Meet the New Dean: “Excellence Is Sometimes Associated with an Idea of Superiority”

Interview by Thea Bladt Hansen and Levin Stamm

Collage by Charlotte Görl

Prof. Dr. Martin van Hees, previous programme director of the VU’s Philosophy, Politics and Economics bachelor’s (PPE) programme, is AUC’s new dean. The Dutch professor of ethics and political theory has begun his five year tenure on 1 March 2021. He follows Prof. Dr. Murray Pratt who announced his resignation last November “to focus more on research again. On reading, thinking and writing.”

A start in turbulent times. In addition to the challenges posed by the Coronavirus pandemic, van Hees will have to manage the college’s transition into a more competitive university landscape. The transition includes two new initiatives: The Framework and Action Plan for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (FAPDEI) and AUC Next, a task force focusing on how to develop the university college’s vision and profile.

The Herring has had the opportunity to interview van Hees on, among others, why Excellence might no longer be an appropriate catchphrase for AUC and how he has overcome his feelings of guilt as a vegetarian.

Photo of Martin van Hees

The Herring: How are you doing in this very special situation – starting as AUC’s dean during a pandemic?

Martin van Hees: I’m fine, but it’s special indeed. My work life is reduced to having many zoom meetings – that’s weird and surreal. But of course it’s much tougher for students and others who cannot be where they want to be.

Your previous position as programme director of the VU’s Philosophy, Politics and Economics programme was in many ways similar to AUC: A small-scale, interdisciplinary bachelor’s programme. Why the switch?

It is similar in the kind of teaching, but different in its scope. The VU’s PPE programme is interdisciplinary but still within a well-defined area of inquiry. AUC is much broader and covers the entire spectrum of university training. The degree of freedom for students to choose courses from different disciplines is much larger here.

What does a workday look like for you at the moment?

I get up quite early and go for a hike, I’m at my desk at around 8.30 and then it’s basically zooming and emailing the entire day. It’s a familiar picture of the life of an academic in that sense. When my children were young, I once overheard a conversation between my son and his friend. The friend asked, “So, what does your father do?” My son said, “He’s a philosopher.” The friend then asked whether it was interesting. My son answered, “No, it is very uninteresting work, he just looks at his screen the entire day.” 

You haven’t met many of your colleagues yet?

Not in person. Only via zoom.

“The science angle is a prominent and distinctive feature of our programme that we should retain.”

Many students perceived your predecessor Dr. Murray Pratt to be rather passive when it came to his involvement in the student community. Do you want to be more actively connected to students?

One of the first things I have done is to arrange plenary lunch sessions on zoom every other Thursday for interested students. But I really look forward to being at the building and joining activities there – and perhaps stimulate students for new activities. One of the drawbacks of my zoom existence is that it is really difficult now to meet the students, to see what you all are doing and to join in when activities take place.

Like Pratt, you have a background in the humanities, even though AUC traditionally focuses a lot on the sciences.

I’m not dean because I’m a philosopher or because I come from the humanities. That’s not part of the job description. As a dean and in my own research I have been very interdisciplinary. So interdisciplinarity as a defining feature of the Liberal Arts and Sciences connects well to my background. The science angle is a prominent and distinctive feature of our programme that we should retain.

But do you want to make the programme more well-rounded? The Humanities, for instance, have far fewer courses and students compared to the two other majors.

The joint agreement on which AUC was founded emphasises its strong focus on the Sciences. That will remain an important part of our distinctive profile. But the broadness of it as well. Rather than staring too much on the number of students in the different majors, we should focus on the programme choices offered by AUC.

When introducing you as AUC’s new dean, UvA rector Karen Maex especially complimented you on your “drive for educational innovation.” What is this drive about?

The interplay between the acquisition of knowledge and skills, for instance. Which skills do we deem to be important? And what needs to change in the classroom to further develop them? That ranges from the language used in the classroom to balancing teacher-centered and interactive elements of a course. But most importantly: It’s never static. We constantly need to ask ourselves if we are still doing it well or if there are other avenues asking for more exploration.

“To be excellent is to be better than someone else. That is not the interpretation I have in mind for this programme.”

The new initiative “AUC Next” attempts at distinguishing AUC’s profile more from other university colleges. How involved are you in this project?

AUC Next is high on my agenda. Some days ago we had a major meeting in which we made decisions about how to prepare and develop the initiative further during the next months. It will range from discussions about the vision, values, slogan as well as concrete details about whether we should change the semester structure. 

Any ideas on how you want to change the slogan?

I want to first emphasise that AUC Next is a joint effort – it’s not the dean dictating how everything will be done now. But I do have some ideas. 

For example?

Take the notion of excellence, which has undergone a change in its meaning. I think that excellence in its original meaning is connected to developing and flourishing as a person. That kind of interpretation of excellence is an intrapersonal comparison – you compare yourself with yourself. However, now it is often seen as an interpersonal comparison, that is: to be excellent is to be better than someone else. That is not the interpretation I have in mind for this programme. 

What would be a better term to include in AUC’s new slogan?

I don’t have a different slogan for you right now, but we all share the idea of quality, the importance of engagement with the world and responsibility. These are features which in one way or another will come back if we were to adopt a new slogan. The term excellence is sometimes associated with elitist programmes or an idea of superiority. We should stay away from such connotations.

Does this connect to the Framework and Action Plan for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (FAPDEI)?

For me, the prime attraction of the FAPDEI is the idea of being open to different perspectives and all relevant points of view. If our programme does not appeal to students with specific backgrounds, then we do not fulfill that objective. The FAPDEI should ensure that we don’t have implicit biases in the nature of our programme. 

But the FAPDEI has a certain emphasis on community outreach. Do you consider raising the amount of scholarships, for example?

We are looking into scholarship funding for this particular reason, but also admissions. We want to make sure that students with certain backgrounds are not more likely to drop out during the admissions process. We approach this from various angles – focusing on scholarships, admissions and the way we teach. All with the idea that we reach everyone and don’t make implicit choices that are at odds with our values. 

“If we only had one political voice on campus, I would be very worried. I am keen on having a plurality of views.”

In a 2009 interview you stated that a “philosopher has to be an activist to spread his ideas.” Is it still your opinion that activism and academia are connected?

For me activism means being engaged and feeling responsible for the things you are doing, and, yes, I am very much in favour of it. But it also means being open to different perspectives, being open and willing to engage in discussions. Another interpretation of activism is when it becomes almost synonymous with a particular political position. If we had only one political voice on campus, I would be very worried. I am keen on having a plurality of views. One may call this “pluralist activism.” It means making sure that different voices are being heard. That people are able to listen to each other, that they can be angry with each other, but still continue the discussion with each other.

In a recent internal letter, some of your colleagues at AUC have expressed their concerns – explicitly in connection to the FAPDEI – about the plurality of voices being heard. How would you respond to such concerns?

Well, I think we should have that debate! I don’t believe in an opposition here between activism and the ideas underlying AUC, given what I just said about the interpretation of notions like diversity and activism. Let’s be open about the differences in opinion that exist and should exist in any vibrant and flourishing community.

In the same interview you stated that you are a vegetarian and that “the vegan is the bad conscience of the vegetarian.” Is the bad conscience still hunting you?

Funny, I forgot that interview. But indeed, as a vegetarian I was always somewhat puzzled by the fact that I suffered more from feelings of guilt regarding my food consumption than most non-vegetarians. Luckily that is over: I turned vegan seven years ago. But don’t get me started now on veganism…


I love to have general discussions about veganism. I would be more than happy to discuss such things in one of AUC’s extracurricular activities. It raises all sorts of interesting further questions about our responsibility and the possible implications of it. 

Murray Pratt said he wanted to go back to research after five years in an administrative function. You have already been in such a position for a while. Not tired of administrative work yet?

I still do some research, even though not as intensely as in the past. But yes, most of my work will be in administration. I will balance it out with some teaching, though.

Teaching at AUC?

Yes, it’s a course in development in the philosophy track. The course is tentatively called “Philosophical Controversies” and will include discussing big debates within philosophy regarding truth, freedom and the meaning of life. I want to look into the students’ eyes as well during my time as a dean, so I am really keen on participating in that course.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s