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Herman Wijffels

Herman Wijffels graduated in 1966 in Economics, has had an impressive career in banking and politics, and the national newspaper “Trouw” named him the most influential sustainable Dutchman.

"There's no future but a sustainable future."

Why did you study at Tilburg University?
"I preferred a study program focusing on society and because of my Catholic background, the universities of Nijmegen and Tilburg were most obvious; Nijmegen to study Law, Tilburg to study Economics. I chose the latter. An uncle, who had also studied here, had a good experience. I never doubted my choice and viewed my program as an advanced course in general development. My own life too has been a ‘development project’."

Who was your favorite professor no why?
"Especially Professor Stevens’ lectures made a lasting impression. These took place at his home, which created a special ambience. His classes were intense, in-depth and I learned a lot that came to good use in my professional career, especially while working at Rabobank. But also the lectures in Philosophy were very valuable: to have learned to always ask ‘why’ turned out to be very useful."

Is there an interesting anecdote from your student days?
“The day I graduated I stood in front of the mirror and promised myself to lead the rest of my life following two principles: to do what you like and to do what you believe in, are engaged with. I do not believe in external motivation and shape my life from the inside out. This has often helped me make decisions on for example career opportunities that came my way.

What has your career been like?
“After military service, I temporarily joined the European Committee in Brussels. Soon I was selected to join the Ministry of Agriculture, where, after a few years, I was appointed as Director at a young age. I followed the advice Professor Van Berkum, a wise man, gave his students to shape your career on a broad basis. I’ve held various positions in the public as well as the private sector, for example at Rabobank. The Rabobank was truly a bank by and for the people. I felt more like a ‘bankwerker’ [translation: a mechanical fitter; bench-hand] than a banker. It appealed to me that the bank is organized as a cooperation and that I could service people in small and medium sized companies. For thirteen years I was Chairman of the Board. After that I was chairman of the Social and Economic Council of the Netherlands (SER) and Dutch representative of the Netherlands at the World Bank. In 2007, I was involved in the formation of the cabinet of Balkenende IV. Now I am Professor of Sustainability and Societal Change at Utrecht University. I focus on the role of science to change and improve society: to show how things can and should be improved. There is no future but a sustainable future.”

What are your future ambitions?
“The concepts for a sustainable society, like recycling, cradle to cradle, green energy, are available, but implementation is difficult. It is clear we are exhausting our natural resources. We need people who actively want to help implement the necessary changes. I hope to contribute to that.”

Does Tilburg University/School of Economics and Management still play a role in your life, and if so, which?
“I have stayed in touch with Tilburg University, with my fraternity at student association St. Olof and as a member of the Friends of Cobbenhagen. In 1998,Tilburg School of Economics and Management awarded me an honorary doctorate and for years I have been chairman of the Board of Governors at the university. It is mostly for practical reasons that I now have an appointment at Utrecht University. This way I can bring some of Cobbenhagen’s philosophy, contributing to developments in society through research and education, to Utrecht.”