By Tamar Bot and Konstantin Kirilov, Photography by Andrew Kambel
— Late last week The Herring got a chance to sit down with Amsterdam University College’s new Dean, Professor Murray Pratt. A few weeks have passed since he officially began his tenure, and we wanted to hear about his first impressions, his goals for the future, as well as his vision for the role of students, faculty and staff in the institution’s development.
What are your first impressions of AUC and its staff, faculty and students?
It’s been a real pleasure discovering AUC. I had done some research, but it is only once you arrive that you realize how vibrant it is. I’m impressed by how creative the place is, students are very good at showing initiative, the courses are really cutting-edge and combining different approaches in interesting ways — right across the curriculum. It’s also a place that is really contemporary and relevant. The kinds of learning that people do here are designed so as to address the big questions, the issues and debates that will actually become the heart of the workplace in the future. Finally, an impression I’ve had is what a friendly and collegiate community it is. I’m very grateful for the warm welcome I’ve had from colleagues and students.
Is there a visible difference that already pops out in relation to your previous work experience, particularly in the United Kingdom?
A university college is really different from a university. That has its pluses and its minuses. It’s easier to get things done, but on the other hand, there’s less of an infrastructure to draw upon. I think I can use some of my previous experience to enhance what we’re already doing here.
If you could set yourself three goals for your tenure as Dean at AUC, what would they be? (in order of importance)
I think there’s a lot of that in AUC’s value of excellence and diversity in a global city. My three main aims are right in these key words.
For excellence, we need to maintain the quality of teaching and learning. We need to think imaginatively about the best learning procedures for different subjects. It’s really about finding opportunities for all of our students to reach their full potential. For me, excellence is judged in that way. There are all kinds of approaches in place already with regard to how we teach. I think the tutor system and the Student Life Officer provide an excellent framework for that. My goals in that are around maintaining and improving the students’ academic experience, and there’s a lot of work behind the scenes that goes into that with our teaching colleagues. There’s also a lot of networking and ensuring that we are tied into developments in the universities, that we’re meeting with our sponsor, placement providers and decision makers in the city.
If you take diversity, we’ve just celebrated the success of the guest students that studied Dutch with us. That was a fantastic evening. It is a great example of how we can make a commitment to diversity. And diversity is a word that can mean all kinds of different things. It’s important that we understand what we mean by diversity. I’d like us to explore that further. It could be that we think of the diversity of our community by valuing and celebrating difference in all kinds of ways, and encourage different views as well. It’s very easy for small organizations to become mono-cultural. I’m well set up to go beyond that. I want to experiment with how we value freedom of expression. But diversity is also built into our curriculum: we have a very wide range across sciences, social sciences and humanities. That needs to be maintained as well.
I think the global city part of our value statement is just as important. For me that conjures up the idea of how international we are. We do very well in enabling about a quarter of our students to take a study abroad semester. I’ve done a lot of work in previous positions to boost internationalization and enhance not just the number of students going on exchange, but also enhance the value that students get out of their time abroad. And internationalization means much more than just studying abroad. It’s also about how we welcome our full-time international students and incoming exchange students. It’s about ensuring that our curriculum is internationally relevant as well, and that we don’t fall into Western assumptions. We need to embrace the world as a whole.
I also want to think about how we are engaging with Amsterdam as a global city. Can we do more to be at the forefront of Amsterdam’s global agenda? We can do that within our classes, and there’s been some fantastic examples I’ve heard about already where students are engaging with the Europe by People festival that coincides with the Dutch presidency of the EU. That’s an example of how these things can take place both inside and outside the classroom to open up learning to what’s happening in Amsterdam.
Why did you change the location of your office? Are you aware that AUC’s first Dean had specifically chosen this office because it aligns with the institution’s philosophy of transparency?
It’s a series of different decisions, but it’s no big deal for me. I did move into the original office to begin with. On a personal level, it was a little bit distracting when people were going past all the time. Plus, I’m quite an outdoors person, and I like to have natural light and a view to the outside. Another reason is that it frees up that space for all our colleagues to use for short meetings or socializing. Visiting staff can work there as well, so I think that room has got an important role to play. The idea of transparency – that’s one way to look at it. But you can also look at it as a cross between a panopticon and a display cabinet. This room is more conducive to concentrating and having a whole variety of different kinds of meetings. But, importantly, I don’t want to be less transparent – if anything, I want to be more transparent. I do have a policy of leaving my door open unless I’m focusing on work. Colleagues and students are welcome to come in as long as the door is open. And if it’s closed they can knock!
How do you think your background as a humanities scholar will be valuable to a science-oriented institution like AUC? Do you plan to shift the focus a little bit? If so, how?
All the tracks in the curriculum refresh themselves regularly, which is important. That is not going to change. Each discipline and the tracks within them will continue to evolve. Evolution is the key word here. I’m not interested in coming in and changing things just for the sake of it, especially when we have a system that absolutely works. I’m much more interested in a process of continuous discovery and improvement. But these decisions will be jointly made by the management, the teaching team, and the students through consultative processes. It’s not as if I, as the Dean, will have the one and final say in this. Also, we have to look beyond that as well, to various organizations that show the quality of what we’re doing: nationally, internationally, and in the city.
It’s also important to have disciplinary rigor. That is not going to change. You need to make sure that you are accessing sets of knowledge that are appropriate to a discipline in order to become skilled in it. But on the other hand, what we do very well here, is to bring different disciplinary approaches into dialogue with each other. The world needs that more and more because we live in an increasingly complex society where one discipline isn’t enough to provide the answers to all kinds of questions. An example I got recently was that of the dwindling bee population, which requires scientific approaches, but also an understanding of what humans are doing that might be influencing it. And then representations are important too. Through telling stories, projecting into the future, making movies, we communicate the urgency of situations. And that’s just one example of how all the disciplines come into play when you tackle a big question.
So to me, yes, we are on the Science Park, and yes, one of the things that makes us unique is that we provide a much fuller science curriculum than any other places. But to do that properly you want students to be exposed to all kinds of different thinking and learning.
What would the role of student-run media be in establishing better lines of communication between the staff, the faculty, and the students?
I think it has a very important role to play. To give students more of a voice and ensure that different views are taken into consideration when decisions are made. I also think that we need to think carefully about what media is and how it’s accessed, and what kind of influence it has. There’s a proliferation of information and communication, but at the same time people’s attention spans are shorter and shorter. You got this click culture where you notice a headline and like it without thinking about it. Media professionals and apprentice media professionals have got a responsibility to think about how they use communications to engage people in fuller and more thoughtful debates.
How important is student input for your vision on AUC?
Crucially important. I think we’ve got some very good processes and organizations in place, and we need to make sure they’re working as well as they can to involve students in the decisions that we make. That goes back to the question of what is real transparency: for me, it is being clear about decision making processes and at what points there are opportunities for input, and how those will be considered. The formal organizations have a crucial role to play here. But any one member of our community can contribute to our debates at any time – that is only natural.
On behalf of the Editorial Board we would like to thank Professor Pratt for this insightful interview, and we hope to be able to talk to him again in the near future, so we can come back to some of these issues and see what progress has been made.