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Jasper Knoester's 2023 New Year's Speech

During the New Year's reception on 10 January 2023, Dean Jasper Knoester adressed the faculty in his New Year's speech. He looked back on the past year, but also looked forward at the developments within the faculty.

Dear colleagues, dear students and alumni,

Welcome to the faculty’s New Year reception! I hope you were able to enjoy relaxing holidays with family or friends and that you feel refueled for the coming year.

We look back at the first post-corona year. It was great that after two years of restrictions, from roughly March 1 we could move freely again and meet each other in lecture halls, in seminars, in meeting rooms, and at coffee machines! Last year January should have been my maiden speech in the faculty, but at that time a reception was still impossible to organize.

I am grateful that, finally, I can address you all in person. After my first year in Leiden, I feel happy and privileged to be a member of this faculty and university, so full of quality, motivation, and inspiration. And I look forward to the coming years, working together with you on the challenges which we face, making the faculty an even better place to work and study.

This year's achievements

On our programme this afternoon are my speech, taking roughly 15 minutes, followed by the presentation of two of our Faculty Awards: the Faculty Award for Teaching and the Leiden Science Young Talent Award. After two years of online ceremonies it’s a pleasure to present these awards in person again. After the award ceremonies we will continue our reception downstairs for a toast to the New Year.

Also, you may be wondering what happened to the C.J. Kok Awards. Those will definitely return, but they are in need of an update. We will work on that in the coming year, so you will see these prizes again at next New Year's reception. This year’s awards will be presented by our assessor Ava Bauer and Anastacia Peters. Together they’ll present the Teacher of the Year Award. The Leiden Science Young Talent Award will be presented by Miranda van Eck on behalf of the C.J. Kok Jury.

It’s important to celebrate successes and last year, we could celebrate many, whether in funding, awards, research evaluations, and accreditations of degree programs. If you want to see an overview and feel proud of your faculty, please visit the Faculty’s webpage for Awards and Grants 2022.

In addition, we were awarded considerable additional funding by the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science to carry out new sectorplans and distribute “startersbeurzen”. Many important and successful initiatives, for and by staff as well as students, were continued or introduced. Most of you have contributed to one or more of these successes, often despite already existing high pressure on your work and study schedules. I want to thank you all for your efforts and important contributions!

A changing faculty

Last year, we also started two important faculty wide processes, which in fact are strongly intertwined and will become harder and harder to see separately: the faculty’s transition in governance model and culture and the writing of the faculty’s strategy plan. These processes will also mark the coming year.

Both are aimed at making the faculty, with its strong research institutes, its support departments, its Hortus Botanicus and its Lorentz Center an even better place. Where we learn from each other, help each other, together develop strong ties with stakeholders inside and outside the university and where the total is more than the sum of its parts. This is how I feel what the added value of a faculty is and this is what I want to stand for as a dean.

In the context of the faculty’s transition, a working group with members from various institutes, support departments, and the faculty office, after a period of hard work, with the aid of external advisors and involving many in the faculty, in November submitted a proposal for a new governance model.

The proposal describes how institutes, support departments and faculty board work together and how institutes are governed by a collegial board. Subject to consent from the faculty council, which we are hopeful to receive in the coming week, the board intends to implement this proposal in the coming one and a half year. 

This implementation will be taken up as a project, a mode of operation we intend to roll out as standard for the implementation of new initiatives in the faculty. Projects with clear goals, timelines and with the involvement of relevant broad representations from the faculty community. The new governance model is not the only item related to the transition; others I will mention below.

The last strategy plan of the faculty dates back roughly ten years. Obviously, it is time to develop a new plan and determine what will be our main aims for the coming 5 years. The process of coming to this plan started in November. Again, a working group with broad composition from institutes and support departments plays a central role, supported by external advisors.

During the process consultations and feedback meetings with many people in the faculty are organized. Some of these involve obvious groups, such as the scientific directors, directors of degree programs and institute managers. But also if you are not in one of these groups, you will all have a chance to get involved.

In February, three large consultation events will be organized, where we intend to have round table discussions about various strategic dilemmas. The outcomes of these sessions will be important input for the final strategy plan. Stay tuned: invitations to participate in these sessions will be sent out soon.

Let me mention several important topics to be addressed in the coming years.

Aiming for excellence

First, I find it important to mention that, of course, we will keep aiming at high-quality research and education. Therefore, we should keep working at attracting excellent people, for research and teaching, as well as for all the underlying support of these activities and related facilities. We should be an attractive employer and pay more attention to onboarding, retention, and career development.

It should be a pleasure to work here, for everyone. Career development is part of the national movement Recognition and Rewards for academic staff, in which we should develop our own vision and implementation, but this topic also is highly relevant for non-academic staff. We see increasingly that the job market for personnel, in all types of positions, is extremely tight.

Nowadays, the word excellence is often considered somewhat contaminated, but for me a reputed institution like Leiden University, should aim at excellence. At the same time, we should be aware that the world has changed over the past decades and that excellence needs to be considered in a broader context than 20 years ago. This means that quality in science is not the only thing that counts; the full package is important, particularly also leadership.

Reassessing support

Second, we plan to launch several projects to assess how we should best organize our support of research and education and to implement changes where necessary. Which support should be located in institutes, which at the level of the faculty and which should we leave to the university as a whole?

A start has been made for the support of education, where one of the outcomes is that we intend to move towards one central faculty unit for scheduling lectures and other educational activities. Of course, this unit should closely interact with the institutes and degree programs, as in the end together we have the responsibility to offer the best we can to our students.

Social safety and D&I

Third, a broad and very important interrelated set of topics to address will be social safety, leadership, and diversity, inclusion, and equity. These topics have drawn much attention lately, at many faculties and universities, especially there where things went wrong. Part of being an attractive place to work and study is that people treat one another with respect, that we are aware of what is proper and improper behavior and that we are aware that the standards for this, in fact, partly depend on culture and background.

This requires many discussions and an open and inclusive culture, where it is appreciated to give and receive feedback, where we know how to do this and where we know what it means and takes to be an active bystander. The role of leaders, whether daily supervisors, group leaders, professors, directors, board members, department heads, or chairs of committees, in fact almost all of us, is crucial in this.

Our behavior, how we treat each other, how we talk about this in our layered and international community, will be a key issue in the coming years. We have started addressing this with the leadership of the institutes. Our HR department has provided the faculty board and the institutes with a list of potential activities and tools to help shaping this process. One way or the other, you should all be involved in the coming period.  I would like to make this statement even stronger: I need you all to be involved and I hope you are committed to these goals.

We aim at having a more diverse composition of our staff. General guidelines of how this should have a place in recruiting, onboarding, and retention activities exist and will be reinforced. Diversity is a concept that has many facets, in which attention for gender diversity should still take a special place in our faculty. Therefore, supported by the faculty’s policy funds, we intend to launch a program aimed at increasing the number of senior women academics. 

Crossing institute borders

A final topic I want to mention is how we can take better advantage of the full range of disciplines within our faculty. We highly value academic freedom and will not prescribe what topics researchers pursue. Yet, there are themes in research and education, where working across borders of institutes or faculties gives us an even better position to have high scientific as well as societal impact.

The world is in a very delicate situation and needs all the brain power it can get. We can and do provide this through our education programs as well as research. Let us see how we can even have bigger impact, together. With the scientific directors, we have already listed several broad themes where our faculty has a strong position. We will further sharpen these themes and discuss how we can best stimulate and support them. How can we stimulate further collaboration between institutes as well as with external stakeholders? I foresee that this will be an important topic in the strategy plan and that we will see results in the coming period.

The completion of building phase 2A will help these efforts. This is going to be a great building, where many researchers and students will be in close contact with each other and which will stimulate working on broad themes.

A project-based approach

I hope that the above resonates with you and that you value contributing to one or more of these topics. I do realize that most of you are under high work pressure already and do not feel that you have time to spare to make more contributions. The faculty board fully understands that. So, we should be efficient. This is one of the reasons why we feel that the above-mentioned project-based approach for new initiatives is necessary. And we realize that we cannot do everything at the same time; we will have to make wise selections of priorities, challenging as it may be.

In closing, I would like to remind all of you of our privileged position. We are a great faculty with highly wanted expertise and students. We work with the most talented and motivated colleagues and students from all over the world. Our students are strongly involved in the organization, through co-decision bodies, study associations, and other important bodies, such as the Foundation Bètabanenmarkt.

One year from now, we will add a fantastic new building to our arsenal. We have a large amount of freedom to address those topics we want to address. Thanks to the current cabinet, we receive an enormous amount of additional funds, where many other sectors in society stay empty handed. Therefore, in spite of the challenges we face, let us count our blessings and with positive feelings look forward to an excellent future. I am ready to work on that, together with you.

Happy New Year!

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