Farewell interview Janneke Plantenga: “Keep involving students in societal projects!"

opening regenboogfietspad
Janneke Plantenga on a tandem with Henk Kummeling at the opening of the rainbow bicycle path, 2021. Photo: Ivar Pel

She enjoyed the thump-thump of the music and the commotion under her office window in the city center, during the UIT, the Utrecht Introduction Time. “The moment of starting something new together. Meet new people. Isn't that beautiful?" She is also starting something new herself, because Janneke Plantenga has passed the baton to the new dean and is retiring. What does she want to endow us?

Diversity is and remains a topic close to your heart, because you were also the UU-wide diversity dean. Are we building a more diverse and less white student population?

Yes and no. When are you satisfied? Yes, there are slowly more students witch diverse backgrounds at our faculty. We pay attention to this in the information provided when recruiting new students. We have recruited slightly more teachers with a diverse background. We test our curriculum for diversity. But bringing in new people is one thing. Holding it and changing it is another thing. If new students and colleagues do not feel at home here, they will leave in no time. What matters is that they recognize their reality at the university. That they feel heard and seen.

How can we improve this?

Promoting diversity can also be done in the structure of a programme. We could create more openness. If you are stuck in a pre-programmed plan, you will not be able to pursue your own interests, in electives, in internships, in minors.
I hope that students can realize their ambitions and add depth. We must not only examine the subject content for a more diverse world view, but also the structures of training courses. Community engaged learning can also play a role in this. Work on current issues in society, together with people from outside the university.

Break open the structure of a programme... Let students pursue their own interests.

Janneke Plantenga
Janneke Plantenga
Former dean of Law, Economics and Governance

This will be a long-term job…

Yes, one challege of diversity is that we are used to working sequentially. Step 1, then step 2, step 3. But promoting diversity actually requires a parallel agenda; you play chess on several boards at the same time. It is in student recruitment, in HR policy, in determining teaching programs, in communication, in the work culture and so on. My advice is: do it out of curiosity. Not because you have to, but because you are curious to explore new paths. If we change things here, where will we end up? Keep your mind open.

What has really touched you personally at the faculty in recent years?

A very inspiring project was that of the Skyscraper, the whale made from plastic waste from the sea. Marleen van Rijswick, professor of European and national water law, had seen the artwork at an art biennial in Bruges and decided to bring it to Utrecht. Not easy, but successful, thanks to many colleagues.

Partners bij de Skyscraper Walvis
Partners Skyscraper. Photo: Robert Oosterbroek.

Immediately a real eye-catcher. Through smart collaboration with the municipality, a water board, a contractor company, sponsors and many other partners, TivoliVredenburg was given a beautiful place in the Catharijnesingel, at a busy point.

Janneke Plantenga

And a programme was created surrounding it with public activities by students and researchers and social partners. The whale underlined at a glance the urgency of a social problem and we linked that to our research and education.

The years 2020-2021 were at times survival, during COVID-19. Everything we can to ensure that our education can continue. That certainly made a deep impression on me. And in retrospect I also think: we really underestimated the impact of COVID-19 on young people. The loneliness, the individualization, which is already strongly present in society. We are still noticing the consequences in the behavior of students. It is so important to really meet each other. The quality of education is not a given. It also depends on your fellow students, on involvement, preparation, discussions with the teacher, the social aspect. That's why it gave me so much pleasure to see the Utrecht Introduction Time erupting in full force again here under my window in the city center. With loud music, but also so many young people meeting each other full of plans and curiosity. Awesome.

We have really underestimated the impact of COVID-19 on young people.

Janneke Plantenga
Janneke Plantenga
Former dean of Law, Economics and Governance

What do you wish for the students of the future?

I sometimes feel sorry for today's students. The pressure to study nominally is high; they have to take in a lot in a short time. There is so little air and space in their study time. I studied for six years and my husband for eight years. And really just 'studying'; We didn't have a job where you had to earn money. Actually no one had that. I had a fantastic time.

Janneke Plantenga in het Academiegebouw

If you look at the one-year master's programmes that we offer… If I could change one thing, it would be that; more space in the master phase, more room for personal development. I also believe that we as teachers and support staff should support students with ideas in the field of social impact. We have to make time for that. Does a student want to organize a lecture or meeting? A project outside the university that is related to your studies? We should be able to say “yes” to good ideas.

What else touched you, personally?

Over the past year I have felt very involved in all activities surrounding the history of slavery and the university. Especially the realization that this subject still has such an impact on people's lives today.

It wasn't that long ago at all! I was impressed by the papers of twelve students who wrote from their field about slavery, colonialism and their impact on the present. Dean's dinners around this theme with good conversations were wonderful. The UU-wide meeting here at the Janskerkhof, in which colleagues showed themselves very vulnerable, accompanied by the impressive music of Black Harmony. This is not a traditional REBO topic and it was not a traditional event for a university meeting. That gives me a lot of energy. That has an impact. And something completely different: I was also very proud that there was an exhibition and a meeting about sex workers here in the building. Step off the beaten track and present a different reality in that somewhat chic Janskerkhof. Delicious!

Slavery history, sex workers… we've had some non-traditional university gatherings. That gives me a lot of energy.

Janneke Plantenga
Janneke Plantenga
Former dean of Law, Economics and Governance

For a few years now, our faculty has been running the Utrecht Centre for Global Challenges together with the Humanities. What is its importance for the future?

I think we get out of it what we put into it and I'm happy with that. Researchers who are working on a “global” dimension find their home there and can enter into collaborations with scientists from other disciplines at the UU. That doesn't apply to everyone and it doesn't have to. It does not always have to concern distant countries and continents. Many Law, Economics and Governance researchers have a European view in their research, which is also possible there. Europe is also a very large field of work.

How do you see the position of that centre in relation to the strategic themes?

It is precisely that global dimension of sustainability, but also of institutions, of dynamics of youth, of life sciences, that is where the Centre for Global Challenges can offer a solution. If you don't find enough connection there in the strategic theme, then you will with this centre. We have, as it were, made a move from a center that focuses mainly on the two city center faculties, to a center that focuses on the four strategic themes. I think that is very good for the visibility and viability of the centre.

What I also hope that this center will continue to offer is a social impact agenda, in collaboration with the students. It is very good that there are Uglobe cafés, lectures and discussions organized for and by students on global themes. Please continue! Uglobe can also play an important role in making international community engaged learning possible.

It is very good that students have a role in our Centre for Global Challenges. Especially in the impact agenda. We must continue this!

Janneke Plantenga
Janneke Plantenga
Former dean of Law, Economics and Governance

How do you actually feel about retiring?

It's very strange that this is ending now. I have been working since I was 21 and have always enjoyed it. As a director, I think it is good to make way for a new colleague after almost six years. That's necessary, that's fine, I want that, but as a scientist... that feels a bit strange.

Janneke Plantenga tijdens een bijeenkomst van ondersteunend personeel.

I don't know yet what it will be like in the near future. Fortunately, I also have tasks outside the university that continue. I am a supervisor at the Christian Primary Education Betuwe & Bommelerwaard school community  with 16 primary schools and 1 school for special primary education. And I am a member of the Central Planning Commission; the independent supervisory committee of the Central Planning Bureau. That is part of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy. I like that work. So it's not like everything "stops" immediately, fortunately. But it will be a shame not to come here anymore and not to worry about anything and everything together with colleagues! What else do I want to give the facukty? Keep thinking from the collective perspective. We have strong disciplines here that can excel in their own areas, but also continue to work together. That is where our strength lies. "Law, Economics and Governance is here to stay.