Prof. Bartel Van de Walle assumed the directorship of UNU-MERIT on 1 September 2020, and during his first day in office led an interactive welcome talk with staff online and in person. He then took time out to speak with the United Nations Regional Information Centre in Western Europe (UNRIC), contributing in Dutch and French to their ‘Faces of the UN‘ series. Bartel talked about his challenges and priorities and how, in New York in 2001, he suddenly shifted focus from abstract mathematics to concrete decision making. See the full interview in English below.
i. What is your academic background and how has it influenced your career?
I am a mathematician by training. I studied applied mathematics and computer science for my graduate degree and continued to do a PhD in Mathematics at the University of Ghent in Belgium. For my PhD, I was looking into the preferences of people in choosing and ranking decision alternatives. In particular, I was interested in preferences that were ‘fuzzy’, so when there were no clear-cut yes-or-no, binary, preferences, but degrees of preference, as in “I prefer this alternative to that other one to some degree”. I then came up with the mathematical foundations for such preference relations, which was very technical and beautiful at the same time. I took this with me my entire career because we are all confronted with such non-binary choices all the time. It helped me to understand that choices are complex, and that decisions based on them should take into account the ‘fuzziness’ that is inherent in those.
ii. What moment had the biggest impact on your career?
That was without doubt 9-11, the day of the terrorist attacks on the twin towers in New York. I lived in New Jersey at the time, where I was working as a young assistant professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. From my building, I could see the twin towers every day – until the attacks. The day of the attack and the following days and weeks, the impact it had on me and my family who had just emigrated to the USA the year before, the uncertainty and confusion that reigned in these first days, the shock and the complexity of the situation, it all drove my research from rather abstract mathematics into real-world decision making during crises almost overnight.
iii. What will be your priorities as Director of UNU-MERIT?
My very first priority is to get to know the people at the Institute better. I have had some introduction calls in the past months, and I will now take time to get to know everyone better. At the same time, I will start a broad consultation process, where we work with a group of colleagues to delve into the broad spectrum of activities at UNU-MERIT: our research, our teaching, the impact we have in the world. Are we doing the right things, and do we do things right are the two leading questions here. UNU-MERIT is a great UNU Institute, with an impressive legacy and outstanding reputation. Based on that, I would like to set out a course for the future: what is it that we want to continue to do, and what new things do we want to do. From that consultation process will follow new priorities – not just mine, but priorities that we have defined together.
iv. What particular challenges are facing UNU-MERIT in the COVID-19 pandemic? How will the institute adapt?
COVID-19 has had a tremendous impact on everything we do at the Institute. The pandemic affects our research, our teaching, our social cohesion. At first, our main challenge was to continue to function, to deliver our education to our students, to adapt our research plans, especially the fieldwork. I have seen the amazing efforts done by all staff, under the leadership of the programme directors for education, the PhD promotors, and by every single staff member in working from home. As the pandemic is still far from over, we will now have to look into how we can further adapt to this situation: what do we need to do better, different. We will also start thinking about ‘post-COVID’: what changes that we were forced into are here to stay? Will we continue to work remotely, will we continue to provide online education – and to what extent so that it keeps all of us – students and staff – together? The challenges are many, and we will need to think about these in new and creative ways.
v. Do your staff carry out research related to the pandemic? If so, what are the topics?
The impact of COVID-19 on developing countries looks grim. Reports by the OECD and others point to the risk of sending millions of people back into poverty, and to undo the progress that was made in the past 20 years. Achieving the SDGs in the current conditions seems even more difficult than before. As such, the work we do at UNU-MERIT is essential: what are the economic consequences of COVID-19, what new governance structures or policies need to be developed to avoid the most severe consequences to the developing world, to all of us. We have already started working on some projects on these questions, and without any doubt, more will follow.
vi. What advice would you give to young people interested in starting a career with the United Nations?
The UN is a fascinating international organisation, with the goal to make the world a better place and to offer solutions for complex, global problems. To me and many others, the UN inspires through its mission of maintaining peace, advancing human rights, addressing climate change, and promoting justice, equality and development. The UN offers a very diverse working environment, where you will work with people of many nationalities and cultures, and your journey may take you to different places all over the world. If this appeals to you, then I would really encourage you to take the chance of starting a career at the UN.
vii. What advice would you give to prospective students interested in UNU-MERIT?
At UNU-MERIT, we prepare our students to make an impact in the world, be it at the UN, local or international NGOs, governments, or academia – wherever life takes them. Through our Master’s programme, we provide our students with the tools, the methods and the experience to better understand the complex global problems we are faced with, in a very supportive, international environment of dedicated staff. I would advise our students to fully live this experience, to try to get everything you can out of this programme, make friends with your fellow students, and explore with all of us at UNU-MERIT how we can make this world a better place.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
UNU / H.Pijpers