Independent journalism about VU Amsterdam | Since 1953
18 June 2024

Campus
& Culture

‘Awards gala needs a fresh approach’

VU Amsterdam should take a fresh approach to awards ceremonies such as those at the New Year’s Gala, says Rector Magnificus Jeroen Geurts. “From now on, there will be a greater emphasis on teams.”

VU Amsterdam’s Rector Magnificus Jeroen Geurts is not alone in his conviction that awards ceremonies such as the one at the university’s New Year’s Gala is ready for a shift in focus. “The time has come to take a fresh approach to the gala, and the organiser and the awards jury agree,” Geurts observes.

One of the highlights of the event is the awards ceremony that recognises the student and teacher of the year, rewards the best Bachelor’s and Master’s thesis, and confers the Van der Duijn Schouten Teaching Award on an outstanding senior member of the teaching staff. There are three nominees in each category, two of whom go home empty-handed. The university’s non-academic support staff are also honoured but, unlike their academic counterparts and the students, there is no financial component to their prize.

“People who clarify and connect are crucial to a team.”

This is not exactly consistent with Recognition & Reward, Geurts points out, a new approach to appraisal that places a far greater emphasis on team effort rather than individual performance. “In other words, we need to start giving more recognition to teams.”

Show and share

Prizes and grants always go to individual scientists for outstanding work in a particular line of research. But in fact, these individuals always head up a team of scientists whose various contributions may be just as important. “For a recent paper, we analysed our own research team’s work meetings over a two-year period. This gave us a clearer view of how a team like ours operates,” the rector explained. “There is always one member – or a few – who take on the leadership role. But what about the clarifier, for example? The member who asks enlightening questions. There’s often a hesitancy in a group to admit that you don’t understand something, and that’s where clarifiers come in. Another role is the connector, someone who focuses on bringing together questions and insights from a range of different people. Each of these roles is essential to good research.”

At a next awards gala, Geurts not only wants to see recognition for specific research achievements or educational innovations, but also for the diversity of talents and roles involved in making them happen. He continues, “We should also find ways of rewarding the two other nominated teams. We could offer them coaching, for example, both as a source of inspiration and as a way to make their teaching or research even better.”

“As a neuroscientist, I always think in terms of the brain: the individual regions on their own are not enough.”

He sees the New Year’s Gala of the future as more of a “show and share” event at which researchers and teaching staff offer their colleagues valuable insights into their own knowledge and experience. “An element of competition can be both positive and enjoyable,” says the rector, “but I would dispute the notion that hard-nosed competition is the only way to achieve the best quality. Outstanding quality is also very much a product of working together to address complex, multidisciplinary problems. As a neuroscientist, I always think in terms of the brain: the individual regions on their own are not enough.”

Leading light

The approach to honouring the achievements of support staff at the New Year’s Gala is also set to change. At the previous gala, prize-winning support staff received an ode from Writer in Residence Gustaaf Peek and a dinner voucher. Ad Valvas commented on the “hierarchical distinction” between these and the academic prizes, which came with a considerable sum of money. The rector understands that this sends the wrong message. If support staff are as indispensable as the university says they are, there shouldn’t be such a glaring contrast when it comes to recognition. And this too is an area in which teams should be rewarded.

“There shouldn’t be such a glaring contrast when it comes to recognition.”

Winner Hans van den Brink, for example, gives everyone who enters VU Amsterdam’s Main Building the warmest of welcomes but he is only one of a team of hosts. “Van den Brink could be seen as the leading light within such a team, the personification of what it means to work as a host,” the rector explains.

In an ideal world, he says, there should no longer be a need for all these categories. “Let’s face it, as a VU community, we’re all in this together. Everyone should be able to be themselves at VU Amsterdam and contribute to the whole on the basis of their own unique talent or background. That’s what the progress flag stands for, and why it is flying proudly at our main entrance every day. We’re a community working together on the basis of individuality and diversity. Our discussions are open, forthright and even abrasive at times, but always geared towards progress and understanding. Dialogue exists to bring progress. Bringing each other down is the opposite.”

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