Prof. Dr. Han van Dissel (1956) is already for around four years professor (Business Administration) and Dean at our faculty Economics and Business. During those years, a lot has happened. From dealing with the aftermath of the reorganization to enhancing the educational programmes of the FEB. What does it takes to be a good Dean, how are our future prospects as economists, is the money at our faculty fairly divided, and in how far are the research programs useful for society?
What have you studied? And did you already know what you wanted to do with these studies?
Initially I studied biology specialising in sea-turtle-ecology. The Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Mexico are home to nesting beaches of sea turtles, and of course, doing research on remote tropical beaches was part of the attraction. So I went to Mexico for over a year and did research at the scientific bureau of the Mexican Ministry of Fishery. A strong decline in the populations of sea turtles in Mexican waters had been observed as a result of by-catches in fishing nets, but the main reason was the large-scale poaching of eggs, which were sold in very exclusive restaurants. Those eggs are believed to affect men’s virility. We tried to model the population dynamics of the different sea turtle populations to be able to manage this natural resource better.
Due to the lack of tropical beaches it is hard to exploit such knowledge in the Netherlands, so I decided to switch to business in Delft. After that, I obtained my doctorate in Rotterdam.
What was subsequently your career path?
I worked as a professor at the Erasmus University, and later on became the Dean of the Rotterdam School of Management. In total I spent almost 25 years in Rotterdam. After stepping down as Dean I went to France and became director general of the Centre Européen D’Éducation Pérmanente, an institute associated with INSEAD. And in 2011, after the reorganisation process, I was asked to become Dean here and help rebuild UvA Economics and Business.
Do we have good future prospects as economists at this moment?
If I look at the labour market statistics you can only conclude that economists and econometrists find a job easily. Because of big data there is a lot of demand for people with quantitative skills. In this context, economists and econometrists from the UvA earn on average 14% more. So I think you guys don’t have to worry that much.
Do you have a tip for students to accomplish what they want to achieve?
Generally, students who differentiate themselves by being active, joining a study association like Sefa or the VSAE, going on exchange, etc. are almost guaranteed to find a good job quickly.
But do you think that joining a student association nowadays is more important than having good grades to find a job?
It is probably a bit of both; large companies want to hire good people that have demonstrated they do more than just study. Furthermore, the UvA has an image of focusing on exact sciences and analytical skills and these are in high demand at the moment.
Do you have to be a professor to be the Dean of the faculty? And do you think professors are good managers? Are they critical and independent enough?
Yes, according to the law, a Dean has to be a full-professor, but not all professors are equally good managers. Certainly, a Dean should be critical and independent, but don’t overrate this. As a Dean, you don’t accomplish anything without the support of fellow professors.
That sounds a little like nepotism (vriendjespolitiek) to me; wouldn’t it be better if a totally independent manager would take on the role of a Dean?
A number of business schools have appointed high-level managers from the business world as Dean. Most of these appointments have not been a great success. Managing in an ambiguous academic environment is not the same as managing a company with a fairly straightforward bottom-line.
But what exactly is the added value of a professor as a Dean?
I think that somebody from the ranks has a more profound understanding of the role of a university and more empathy for the ins and outs, the frustrations and joys of scientific research and academic education.
You said you came after the reorganisation of Economics and Business. At that moment, the financial situation was a bit of a mess. What can you tell us about the current financial situation?
Before I started, we had a deficit of some 7 million euro. For all kinds of reasons, the management systems at faculty level, as well as at university level were functioning insufficiently. Over the last few years we worked really hard on introducing better systems and making the faculty more transparent. And this has paid off; we turned the tide and Economics and Business is in a far heathier position. But to be clear, I don’t claim all the credits for this; a large number of people contributed and regrettably a reorganisation was needed to make it happen.
To what extent is the quality of education taken into account towards the quality of the research programmes? How are the interests of the students assured?
We definitely have to strike a fair balance between teaching and research in our budget. During the retrenchments, we put a lot of effort in improving the study success rates of our study programmes. As a consequence, the n+1 return – the number of students who graduate within the formal time + one year – has increased from about 28% to 72%. That’s truly an incredible accomplishment. This increase is due to a large number of measures we have taken in order to encourage and stimulate our students to study actively and rather than opening their books only one week before the final exam.
I have heard that in the future the bachelor Economics and Business will split up; could you tell us something about this?
Yes, we have already obtained the formal permission to split the bachelor, so in the future we can grant either a Business degree or an Economics and Business Economics degree. The attractiveness of the bachelor Economics & Business study at the UvA was partly the combined first year, so that hesitant students still had a year to decide what they want to study (to be honest I prefer students who know what they want to study). In order to keep the connection between the two main disciplines in the faculty, we now plan to start the bachelor with one large-scale thematically integrated course in which both economic and business perspectives are combined.
Before you started working at Economics & Business the popular course History of Economic Theory was deleted from the bachelor programme; a course which discusses the most important movements and founding fathers of economic knowledge. Do you have any idea why this course was removed from the programme? And are you planning to bring it back?
We had a group named The History of Economic Thought, but unfortunately because of the reorganisation this group was made redundant. In hindsight I think it is a pity this group is gone. We plan to reintroduce the theme of economic history in the large-scale integrated course I referred to earlier in the new bachelor programmes. I think every future economics or business student should know what people like Ricardo, Smith, Weber, Taylor and Keynes contributed to the field. In addition, I think that every student should have a basic understanding of the moral limits of markets. Economics and business is dominated by a utilitarian ethics and to also discuss more virtue-based ethics will add a lot to the intellectual development of our students.
How did you experience the protests of the Maagdenhuis?
I certainly sympathise with the topics they bring forward: too much focus on a results-based approach (rendementsdenken), decentralisation, and of course democratisation. But raising the issues and coming up with workable and balanced solutions are two different things. Personally I have more empathy for the people behind the Bildung Academy. I think their approach is more substantive and has more intellectual depth.
It was also remarkable how few students of Economics & Business were involved in the protests…
Yes, surveys of the protests showed that indeed there were only a few of our students involved. The overwhelming majority didn’t have much sympathy for the protests. But you see that often with protest movements, the large majority won’t actively express their opinion.
Another example of the low involvement of Economics and Business students is the low percentage of students who vote for the student council elections. Does that concern you?
Yes, I think this is very unfortunate. Preferably you want a much more inclusive and active academic community. Also, if you look at how many students join a committee at one of our study associations, this figure is also very low, maybe around 10-15%. One of the reasons for this low participation is that currently a lot more Dutch students stay at home instead of moving out. In this way, they stay in their familiar social surroundings, whereby the necessity to integrate in a new social setting is not that high. Our challenge is to organise ‘small within big’, to create an inclusive academic community within the larger entity of the UvA, and make sure our students feel at home at the faculty.
How do you think our faculty is doing compared to other economic faculties?
Together with the EUR and Tilburg, UvA Economics and Business is generally considered one of the best economic faculties of the Netherlands. However, differences are very small in the Netherlands and each university typically has a couple of excellent groups. Although I think we can still learn a couple of things from Rotterdam in terms of visibility in public discourse, the UvA stands out. People like Arnoud Boot, Barbara Baarsma and Sweder van Wijnbergen are all professors at the UvA and I constantly see them in the media.
But I think we could also improve a lot of things, like information services to students, engagement with the relevant environment in the form of, for example, internships, and putting more effort in stimulating our students to study abroad for a semester.
How does UvA Economics and Business distinguish itself concerning research?
In all the research we do, we aim for the European top, and in some areas even for the global top. You see that in some of these areas this is actually the case, such as with behavioural and experimental economics, mathematical economics, and also some business sections, particularly in the area of sustainability. Unfortunately, because of the Dutch regulatory environment (like the Balkenende norm), it is very difficult to attract top researchers to Holland. That’s the reason why we try to invest in talented young researchers, in people like you. An Ajax model rather than a FC Barcelona model, which we cannot afford.
Do you think the research programmes of Economics and Business will contribute to a better society?
The normative position of economics is that more welfare is better than less welfare. So in the end, yes I think we do. But the difficult point in economic research is that it is often intended to be used for economic policy. We can propose evidence-based recommendations, but whether they are followed up is often not in our hands.
But could you give us an example of research that has improved our society?
Yes, Sweder van Wijnbergen, together with his PhD researcher, has for instance proven that if systemic banks are forced by regulators to recapitalise quickly after an economic crisis, the length of subsequent recession is much shorter. This is research with strong societal relevance and impact. The president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, has even cited this research. However, whether politicians or regulators have indeed forced banks to follow these directives is a different story. I think we can still improve the relevance of our research, but in the end, probably our most important societal contribution is to deliver independent minds who have learned to think critically.