Interview with Cathy Berx and Bruno Gryseels
2017 – a fresh year for a key event, additional research funding and laying new governance foundations – discover the year with two of ITM’s prominent figures.
2017 held a lot of firsts for ITM – can you please outline them?
Cathy Berx: “Firstly the Institute set up its new governance structure implementing it in January 2018. A General Council of stakeholders has been constituted as a high-level supervisory body with the overarching role of keeping ITM faithful to its vision, mission and values. This General Council appoints a smaller and independent Board of Governors in which the members offer a balanced distribution of competencies.”
Bruno Gryseels: “Yes, this fundamental change in our bylaws is a real milestone, whose impact will gradually become clear as the governing bodies come closer to the work floor. Putting this in place along with our other activities has made 2017 an extremely active and motivating year. Along with this top-down work we had: a world-class congress with ECTMIH 2017 in Antwerp; the start of a new quintennial partnership programme funded by the Belgian Development Cooperation, including training fellowships and institutional collaborations in 10 countries; a substantial extension of our Flemish science funding for the development of an outbreak research team, all while sustaining our focus on scientific excellence and state-of-the-art educational programmes that translate our research into invaluable and relevant knowledge for our multicultural student body – as well as the provision of reference medical services in our clinic in Antwerp.”
A busy year indeed – Cathy, could you elaborate on the new governance structure and what it holds for 2018?
Cathy Berx: “Of course – our 2016 governance review brought up questions on possible conflicts of interest and the equal participation and decisiveness of the large board of 21 members. Also it remarked on the underrepresentation of vital stakeholders such as staff, students and alumni, and partner institutions.
“2017 brought a new multi-year framework programme with a total budget of nearly €75 million, provided by the Belgian Development Cooperation. It enables us to continue our work of individual and institutional capacity building with hundreds of graduate students and 10 institutional partners in the South under the motto of ‘Switching the Poles’.”
By instating the statutory General Council, ITM has found a structural answer that looks towards participatory management with adjusted checks and balances. At the highest level, the General Council makes sure ITM stays true to its mission, vision and values and provides guidance on strategic decisions. It also determines the profiles of the Board of Governors, now counting eight to 12 members, and ensures that the competencies of the Board’s constituents reflect the diversity of ITM’s fields of expertise accurately. This allows the Board of Governors to focus on monitoring the performance of the Institute’s management and on providing a challenging sounding board to the management committee in their decision making processes.
Gratefully, we fulfilled all legal requirements in 2017. Representatives from staff, students and alumni were elected and partner institution representatives were put forward to become full voting members of the General Council. The new structure became operational on 31 January 2018. At our first official meeting we started the selection process of Board members. This sets the stage for all constituencies to really stake their claim in the future of the Institute, providing clear roles and responsibilities and adjusted checks and balances. This fundamental change will well equip the Institute to face the changes and challenges that lay ahead while remaining aligned with our stakeholders.”
Thank you Cathy. Bruno, would you like to tell us more about the challenges and changes that Cathy is referring to?
Bruno Gryseels: “Yes, one of the key points here is that we’re facing many shifts at several levels – in global power relations, in our relationships with our partners worldwide, in a competitive academic environment and in the regional, federal and international funding landscapes.
“The General Council is a structural answer that allows for participatory management with adjusted checks and balances.”
2017 brought a new multi-year framework programme with a total budget of nearly €75 million, provided by the Belgian Development Cooperation. It enables us to continue our work of individual and institutional capacity building with hundreds of graduate students and 10 institutional partners in the South under the motto of ‘Switching the Poles’. Our approach recognises that partner institutes need to own, lead and be held accountable for the partnerships. For us it is paramount to move from classic development relations towards a focus on scientific collaboration and excellence. ITM’s role is to enable scientists and institutes in the South to conduct the research that is needed to advance health in their countries. A special feature of the programme is an ambitious project, equally co-funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to eliminate sleeping sickness in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
With the core and programme support from the regional Flemish government we continue to expand our educational and doctoral programmes, especially by developing new short expert courses that can be integrated in modular master or doctoral training programmes. Flanders also provides core funding for research and, with a new grant, for epidemic outbreak response. We will build up a dedicated team working on various research lines to address local and global epidemics such as the current outbreak of cholera in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the continuous threat of viral outbreaks and the mounting challenge of antimicrobial resistance. Within Belgium, we also monitor the spread of exotic mosquitoes and other risk factors associated with the infiltration of tropical diseases.
Another challenge for the Institute is the wave of retirements that are coming our way – including my own, in 2019. Over the next five years half of our professors will be retiring. Aligning this generational shift in the strategic vision for the future of ITM is probably the single most important task of the new governance structure. An important first step was the recruitment of Marianne van der Sande as new head of the Department of Public Health, and I wish her the very best of luck.
This said, I look forward to another challenging year at ITM and to continuing on the lines of excellence and relevance in a changing and sometimes volatile world.” ■