“Students Don’t Realise that We Are a Liberal Arts and Sciences Programme”: Michiel van Drunen Looks Back on a Decade at AUC

Interview by Levin Stamm

Collage by Sara Serrano

A monitor and a keyboard are the only remaining items on his desk. Dr. Michiel van Drunen, AUC’s departing Director of Education, has nearly concluded his time at AUC as The Herring meets him for a last interview. It is a rainy Thursday in January. Next door, a possible successor for his soon-to-be vacant position is being interviewed.

Sitting down in a meeting room, van Drunen’s first words are: “I’m not very good at this”. Soon, however, he loses his initial modesty and a conversation on his role in AUC’s past, present and future unfolds.

The Herring: Dr. Michiel van Drunen, a decade ago you entered the academic building (AB) for the first time with a permanent contract in your pocket as Head of Studies Sciences. What do you remember from your first months in AUC’s administration?

Dr. Michiel van Drunen: We were still in a pioneering phase. Everything was still fresh and we were developing all the processes and procedures. However, it turned out that we needed to make a transition to a more professional, specialised organisation. It was a bumpy road. We had serious issues at the time with participatory governance bodies that made us realise how urgent this transition was.

Can you give an example of such an issue?

I most vividly remember when course registrations once went completely wrong. We had a new registrar and suddenly we realised that she was not aware of the next step to take after the first round of registrations. That was a sign that we had to move away from our Excel sheets to implement a professional procedure. The Board of Studies as well as the Works Council and Student Council didn’t trust the management team much at the time.

They didn’t trust the management team?

No, they really wanted to be involved in all the meetings and decisions. That made it very hard to manage, because the more people you involve, the more challenging the decision-making gets. Of course, they had good reasons because of what had happened with the course registrations. Luckily, after a while everything settled and trust was restored. We are in a better place now.

You are about to conclude your time at AUC – tomorrow is your last working day in the AB. How has the atmosphere changed ever since?

Many lecturers here started back in 2009. Over the years, we have all aged. Back then we were much younger and thus felt closer to the students. Now there’s a bit more distance, even though we try to catch up and understand the questions of your generation.

How do you feel about this distance?

Students’ interests and worries are quite different from those of our generation, their attention to mental health, for instance. That sometimes leads to misunderstandings. AUC is an organisation open to all kinds of inputs, ideas and initiatives by students. But it’s different from the beginning. In the pioneering stage, especially during the first year, that was very special. Those students were risk-takers. They came to a college that had not proven itself yet. So, the type of students we attract is different. Also, there are a lot more international students by now. At the beginning, we had a target of 50 percent internationals. We started with 60 percent Dutchies. Now, it’s almost the other way around.

According to 2021 statistics, we are now at 39 percent Dutch students. Do you find that a concerning trend?

For me it doesn’t matter whether we have more Dutch or international students. What’s important is that we have good students that bring in their ideas, that feel engaged, that love the Liberal Arts and Sciences. However, The Hague (the Dutch parliament, ed.) has serious concerns that international students may push away the Dutch students. We have seen an enormous growth in the number of students in the Netherlands. We don’t notice that too much at AUC because we have a cap of 300 students per cohort. Still, you cannot provide a good Liberal Arts and Sciences programme without international students; it doesn’t make sense.

But why does it seem that Dutch students increasingly choose other programmes over AUC? 

In 2009, there were only a few really interdisciplinary bachelor’s programmes in the Netherlands – especially in English. Now, there are many of them. 

Some say that this is a sign of AUC’s decreasing relevance in the Dutch university landscape. How would you respond to such concerns? 

AUC has been advertised as a programme where you can build your own curriculum. There are all these courses that you can choose from, and that’s great fun. However, many students come in without realising that we are actually a Liberal Arts and Sciences programme. We are not a programme that just offers a bunch of courses you can choose from. We have a purpose to educate you as engaged citizens that use academic information – all this knowledge, insights and tools – to make the world a better place.

So you say that students haven’t realised that this is not the place to come to if they want to follow a particular academic track and get all the requirements to get into their favourite master’s programme? 

Yes, it is not only a bachelor’s degree that can get you into the master’s programme you prefer. It is a very powerful programme on its own. Even if you stop after three years, you have something in hand that you can build on. But especially in the minds of Dutch students, a bachelor’s programme is only a start, an unfinished thing. So that requires a lot of explaining, but also more self-confidence from our side.

With Dr. Michiel van Drunen, an AUC veteran has departed. The trained environmental scientist has been teaching courses at AUC since its foundation in 2009. In 2013, he was named Head of Studies Sciences. From 2017 until last Friday, he was AUC’s Director of Education. On Monday, he officially succeeded Rob de Crom as Director of Education at the VU School of Business and Economics (SBE). Van Drunen received his PhD in 1996 from TU Delft. He is the father of two and lives in Amstelveen. Photo by Levin Stamm

A few days before you announced your departure to your colleagues, the AUC Board adopted AUC Next – the school’s new five-year strategic plan. It was written by dean Prof. Dr. Martin van Hees and you. Could you quickly summarise its essence?

My hope – but I’m not sure whether it’s going to be realised – is to nudge students to look beyond the traditional tracks of our curriculum. That’s why we decided to remove the theme courses that had become a bit obsolete. We also decided to introduce computer labs for students with different entry levels. It is another academic tool to be a good scholar. We also want to strengthen and operationalise the Science profile better by making more connections between the Sciences and the Social Sciences and also between the Sciences and the Humanities. Ideally, we would attract students that are interested in all three majors.

You seem to have doubts that it will actually work out.

You never know what happens. We have a programme where students can make choices and I think it’s important that these choices remain.

So you fear that students would take the increased flexibility to specialise even more?

That’s a risk, but not necessarily bad. There are also a few arrangements that work against that, like having to take two courses outside your major. Then, there still are a few required courses. I think we have come up with a good compromise.

You want to sharpen the Science profile. The proportion of Science students has been increasing over the last few years with 38 percent in 2021. Your stated goal in AUC Next is 50 percent Science students. What is not working out yet?

When AUC was founded, the common agreement between the universities already aimed at 50 percent Science majors. We have never met it. In the first five to seven years it was not seen as a big issue, rather as a paper target. Later, the Bestuur (AUC’s executive board, ed.) and the College van Bestuur (the UvA’s and VU’s executive boards, ed.) pushed more on that, also because there’s a need for more Science graduates in the labour market. With the growing number of international applicants, we could meet the target relatively easily. However, there are comparably few students in the Netherlands who graduate with a Science profile from secondary school. So that’s – as we call it impolitely – a small pond that we can fish from.

One could argue that you are in some sense following the trend of the Dutch students. You are about to start your new job as Director of Education at the VU School of Business and Economics. Is there any hope for the Liberal Arts and Sciences if even AUC’s Director of Education turns away from them?

There definitely is! I advise that AUC really reinvents what we mean in Amsterdam with the Liberal Arts and Sciences. We need a stronger profile. I’m probably not the best person to create that profile, so it is also an opportunity that someone else takes over and starts working on this. You insinuate that I’m leaving a sinking ship, but I don’t think the ship is sinking. There is a prosperous future for AUC.

What are the reasons that prompted you to take that new job?

I often refer to AUC as a golden cage. It is a wonderful place to work. Everybody is engaged with education, with learning. We all share common values and goals. This is nice, but also predictable. The risk is very big that, outside the cage, the situation is not as supportive and fun to work in. I started in 2009 as a lecturer and over the years I saw patterns repeating themselves, arguments coming up over and over again. I decided to apply for this job because I wanted a new challenge in a new environment with other people. I’m 55 now and have a feeling that I shouldn’t wait much longer to take this step.

Your time as AUC’s Director of Education was shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. What made you receive the most attention was the non- and then the reinforcement of the attendance policy. Its utility has been debated significantly, but how did you personally perceive the controversy?

Well, I think our attendance policy is quite liberal already. It is true that students who have health issues or mental health issues face some barriers when they want exemptions or when they want accommodations. But those barriers are smaller than often perceived by students. The Board of Examiners (BoE) looks at such a request quite fairly. I do acknowledge that it adds to the stress level of such students, but if you don’t set up an administrative procedure, then it becomes kind of unfair. I’m surprised that students expressed the need for this freedom to attend class or not. I think some students don’t realise what a privileged situation they are in with this building and programme. Maybe this is what annoyed me a bit. I am also curious how broadly the idea was felt that the attendance policy should be abolished or reconsidered.

You had a meeting with the student body in June about the attendance policy. The debate was very heated. Some students stormed out before the session ended. By the end of the talk you seemed frustrated. Is that impression correct? 

Some of the arguments were quite unreasonable and that worried me. The BoE has quite a bad reputation among some students. I’m there for the students, but I also have the responsibility to support the BoE. I feel some students are unreasonably harsh towards them. I know they work very hard and really do their utter best to accommodate students where possible. That was the cause of my frustration.

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