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The Presidency of Mirjam van Praag: in retrospect

4 September 2023
In 2018, Mirjam van Praag took over from Jaap Winter as the new President of the Executive Board of VU Amsterdam. After an almost six-year term, she is about to step down. But before she concludes this chapter, let's look back on the changes and milestones that have occurred during her presidency.

Read an extended, flip-through version of this article through this link (Dutch only)

You have achieved quite a few "firsts" as the president of VU Amsterdam. You are the first female president VU Amsterdam has ever had, and also the first president without a Christian-Protestant background. What impact has this had on your role?

"I initially thought that being the first woman in this role would be the main focus. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was actually more significant that I come from a Jewish background instead of a Christian-Protestant one. Religion, in the broadest sense of the word, has a strong position within VU Amsterdam, dating back to its origins. Until last year, the Christian origin of the university was still evident during academic ceremonies, but that changed last year as part of our commitment to diversity. Here on campus, you can see that everyone, from various backgrounds, beliefs, traditions, and personalities, lives together in a respectful manner. We recognise each other when it comes to fundamental values such as respecting the 'otherness' of others, a shared responsibility for sustainability and peace, and our mission to acquire and share knowledge through education and research to make our world more livable, fair, and full of opportunities. It's beautiful to see how diversity at VU Amsterdam is not just tolerated but embraced as a source of strength. Bringing together different perspectives and backgrounds has enriched our university community and helped us create an inclusive and inspiring environment for learning, research, and personal growth. Here at VU Amsterdam, you can be who you are. It's something I am proud to contribute to, both consciously and unconsciously."


Looking back on your time as president, what message did you want to convey?

"I believe I haven't been a conventional leader. When I reflect on what was most important to me in my role, it's staying true to yourself. I often notice people adopt a different personality in their professional lives compared to their personal lives. For me, it's about being transparent. What you see is what you get. I've always been myself and tried not to be someone I'm not. Additionally, it was crucial for me to not just create new plans but also ensure that plans became tangible. Decision-making is just the beginning; it's crucial to create realistic plans and ensure they can be implemented. It's not just about the 'what' but also the 'how'. Furthermore, I infused my entrepreneurial spirit into my role as a leader. Developing new initiatives and making external connections give me satisfaction. Networking and getting hands-on, that's part of who I am. Leadership, for me, also involves collaboration and fostering a strong sense of teamwork. This applies not only to the executive team of directors and deans but also to the Board of Directors. As a member of the Board of Directors, alongside Jeroen Geurts and Marcel Nollen, we formed a close-knit group where we know each other well and understand each other's motivations. We aren't afraid to challenge each other and accept each other's quirks. We've also had a lot of fun together."


Do you remember what your main mission was when you started as a president at VU Amsterdam?

"For me, VU Amsterdam is known as a special, warm, unique, and human university that stands out from other institutions. When I became president, I felt that VU Amsterdam needed to open its doors and show itself to the world. Opening up and fostering entrepreneurship, impact, and valorization were crucial steps to further strengthen this unique identity. My goal was to bring our identity and unique value to the forefront and enhance the presence of VU Amsterdam."


Have those doors been opened now?

"Yes, I believe so. Entrepreneurship, impact, and valorization have played a pivotal role in this process. We've learned to look differently; no longer as the modest university, but with more confidence. VU Amsterdam has become more visible and prouder. During my time, I also attempted to emphasise alumni relations more. I noticed that many VU alumni were deeply affected by the unique experience they had during their studies, but after leaving VU Amsterdam, they didn't hear much from the university. I wanted to change that. The feelings of connection and pride in the university are valuable and should be nurtured; alumni are our lifelong ambassadors. Their successes, stories, and achievements contribute to enhancing the university's reputation and sense of community. Another, more recent example of our visibility and pride is VU's decision to no longer engage in new research collaborations with fossil energy companies that do not adequately strive to achieve the Paris climate goals. We were the first Dutch university to take this step. This decision has garnered many positive reactions and marked a significant moment, where we carefully considered our options. This change deeply resonated with our community and engaged them. Now it's up to us to move forward with determination and maintain this momentum because implementation is just as important as making the decision itself."


Was this a difficult decision, especially considering that the VU community was divided on whether to end the collaborations or not?

"It was undoubtedly a complex matter. Davide Ianuzzi, Chief Impact Officer of VU Amsterdam, along with many other colleagues, worked diligently on this issue to ensure that the voices of everyone within the VU community were heard. When making the decision, we thoroughly examined how it aligned with our university's core values. With whom do we want to collaborate, and under what conditions? We listened to all different viewpoints and perspectives, both internally and externally, and we acknowledged the resistance present. Our intention wasn't to create a 'cancel culture', but rather to be more specific in our collaborations. We wanted to take a clear stance while remaining open to meaningful discussions at the right time with the right people. Of course, it's impossible to fully satisfy everyone, but weighing different factors helped us make an informed decision. Throughout this process, I learned even more that intuition is essential because not everything can be approached entirely rationally and evidence-based. It's about finding a balance between reason and emotion when making decisions."


Speaking of impact in a different way, during your tenure as president (and partially as interim rector), you were faced with the COVID-19 pandemic. For the first time, VU Amsterdam had to close its doors and shift research and education to remote formats. How do you look back on this challenging period, where not only research and education were under pressure, but also the well-being of staff and students?

"It was an incredibly intense period. The government mandated the university's closure, so it was inevitable. Suddenly, everyone was reliant on their home situation. Decision-making was different than usual. We had to consider which programs we could or couldn't use to communicate with each other, depending on what was safe at the time. We also had to decide whether to close labs, conduct proctored exams, provide study spaces, and other facilities. It was a challenge to make the best decisions in a rapidly changing environment. At the same time, this period also brought a sense of unity. The distance forced us to use intuition in a different way. Through a screen, we learned to uncover the 'message behind the message,' something we usually do in person. Everyone appeared as a postage stamp on our screen; human contact was lost. As a leader, a part of my work often takes place behind the computer, but personal contact and connecting with others are even more critical. The pandemic was undoubtedly the most challenging time in my tenure, but it also brought solidarity and ingenuity. In a crisis situation, you have to make decisions more quickly, and that led to much-needed creativity at VU Amsterdam. We are now trying to carry these lessons into the VUture improvement program and the university's operations. My wish is to see this creativity not only in times of crisis but before and after as well."


You also invested a lot as a leader in the university's culture and work environment, such as the Art of Engagement and the aforementioned VUture. What do you consider the most important takeaway for staff and students from these projects? What lasting impact do you hope these projects will have?

"I place great value on hands-on programs that allow people to truly experience the Art of Engagement through experiential learning. It's about doing, practicing, reflecting, and learning how we interact with each other and make decisions. With the Art of Engagement, my goal was to show people how to make decisions faster and then have the courage to communicate these decisions openly and directly, without sugarcoating. I hope this experience of courageous leadership and effective communication sticks with staff and students, even after I'm no longer president. I hope it will have a lasting impact on the university's culture and work environment."


Will it be difficult to let go of this role now?

"There are always things I'd like to continue, such as the Art of Engagement and VUture. However, my motto is also: no one is indispensable. It will still be challenging, though, because I am naturally overly responsible and concerned. Fortunately, I have an excellent successor in Margrethe Jonkman. I have complete confidence that she, along with Jeroen Geurts and Marcel Nollen, with whom I've had wonderful collaboration all these years, will take over and further improve everything with distinction. I'm handing over my responsibilities to her with the utmost trust. And while saying goodbye might be tough, I don't see it as leaving everything – more like transitioning to something else."


What will you do next?

"As a president, you're always 'on,' driven by adrenaline. Once you're no longer in that role, you realize how fatigued you actually are. So, I really want to relax, step out of the executive mode, and give myself a kind of reset, in a way. I look forward to further learning Hebrew, traveling, and doing enjoyable things without planning everything in advance – as I often had to during my presidency. And then, onwards! I will remain connected to VU Amsterdam as a professor. I will hold a new chair within the School of Business and Economics (SBE), focusing on 'Entrepreneurship and Leadership.' I also want to start my own advisory company in this field, aimed at advising organizations that want to be more entrepreneurial, agile, and creative. My approach will be that leaders can learn a lot from the qualities entrepreneurs possess, such as enthusiasm, courage, curiosity, and a touch of audacity – essentially the traits and strengths we had as children. Entrepreneurs often remain more authentic and adaptable because they retain those qualities, which are not always valued in the executive world. Just as we aimed for more 'femininity' in the boardroom twenty years ago and that ultimately bore fruit, I believe a similar movement is possible for appreciating the entrepreneurial, 'childlike' traits of leaders. I want to initiate an emancipation movement in this regard and show that it can make a difference. Think big!"