Academic leadership is a double-edged sword; you cannot use it any way you want. Academics need freedom. Once they are free to take their own course through academic life, providing them with leadership could be meaningless. If you do lead them firmly, they might not be free.
This thought comes to my mind when I think of Prof. Karel Luyben, our retiring rector. He was able to lead while providing academic freedom. I hope that sharing my experiences with him will make others look inward, since we are all leaders of some followers and followers of some leaders.
The first time I saw Karel was when he visited our section in the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science. We were asked to provide two-minute pitches on our research interests. He asked lots of questions and never shied away from telling us what we might be missing. What really struck me was that he suggested we recruit ‘students who are better than us’. The next time I ran into him, I asked him why would these students even come to me if they knew they were better than me.
My ideas were considered
Karel's answer was this. “It is important to keep improving ourselves. This can only happen when we work with people better than us. You should showcase what you are good at and convince bright young people to join you to do top quality research. It is not easy, but it will turn you into a leader as well as a researcher. Your challenge is to think about how to catch those students.”
Another example: I like the propositions in TU Delft PhD theses. However, over the years I found that more of the propositions were just cut and paste jobs. I wrote Karel an email explaining my concerns on Monday morning, 25 August 2014. I received a response two hours later saying, ‘I will take these suggestions with me to the Doctoral Degree Board and the Board of the Graduate School’.
Many of you may remember guidelines being issued as the ‘Implementation Decree on Doctoral Regulations 2014’ in September or October 2014. I do not claim that my suggestions were the cause of this; I know that there were many more changes being made. But my ideas were considered. Proposition regulations have been tightened, and indeed many PhD committee members from outside TU Delft have told me that our propositions are something unique and nice.
Karel always made me feel that my presence in this big institution is valued, however small my position. This is what leadership is all about. I am grudgingly saying, ‘Thank you, Karel’, because it is not a worthy response to his leadership. But if I don’t say it now, I may not get a chance to again. So, thank you!
Ranga Rao Venkatesha Prasad
Also read our farewell interview with Karel Luyben: ‘The university is an oil tanker’