvA is ideally positioned to tackle social issues across the board, removing barriers between faculties and disciplines. That’s a strength, but also a challenge. How do we ensure that disciplines come into contact? Interdisciplinary collaboration is a priority on our innovation agenda.’
'Social engagement is not an added bonus; it’s woven into your core responsibility as a university.'
‘To me, the UvA’s most defining trait is the combination of top quality and social engagement. A university has to be a part of its community. The people who work and study here are of value to society with their research and education, from both a short-term and a long-term perspective. Moreover, universities are where we educate the new generation. Our greatest gift to society is educating these young students with high quality knowledge and a feel for social responsibility. Universities are important for innovation and resilience in society. And I’m not talking about valorisation, knowledge utilisation, as we once saw it: ‘we’ve come up with something great which we’ll give to society, in exchange for money or not’. Rather, it should be a two-way street. The university conducts research and develops things in cooperation with social partners. They in turn provide the university with knowledge and information. When this knowledge cycle is functioning properly, you enrich education and research. Social engagement is not an added bonus; it’s woven into your core responsibility as a university.’
‘Diversity is an important theme for the UvA. Everyone has to feel valued, respected, safe and welcomed. We recently drew up a policy document on diversity in which we set the stage for appointing more female professors among other things. We’re starting a summer school for first generation students and we currently have a programme in which older students act as mentors for freshmen for whom the university is a completely new environment. The UvA must be an accessible university for those who want and can study. I strongly oppose the idea that diversity diminishes excellence. From an equity point of view and in terms of societal needs, it is inexcusable if students are obstructed or can’t find their way to the university just because of their social-cultural background. We are now making good strides in the area of diversity but it’s slow-going. Sometimes I get impatient, but the attention for diversity is there and the discussion is ongoing. If we can do this together, that's something we can be proud of.’
'The UvA's breadth is its strength; we look beyond the walls separating the faculties and disciplines.'
'The university is the place for a confrontation with facts and opinions that are not necessarily popular or accepted. Open debate is the university's most prized asset. We should protect it. In my position it’s an illusion to think that you can please everyone, but dialogue is very important to me. Keep the dialogue going, talk and above all: listen. I believe in consensus-building. I believe you must always try to meet each other halfway and at the very least try to understand the other’s perspective. And if you decide otherwise, you must clearly explain why. And you have to be willingto say after a year: look, we’re not making progress. As the Executive Board, we are a team that works well together. We share a lot, we get very involved with each other's portfolios and we laugh. You have to or you’d go mad. The years that I spent as a member of the Education Council help with respect to contact with the government. I am quite well-versed in how politics work, I am familiar with the national government, the sector organisations, the Accreditation Organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders (NVAO). And I'm not afraid to say what I think about something. I'm not invested in my comfortable position. I will do the best I can, and I’m held to account for my responsibility. There are wonderful aspects to my work, but it's a difficult job, too.’
‘I get up around six in the morning and brew a litre of tea. It's still quiet in the house at that time and I sit at the kitchen table and read through all of my documents. You must always have read your documents, never let that slide. A few hours later I arrive at the university, alert and well prepared for the day. Then I proceed from meeting to meeting. Appointments, meetings, staff meetings, both at the UvA and outside. The working day ends around six-thirty or so. If possible, I try to eat home. I’m in bed before 11. I'm extremely disciplined; I wouldn't be able to keep up if I wasn't. The key in these sorts of jobs is to be well-rested. The university is a supertanker. You have to make sure that you keep an overview. The only way to do that is to avoid getting overtired. Otherwise, you will start worrying about everything and if there is one thing you cannot afford in this job it's to become a worrier. I ride my bike every day for an hour to an hour and a half; for me it's a great way to clear my head. When I got the call asking me if I wanted to become president of the Executive Board, I thought: do I really want that? But I found myself intrigued. The UvA has given me a lot of opportunities. If I can give something back this way, do something meaningful, then it's a good thing.’