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Corry Donner on her retirement: 'I’ll definitely miss the intellectual stimulation, but what I want most now is to get out of my head.'

As Board Secretary, Corry Donner aims to be a ‘spider in the web’; someone who keeps a watchful eye on and brings together all the different perspectives of the institute’s board. Now she's left her carefully woven web at the university and transfer her tasks to her successor. Last September, we talked to Corry about leaving, the importance of a shared vision and the magnificence of nature in Alaska.

Corry Donner, Board Secretary

The El Cid week has started. ‘There are a lot of new kids in town,’ Corry says with a smile. ‘I think it’s a really fun period; there’s a lot more going on than normal.’ That hustle and bustle is something she enjoys. Maybe today she is more struck than usual by the crowds of excited students. With a mixture of anticipation and curiosity, she too is about to enter unknown territory: her retirement.

Outdoor play

These are Corry’s last months at the Institute, after fifteen years at the university. Her final working day is just before Christmas. ‘I’ve worked for different institutes, so I think it’s going to be a sizeable farewell party downstairs,’ she says about her departure. ‘But I also want to do something active: a winter walk with the institute office and making a camp fire somewhere.’

That’s the kind of farewell that typifies Corry’s craving for adventure and activity. ‘Outdoor play,’ is how she likes to describe it. It’s a good preparation for her retirement, which she intends to spend outdoors in nature as much as possible. ‘Swimming, playing golf, kayaking, walking, and cycling.’ Together with husband Jan, who is also about to retire. ‘I’m looking forward to waking up in the morning and thinking: what are we going to do today? That’s a fantastic prospect. I’ll definitely miss the intellectual stimulation and all my colleagues, but what I want most now is to get out of my head.’

See the pictures from Corry's farewell party


It’s certainly going to be a big change; for the past forty years Corry has been mainly in her head. Reading, thinking and studying, always involving language. ‘As a family, we used to read a lot of English-language literature; the novels and short stories by Hemingway were always a firm favourite.’ Studying English was a logical step, and later, at the age of forty, after a career in marketing, and as a translator and communications adviser, Corry joined the student ranks again: this time as a student of Psychology in Leiden.  

'I’d recommend everyone to work somewhere where you can combine your fields of interests'

‘I graduated in developmental psychology, with Michiel Westenberg as my supervisor, and after that I went to work in that unit.’ It was the ideal place for Corry to put her combined expertise in English, psychology and communication to good use. ‘It’s an enormous luxury, but if you have the chance, I’d recommend everyone to work at the intersection of your fields of interest. It’s the best way to show what you have to offer. Michiel gave me that opportunity, and it was wonderful.’


In 2012, Corry and Jennifer Martin set up the IBP, the International bachelor’s programme. ‘There was a call to admit more international students, and the time was right. We started with 100 students, all of whom we knew personally; it was a really great group. Now, almost ten years later, that number has grown to 300 students in the current IBP.’ It is this kind of project that Corry looks back on with satisfaction. ‘I enjoyed working on projects because they give you a chance to be involved in both organisation and content.’ But, she adds with a smile, ‘It’s also because all projects at some point in time come to an end, and you can move on to something new.’

Vision and strategy

At the moment, Corry’s job as Board Secretary means she is supporting several projects, including formulating a vision and strategy for the Insititute of Psychology. ‘Within the institute we have all kinds of policy documents on different aspects of management, but what we don’t have is an explicit, integrated vision and strategy for the institute as a whole. It was time to put everything down on paper, under Andrea’s leadership, and helped by two transition managers. Alongside the strategy of the University and Faculty, it’s important to have our own, more concrete vision and strategy that align as closely as possible with the work floor and our primary processes. That’s obviously something we all have to work on together so that people really are behind it.'

It’s important to have our own concrete vision and strategy that align with the work floor

A vision is a valuable tool for new staff to get to know the organisation, but it’s also important for the world outside, because that world is becoming increasingly complex, not to mention more critical. ‘People want to know what kinds of subsidiary positions professors hold. How is the University funded? Where do the subsidies come from? What is done with the money from our taxes? Once you have an explicit vision and strategy, you can point out how the choices we make fit within that vision.’

There are a lot of major shifts taking place internally in the institute, including within the different units. ‘We’re moving to a broader governance model that is better suited to such a large organisation as our institute. With more people involved in management, it becomes even more important to make sure everyone is on the same page, to know what you stand for. Why do we exist as an institute at all? We want to make that clear in the fields of education, research, business operations and management.’

Ultimately, the new vision provides a solid foundation for current and future employees and board members. It will be a document that says: this is what we want, this is who we are. We want to give the future boards a basis to work with.' One person who will certainly be a great help here is Wendy Werkman, to whom Corry will gradually be handing over her tasks as Board Secretary from the end of September.

Bears in Alaska

Until then, Corry will be spending a lot of time on the hand-over and a major clean-up. ‘I’m clearing out thousands of work emails and documents, but I’m doing the same at home with books. I really want to de-clutter.’ And then that ultimate outdoor play can start, switching between Ameland, Leiden and - best of all – in the vast forests of Alaska. ‘Alaska is fantastic,’ she says with a sigh. ‘We’ve already been there ten times, but I want to go again. The people are so friendly and unique; there’s a real pioneer mentality, the natural environment is beautiful and wild. For me, it’s a place for total relaxation.’ 

‘A bear might pass by your tent’

And there’s no lack of excitement there either. ‘There might be times when a bear will pass by your tent,’ she says rather lightly. ‘You have to make sure you don’t have any toothpaste or whisky in the tent, and you don’t sleep in the same clothes you were wearing when you were cooking.’ But, does the prospect of such an uninvited guest worry her? Corry pauses for a moment. ‘Well… it’s like this: you sleep a bit lighter than normal. But if you shout really loudly and make a lot of noise, the bear will eventually go away.’

Each month we hear the story of a Executive Board member: this is what my job is in the board, and these are my personal interests. 
Executive Board - Institute of Psychology.

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