Introducing Peter Møllgaard: Dane, dean and cyclist, keen on flatlands, long stretches and steep challenges

For those who have yet to meet Peter Møllgaard in the halls of Tongersestraat 53 or via his thoughtful social media contributions, you’ll doubtless soon spot the new dean of Maastricht University School of Business and Economics on a nearby cycle path, pausing to check his language-learning app, or wearing a deliciously Dutch and rather un-Danish academic gown en route to a PhD defence. In the meantime, we ask the industrial organisation scholar for his views on lifelong learning and gender equity, PBL and research funding, Maastricht as “the cradle of Europe”, and all the new words he’ll be using daily in a job he calls “a match made in heaven”.

How were you persuaded to leave your post as Dean of Research at Copenhagen Business School?

A search consultancy firm came to me and asked “Would you consider this?”. I wasn’t surprised, because they had approached me a number of times already, and I’d always said, “This is bad timing, I have a nice job” at Copenhagen Business School. But this time, the timing was right, the job content was right, the geography was right – being asked to consider a position in, say, Perth in Australia just feels very far away if you’re European. I think this, though, is a match made in heaven.

But I think there is a challenge here; a leadership challenge. We have seen a decline in student numbers, we have seen a slight decline in research assessments, we are not extremely good with external funding, and I think I can help in all these dimensions. There’s a very good starting point, quality-wise, at SBE, but we can become even better and even more valuable to society, to the state, and to the business community.

How important was Maastricht University’s global reputation to you in making your decision?

Its reputation was important to me, not necessarily in terms of rankings, but more in that I already knew the place, and via people who have been here or are here still; Iwan Bos and I examined a PhD together in Norwich. So, I knew many of the elements of Maastricht, and obviously I did some desktop research too; I’d say the reputation of Maastricht University and the School of Business and Economics is very good.

I think rankings are important, in that they’re there, so we need to acknowledge that. We shouldn’t play the rankings game, but we should think about what they tell us about how to improve in order to provide our students and the rest of the academic world and the business community with even better impact from our research and educational activities.

We can probably improve on a number of parameters, and I would take the opportunity to use the rankings to see what they do differently elsewhere that we might learn from…or, conversely, to say, this is not what we want to do.

Denmark’s work culture is even lower-hierarchy than the Netherlands’, but broadly similar; does it feel like a good fit? And what about Dutch higher education’s fondness for Latin words and fancy outfits?

There are small differences, but lots of similarities. I chaired my first PhD defence recently, complete with gown and hammer, and that’s a lot more formal than what I’m used to. But I think it’s nice; I like tradition, and for a young university, it’s important to build up tradition.

In these first weeks, the chemistry has felt right. I’ve been asking people to tell me if I step over the boundaries or do something that is not appropriate according to local culture, but so far it seems to have gone ok. I’m doing a lot to reach out to students as well, because I think it’s important to engage with them, and that may or may not be part of my Danish way of thinking about things.

I’m learning the language; it’s not quite there yet, but my ambition is that after the summer, I will be able to engage with everybody who wants to do it in Dutch, in Dutch. Dutch reading is a little difficult for me, but I’ll get there. I think care has been taken to invite me into the loop; I feel welcome.

I think it would be a good idea to have a language policy. We recently implemented one at Copenhagen Business School, where the challenges are similar in that some people are more comfortable in the local language than in English. We have to acknowledge that, and be aware that inclusion means including people who are less comfortable in English as well as those who are more comfortable in English than in the local language. I think there are lots of similarities between Dutch/Danish on the one side and English as a corporate language on the other, and the issues of how to work with that balance.

At CBS, half the bachelor’s programmes are in Danish, and half in English. In the past 22 years – I’ve been there for a long time – the use of English has been going up every year. What I was pushing for was that even in Danish-speaking programmes, the students could experience being taught in English as well. If students go through an entire bachelor’s programme without having had an introduction in English, I think they are being done a disservice.

Looking beyond the Dutch vocabulary you’re learning, let’s talk about some of the UM-specific and SBE-specific terms you’ll be using daily. The first, of course, is “Problem-Based Learning”.

I think PBL is great. I think we should reinvigorate PBL, and from what I hear, the university council is thinking about doing exactly that. One of the things I really like is that we are teaching groups of 12 to 14 students at a time; it’s something unique to this place, and difficult to scale, but we need to think about ways to complement it. Supporting this with technology – having a PBL app on your laptop, on your iPad, on your phone – would be a good innovation; you could reach out to the same group at different points in time, including when you’re not physically there.

But what I understand from some people is that PBL has been losing its edge, and we need to return to its roots. When we do, I think we should do it in another way, so we spiral up everything about it. It’s on my to-do list to think about this. I’m looking for input on how to do that sensibly, and I’m very humble, in the sense that I know we have many local experts able to help.

How about “strategic renewal”? It’s another phrase you’ll hear a lot.

Yes, and it’s important. I inherited the strategy and I think we should stick with it. But while we had an action plan for 2017, we don’t have one for 2018, and so I’m keen to reinvigorate that process. I’m thinking about four different topics and discussing it with anybody who wants to discuss it with me, to get input. But the headlines would be research, education, lifelong learning and human resources. For example, as regards research: opening up research, collaborating with other faculties as an interdisciplinary operation, more funding – I think that’s one of the key things we need to do.

I’m also keen on lifelong learning, and therefore UMIO’s activities in continuing education. The way we experience lifelong learning is going to change in the next 10 years; it’s happening already. We have a unique opportunity, with UMIO, to take in new groups that need re-education, because the jobs that they have right now will disappear. The students that we have now will likely experience seven different jobs in their careers, five of which don’t exist yet, so we need to make sure that they come back to UM and to SBE and to UMIO to learn something new and get their skills updated.

UMIO is offering postgraduate education, typically to people with degrees or professional jobs, but what about Limburg’s ex-miners? Should we be serving their needs too?

Exactly. Maybe we should, and in collaboration, not necessarily alone. We have the infrastructure to reach out to other constituencies, and we need to see who that should be, and who would be able to use that kind of knowledge, and where we can find our ways in.

We need to reach out to people who are getting hit by technological developments and globalisation, and make sure that they get new opportunities. But that’s not something we can do alone. We have certain competitive advantages, and we need to make those even stronger, but other institutions such as vocational universities and colleges have other advantages, and we need to collaborate.

Thinking on lifelong learning should feed back into the way we think of education in general, so it will no longer be a case of students doing a bachelor’s and then a master’s and then heading off out into a career and we never see them again; there will be something much more fluid. Maybe the bachelor’s will gain in importance, so people will go out and work for a while, and then come back and get a master’s when they have a good idea of where they’re going.

We should expect different people to come back to at different points in their career, and I think that’s really exciting. For that reason, I also am keen to better integrate UMIO activities with the rest of our educational activities and our research.

“Research themes”: SBE now has seven of them.

They are one of the things I’m investigating right now; I don’t yet know how far they have come, and some are further than others, I think. I need to understand all that and see how we can make this live, more than it has so far. I’m looking also to see, given this is one of the biggest things we do in research, whether we have invested enough in it, by which I mean not only money but PhD students, faculty time… do we believe in this?

And while these themes are cross-disciplinary or interdisciplinary in an SBE sense because they’re in several departments, are they also an interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary collaboration with the rest of the university and with industry? That’s the aim, but I’m not sure it plays out right now.

How about the phrase “Randstad versus Limburg”?

Hmm, I’d say I don’t understand those politics quite yet.

While those outside the Netherlands often see Maastricht as being at the centre of Europe, the larger cities in the west of the Netherlands are accused of seeing Limburg as a far-off backwater.

I don’t share that view. But one thing we need to do is to make sure that we have got connections with The Hague and with the Randstad, and so I’m keen to work with the deans of other business schools in the Netherlands. I’m also reaching out to old friends and colleagues in the Ministry of Economic Affairs and the Ministry of Finance, so I’m building a network in the Netherlands.

We should remember that we are at least as close to Brussels as Amsterdam, so that’s something we should work on, and also step up collaboration with a few places in Germany, which we are uniquely positioned to do.

For me, coming to Maastricht, I saw it as the heartland of Europe, the cradle of Europe. I really believe that. What put Maastricht on the map for me forever was the Maastricht Treaty, and that rings a bell across the continent; it created the European Union, it created the euro. I think what we need right now, given everything that is going on in Europe and globally, is more Maastricht.

I did my PhD in Italy, starting in 1989. Those were exciting times: the Berlin Wall coming down was just not something that people had told us could happen. There were signs, but most people thought, “Well, that’s there to stay”.  We are living in similarly interesting times now; lots of things are going on that we don’t fully understand. I think we need to retrace those steps, and we should be proud of being in Maastricht. We have already done something to save the world in this part of the country, and we can do it again.

Next term: “gender equity”. Less than 10% of SBE’s professors are female; research indicates that at SBE, as in many institutions, there is gender bias in students’ assessments of their tutors; and we have halls full of pictures of old white guys.

Yes, and I contribute to that, I’m afraid! But I’m very keen on the gender agenda. It’s early days, but I’ve read the Women in Academia report, and I am trying to find out what has been implemented and what we still need do. I’m meeting with HR and with Lisa Brüggen [Women in Academia report author and professor of financial services] on this very soon. And on 24 May, I’m going to participate in an Elinor Ostrom Network panel session with Rianne Letschert, our rector, to discuss what should be done. Before that, I need to have at least a rough idea of the plan. I know we are doing some things already, for example, granting some research recovery periods after maternity leave.

What I’m very aware of is the need to look at our unconscious biases. One of the ways is to talk about it, and so that’s going to be part of the solution. I’ve done that already at CBS, and we are going to do it here as well. But I need to find the appropriate way of doing it, so as not to get unnecessary resistance to this very important issue.

Final word: “bicycle”. You tackled Mt Kilimanjaro on a charity ride before saying farewell to Copenhagen. Will the Heuvelland be enough of a challenge for you?

I come from a very flat country, too, so I’d say being here is going to feel just like home! I know the Heuvelland is the hilliest part of the Netherlands, and for a cyclist like myself it sounds like a great opportunity to get out on a racing bike or a mountain bike – that would be fun. Thus far all I’ve done is cycle from work to home and back, but I’m very much looking forward to it.


Text: KM Shook
Photo: (c) Michel Saive