Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds, Professor Simone Buitendijk, on why she has fallen in love with Yorkshire
It has been a long path for Professor Simone Buitendijk to eventually arrive in Yorkshire, whose rolling hills and dales are a stark contrast to her homeland of the Netherlands.
Her career in higher education spanning the past quarter-of-a-century has seen her study at some of the world’s leading institutions from Leiden University in Holland to the Yale School of Medicine in America, and Prof Buitendijk’s academic expertise lies firmly in the science sector.
But the 13th Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds, who is the first woman to hold the prestigious role, admits that it is not the solely pioneering scientific research that will allow the world to overcome the global challenges of the past 18 months.
Despite her own scientific background, Prof Buitendijk, who admits that she has faced the most challenging year in her career during the Covid-19 crisis, told The Yorkshire Post that it was vital to place arts at the forefront on a post-pandemic world.
She said: “All of the global challenges - none of them can be solved just by science. We really need the arts and the humanities and social sciences to underpin everything that we are doing and research-led education needs to mirror that very same thinking.
“The real workplace needs people with arts and humanities. There is a huge need, especially in the Googles and Microsofts of our world, for graduates with arts and humanities backgrounds and for them to work together with people with technical skills.
“We can’t solve the Covid-19 crisis just by having beautiful, superior vaccines.
“We also need to have the knowledge of cultures and backgrounds and vaccine willingness and uptake and distribution and the business end of it - it needs to be an effort by many different backgrounds and disciplines, and study should be the same.”
Born in the Hague in the Netherlands, Prof Buitendijk’s career has taken her across the globe to embark on her studies.
She says a combination of coming from a hard-working family and being fortunate to be inspired by strong women colleagues who saw her potential has enabled her to flourish in her leadership role.
Her mother was never able to go to university because she had four brothers “who came first”, due to her family’s financial circumstances after the Second World War. Her father, who served in Indonesia, which was part of the Netherlands until 1949, also did not go into higher education until later in life, as there was “no money”.
Prof Buitendijk says: “Both my parents were very keen that my sister and I went to university.
“It was very clear after secondary education we would both go to university. That was definitely part of my upbringing and something that was never questioned.”
After studying medicine at Utrecht University, she went on to graduate with a masters degree in public health from the Yale School of Medicine in Connecticut in the USA 31 years ago after she investigated the prevalence of medication in early pregnancy and how it related to maternal characteristics.
She completed her doctorate in epidemiology at Leiden University 10 years later, after conducting indepth research into IVF pregnancies.
Before taking on the role as the University of Leeds Vice-Chancellor from her predecessor, Sir Alan Langlands, in September 2020, she had been at Imperial College London as a Vice Provost for Education for four years.
Speaking about her move to Yorkshire, she highlights having to adjust to the region’s hills on her bike from the Netherlands with its seven gears.
She said: “I thought ‘no problem on these Yorkshire hills’ - but I was proved wrong. Even in first gear, I have to work very hard - so I now know that cycling hills is completely different from cycling the flat lands of the Netherlands.
"I have adapted but I have to be careful not to take on hills that are a bit out of my reach, and if I stay in first gear and pedal like crazy then I will get there. I think Yorkshire is really amazing - I have totally fallen in love with Yorkshire, it’s absolutely brilliant.”
Prof Buitendijk has been a vocal advocate for tackling the gender divide in higher education and warns that a lack of women in leadership roles in universities is detrimental to the sector.
In April this year, the University of Leeds appointed two female deans, Professors Iyiola Solanke and Louise Bryant, who are working closely alongside the Vice-Chancellor to increase equality, diversity and inclusion at the institution.
Prof Buitendijk says: “I’ve been in a pioneering position now for quite a few years - I have been in the minority and this is the first time I am actually the boss. It’s a wonderful opportunity when you’re able to set the strategy and the focus and the direction because you are in the top leadership role.
“You can empathise with the things you find really important - I’ve been working on the areas of gender equality for the last few years and division and inclusion more broadly for many, many years.
“That step already was a big part of the culture at Leeds, but I’m absolutely focused about bringing that to the next level.”