A Rigorous Programme with Excellent Support
An interview with Benoît Crutzen about his new role as TI Director of Graduate Studies and his vision and priorities for TI now and the next five years.
Dr. Benoît Crutzen, congratulations on your new position as TI’s new Director of Graduate Studies. Could you please introduce yourself?
My name is Benoît Crutzen, I am a member of the department of economics at Erasmus School of Economics (ESE). I did my MPhil at Oxford University and then my PhD at the Free University of Brussels. Afterward, I joined ESE where I received tenure in 2011 and became Doctoral Director in 2015. A few months ago I was asked to take up the DGS position at Tinbergen Institute and happily said yes. Research wise I am an applied theorist and I am especially interested in political economy with an organizational aspect.
What motivated you to take up this role?
I can think of 3 main reasons. First, I like helping people, I like making sure students are doing well. When I was at Oxford as a graduate student, I was also a social officer. During my PhD in Brussels, I was also a student representative and always tried to make sure that nobody was left behind. That is also one of the reasons why I became the Doctoral Director of the ESE. I believe I am not a cold, distant, and self-centered academic. While that does not mean I want to be friends with everybody, it does mean that I care about welfare.
Second, while TI is already very good, I want to contribute to making TI a world-class graduate school. I am a TI fellow and I teach in the Research Master. Becoming the new Director of Graduate Studies was the obvious next step.
Third, I also have a selfish motive: keeping up with what students are doing is an efficient way of keeping up-to-date with the state-of-the-art knowledge in economics and econometrics. That is because as the Doctoral Director and DGS you are obliged to be knowledgeable about what is going on outside of your field. I think that is one way of ensuring that you continue to learn. However, overall, I would say it is mostly the two altruistic dimensions that always push me to take up these jobs.
You're taking up the position during a difficult time in the world, which is challenging for an institution that is as international as TI. What will be your priorities related to the Covid-19 pandemic?
Regarding regular classes, I think my predecessor, the support staff, and the administrative staff at TI have done a very good job and I do not intend to change much. When it comes to online and hybrid teaching, they've set up a system that seems to be working well. Students have adapted to the current system and I believe it is important we do not change the system too often.
Yearly TI lectures turned out to be a big problem. We had to cancel the lectures last year. This year’s econometrics lectures are postponed to November 2021. Together with TI's General Director Eric Bartelsman, we came up with the idea of a workshop on Economic Policy Research to replace this year's economics lectures. If this workshop turns out to be a success, we may even decide to organize such a workshop every year, next to the TI economics lectures.
Covid-19 also offers opportunities. We are a research institute and a graduate school. I believe Covid-19 will turn out to be a unique opportunity to fully rethink the way we deliver our education programmes. We are starting to brainstorm on this issue at TI and in the three partner universities. In addition, online seminars help attract speakers that we would have a hard time getting easily otherwise. So there are also some positive aspects we should not forget.
Apart from the pandemic-related challenges, what will be your priorities as the DGS?
One obvious priority is to make sure that the quality of the programme we offer remains at least as high as it is now. That requires continuous checks and reviews to make sure the programme is up-to-date and that we provide state-of-the-art education in all the fields that we offer.
When it comes to things that are more in line with my personality, I want to focus on offering even more support to students than we do now. Ensuring that we offer a support system that matches the quality of the education programme will be high on my agenda.
The other thing that is high on my agenda is linked to the fact that I have one foot in the Doctoral Programme in Rotterdam and one foot at TI. I want to integrate the three schools behind TI even more so that we can make the transition between the Research Master and the PhD even more seamless. For example, the matching process is a source of stress for students and I think this is also linked to the fact that for some the move from the Research Master to the PhD is not seamless. The three universities are using different systems to select the PhD students, most students don't know all the available professors. All these aspects create stress and difficulties and I'm going to try to iron them out. Of course, this will take time.
Mental health among graduate students is a problem everywhere, what are your thoughts on the issue?
I think we should realize that mental health, especially at the research/academic level, has always been an issue. When I was a graduate student at Oxford, the first very good friend I had in my MPhil cohort dropped out before Christmas of the first year. My friend’s tutor and I tried hard to convince the student not to leave. We stressed to the student that the beginning of the first year of the Research Master is always extremely tough, but once you get used to it then things slowly settle down and most students perform and feel better. Unfortunately, our efforts failed and my friend dropped out. It was a painful experience that I intend to build on when thinking about how to improve the programme at TI.
While mental health has always been an issue among graduate students, nowadays we feel that we need to offer a system and an environment that helps them through their last educational stage.
Should we lower standards if too many students are suffering in the Research Master? No. I strongly believe that Research Masters are meant to have a broad curriculum and be tough. High standards are necessary to identify the academic leaders of tomorrow. If a Research Masters is not broad and tough, then it does not meet its purpose. However, this does not mean that students in the programme should not need help or support. We need to offer enough support to ensure that the students go through the programme in the best possible way. TI is already offering some support for students. I want to expand TI's support policies further.
What support services do you intend to focus on?
One thing I can say is that I favor a bottom-up, rather than a top-down approach. Support services at universities suffer from a take-up problem and I do not want to impose new services that the students will not take up. As the saying goes: you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. It is exactly the same problem. I think the best way to ensure effective support is to get students to accept that they may need support and enable them to help themselves.
Most of the services we already offer follow a top-down approach. For example, the recently introduced stress management course. I think it is a very good idea but it is an example of a top-down approach. We told students: there is a stress management course we think you should take. That is taking the horse to the water. Whether it drinks is not clear.
My bottom-up philosophy also comes from my experience as the Doctoral Director at ESE. We found that initiatives that work best involve students with students, rather than students with senior staff. One example of this is getting students to sit in small groups and share their own experiences on predefined topics. We work in collaboration with student representatives to make sure that students find these topics interesting and that they are willing to share their experiences in these sessions. We could also use a buddy system, second-year students who talk to first-year students, share their experience. Again, this is purely bottom-up.
I want to increase support at TI but I don't think I'm going to be the one delivering most of it. As DGSs we try to identify the students that are struggling and try to help them. We have regular meetings with different cohorts to check how everybody is doing. That will continue to happen. But I think finding ways to make sure the whole cohort is helping each other would be a great success.
What are your thoughts on the state of diversity at TI?
It is obvious that there is a gender imbalance among the teaching staff. Trying to move more towards gender balance is very high on the agenda. TI has been trying very hard in the last few years to make sure the student body is balanced at least gender-wise. Next year, 40-45% of the cohort will be female. The gender composition is not fully balanced yet, but we are not far. And this did not come at the cost of student quality. We managed to keep the student quality very high and at the same time get closer to gender balance. I'm not going to offer positions to minority groups if it is at the cost of quality. I am all for diversity but conditional on meeting some requirements.
We should also keep diversity in mind when selecting topics for new courses. Economics is changing. The standard curriculum in economics from the 1970s is very different from what it is currently. And currently still does not fully reflect the views of society. So I am already in talks with my colleagues to rethink some aspects of the curriculum to offer a body of courses a bit more in line with the current views of society. Some topics and issues have become more important. For example, my predecessor introduced a course on climate change that starts this year. There is a global exercise to rethink economics. While I'm not a huge fan of most of what they do, I still see value in having somebody challenge me and take me out of my comfort zone.
I would like to see diversity in my actions and facts. I can write a diversity statement, but I would rather have people look at my curriculum, look at my research, look at my student population, and say “I really see that you're trying hard”. My task is easier than it was for my predecessor, because the students, the teachers, and the population at large have become much more aware and sensitive to these issues. It is much easier to achieve a goal if everybody around you agrees that this is a goal worth achieving. Whatever TI has achieved, a lot of the praise should go to my predecessor Andreas Pick. I’m just going to continue.
You did your PhD at the Free University of Brussels. As a PhD student, what did you appreciate the most about your programme, and what did you think was missing? Will you try to expand on these areas at TI as the new DGS?
The programme was very much like that of TI. As a PhD student, I loved the fact that I was paid to work on what I was interested in. There are few jobs where you are free to do what you want and you are paid for it. To me, those 3 PhD years were the best in my life. That is what I really enjoyed about PhD, total freedom to work on things you like and believe that you are going to be able to make society a better place with your work. One constraint not present in TI was the limited choice of field courses. TI offers an incredibly large portfolio of courses because it has three faculties behind it. I think it is an amazing plus for TI. The international aspect was very much present in Brussels. It is the same here and I want to keep it that way. I want the programme to remain an international programme.
What is your vision for TI five years from now?
Five years from now TI should be at least as good as it is today. It is lonely and very competitive at the top. We are close to the top and it is hard to move up. Five years from now I would be delighted to see that I managed to help further improve TI’s programme and reputation, but I think that maintaining the current standard and the reputation of TI is already an achievement.
We have a very decent record at placing PhD students. I would like to improve this further. I believe more coordination between the three schools and a more structured PhD job market strategy will help with this. That is something that I am going to focus on and having the synergy between my position at the ESE and TI will be helpful here. Last but not least, I want to ensure the curriculum is in line with the views, needs, and desires of the larger community.