Dear Executive Board,
How are you? In these strange times this question is occupying us more than usual. Not out of politeness, but out of sincere concern as no one knows who will be the first, second, twentieth person we know who gets sick? I sincerely hope that you and your families, friends and other loved ones are well. Even without the high concern for the vulnerable people among us, this new reality is demanding new efforts from us all. The situation is changing every day. What I am writing here may be completely different tomorrow. The world has become a living lab and we are right in the middle of it.
The perfect circumstances for the TU Delft of the future, you might say. At TU Delft’s last anniversary, we heard a plea for breaking down walls, for cooperation that transcends borders to address the complex problems of the day. Our own Centre for Engineering Education did not beat around the bush when it said “We have entered a threshold decade in which three converging driving forces are changing our world into one full of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity, a VUCA world.” Their conclusion? To solve complex problems, you need to be more than only good at mathematics. You need to have an eye for people. “The skills of tomorrow’s engineer must clearly go beyond the technical domain.”
‘The luxury is past’
These, and many other, visions of the future over the last few years were written with abstract problems in mind. The energy transition, the ageing population, cyber security. These are issues that we talk about easily. They are problems of the future where the engineer of the future is trained at the university of the future. There is time enough now to think. But that luxury is past. It is in truth improbably apt: for decades we have thought, written reports and held symposia about the engineer of 2020, which was the dot on the horizon. But who would have thought that these predictions would come true? The future is now.
In that case, is the university of the future here too? I have good hope. The staff of TU Delft and other universities are doing their incredible utmost to deal with the new reality. Lectures are going digital, exams are being re-scheduled and research and consultation are continuing where possible at ‘remotely’. Years of innovation is being rolled out in the face of educational need and students, teachers and all the other essential links in the chain are being flexible and smoothing the process to allow high quality education and research to continue.
‘The message is clear: keep studying!’
It was because of this optimism that the letter last Wednesday jumped out to me. In an email to all students, the Executive Board addressed the current situation around the coronavirus. It was not the first email on this subject, but it was the first one without urgency: no new rules; no new answers. What, then, was its message? The thread running through it seems to be delayed studies – the evil that must be avoided at all costs. As said in the letter, TU Delft is working to offer online learning to limit any delays. It’s a big job, ‘even’ for a technical university ‘with an excellent reputation in the field of online education’. Students, it emphasises, are requested to equally do their best. This is all encapsulated under the bold heading ‘Keep studying!’. The message is clear.
And the ‘human element’ that is essential in complex problems? Under ‘Finally’, three sentences recognise that emotions play a role, that students should also try to avoid spreading the virus and that – with ‘TU Delft inventiveness’, pat on the back for us – help can be offered others. The conclusion: ‘keep studying, take care of your own health and that of others’. In that order.
‘It’s not only raw knowledge that is important’
The engineer of the future does not only think about technology, but about people too. Our brothers and sisters at Leiden University may not be trained as engineers, they have certainly understood this message. Almost at the same time as we received the letter from the Executive Board, the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics at Leiden University (headed by Michiel Kreutzer, who was until recently here at TU Delft), an email was issued to all students. Entitled ‘Message of support and solidarity from the Faculty Board’, it says exactly that – it is a message of support and solidarity. Not ‘keep studying’ but ‘you should always have someone to talk to, and if needed we can help you with that’. Studying is not in first place, but your health and that of your loved ones. A humane message.
Dear Executive Board,
They may be traditional over there in Leiden, some might even consider them somewhat old fashioned, but their attitude is the attitude of the future. It is not only raw knowledge that is important, but the human, social and societal context. And sometimes you have a greater impact on society by not standing out in your professional field, but by standing out in your humanity. Thus, engineers of the future, let’s grab this opportunity to break down the walls. Let this message from Leiden University also resound at TU Delft. Let’s make a difference, now that we can. And above all, let’s make sure that we are there for our surroundings and each other. This could be at the heart of everything that is happening now.
I would like to express my gratitude, respect and admiration for you. Take good care of your own health and for each other. And let us tackle these events to emerge stronger, as a university of the future.
- Emiel Beinema, a double degree student, is working towards an MSc in Communication Design for Innovation and an MSc in Computer Science.