AUBG Professor Jean Crombois: 'I am always very happy when I meet students after graduation as young professionals'
Professor Jean Crombois is the Head of the Department of Politics and European Studies at AUBG. Originally from Brussels, he often organizes trips to the EU institutions for students, and he enjoys teaching anything related to how the EU works. If you want to learn more about his academic background, work experience and favorite free-time activities, read our interview with Professor Crombois.
What are three interesting facts about you?
First, the fact that I became an academic a bit by accident. I did not come from a highly intellectual family even if our parents kept pushing us to do as many things as possible and to keep exploring and learning.
The second, perhaps, is that I never was a brilliant student. I struggled a bit in my first years at university, but came up at the end with the best grades. I then realized how important it was to keep believing in oneself regardless of what people can say or think. Just an anecdote: one my professors told me after my first year that I maybe should consider leaving university. I stayed. When I got my PhD, he wrote me a short letter congratulating me and telling me how wrong he had been… Quite a lesson!
The third is perhaps that I am really addicted to reading. I just love reading novels, from John Le Carre to Eric Ambler and a bit of science fiction as well.
If you could describe your personality with one word, what would it be?
One word? It's difficult. Always open to new challenges and never afraid to try new things and to surprise people around me. Sorry, this was a bit more than one word.
When did you first become interested in Politics and European Studies?
Two experiences. The first one was when we decided with friends to go to Berlin and witness the fall of the Berlin Wall. Those were amazing events to witness and really gave me a deep sense of what it meant to be “European.” The second was a bit later when I was in Britain studying Political Science at the University of Essex. It was just at the time of the discussions on the new Maastricht Treaty. The students at the University of Essex were not really EU friendly, and we had to fight the student government to get some funding for a EU Society. I then encountered the double opposition to the EU project from the right and the left. Then, back to Brussels, I started working as a journalist with the ambition of covering EU affairs.
What is your academic background and experience obtaining a PhD from the Free University of Brussels?
I did my PhD in Contemporary History. I always found that the foundations of politics laid in history. For my PhD, I was led to write a biography of a major Belgian political figure who also became the first Head of the IMF [International Monetary Fund] based on unseen documents, which was really fascinating! This allowed me to explore the history of diplomacy, crossing impressive historical figures such as De Gaulle, Roosevelt, Churchill, Monnet and may others. I then decided to study Political Science in Britain for one year and came back to Brussels.
What was your first work position after graduation and how has your career developed since?
I started working as a freelance journalist with the aim of covering EU news for the national printed media. At the time, working as a freelance, however rewarding, did not bring too much money. Only business weekly magazines were paying the best fees. This was before the internet, and it was still old fashioned journalism. I just loved it, even though I was really struggling to make the ends meet.
So, almost by chance, I bumped into one of my former professors who asked me to work on one of his projects and this is how I set a foot in academia. This led me to Oxford where I had a postdoctoral fellowship at Balliol College for three years, then back to Brussels and to Morocco where I taught there for one and half years before ending up at AUBG.
Why did you decide to become a professor and what led you to AUBG?
To be honest, mostly personal reasons. At the time, my wife who is Bulgarian, was longing to come back to Bulgaria. I saw an opening at AUBG, I applied and I was offered a position.
What are your teaching and research interests? You have a number of publications. Which ones do you find most significant personally and why?
I like almost all the topics I teach. I love my course on the history of EU integration that allows me to meet a lot of first-year students who may not go on majoring in EU studies but this makes it even more challenging and interesting. Also I like most of my EUR courses, the one of EU Diplomacy that I recently developed as part of the EU-funded Jean Monnet Module but also my course on EU Project Writing and Management that is very practical and allows a lot of interactions with the students.
Strangely enough, the publication of pieces for news outlets always makes me very proud, even happier that the more academic ones. For these articles, you have to write them very fast without the safety nets provided by the peer-review process for academic pieces, not mentioning the exposure they give you.
What professional moments and students achievements bring you the greatest satisfaction?
It’s a bit difficult to speak about one’s achievements. Certainly my stay in Oxford at Wiener-Anspach post-doctoral fellow at Balliol College (1999-2002), one of the oldest Oxford Colleges, was perhaps the highlight in my academic life. I met there a number of extremely interesting people and learned how to remain humble before knowledge. To have an Oxford professor, world specialist in his/her field telling you: “I don’t know. Let me think about it” was perhaps the greatest lesson. Otherwise, life is full of small achievements that can make one’s professional life extremely satisfying.
In terms of student achievements, I am always very happy when I meet students after graduation as young professionals when they allude to the fact they still remember some of my classes, and that they learned some useful things from them. It is always amazing to hear such things and it makes me realize how important we are all as teachers to our students. This also puts a bit of pressure when you realize the footprint that your teaching leaves on students. Quite a responsibility, not to be taken lightly!
Almost every year, you take students to the EU institutions in Brussels. What are the learning objectives of the trip?
For me, the main objective of the Brussels trip is above all motivational. By meeting alumni working in different capacities in the EU capital, it tells our students that they can make it too. It also gives more concrete information about the working of the EU institutions and also working within these EU institutions and around them as journalists, lobbyists... It makes the EU issues more real to the students, and a bit less dry when they study them in class or read about them in their textbooks! Finally, it allows me to interact with students in a different way than in the classrooms and to get to know them and them to know other sides of me as well. For example, I also established the tradition of inviting the participants to the trip for a pizza party at my place at the end of the semester as a nice way to close the adventure.
How does your typical workday at AUBG look like?
With the Covid-19 situation, I do not go that often to the office, and I found it more convenient to work from home. As Head of the Department of Politics and European Studies, I certainly spend quite of lot of time in front of my computer reading, exchanging emails, and setting up ZOOM meetings – certainly much more than before. Also try to find some time to do some sport, from swimming to play tennis as well to spend some time with the family and the kids!
If teaching was not your profession, what would have been?
As I mentioned above, to be an academic was not my first choice thought I am perfectly fine with being one. Without any doubt would have been journalist for the old-fashioned written media.
What are the activities you most enjoy doing in your spare time?
As mentioned previously, I am a great hiking fan, and spend quite a lot of time in summer hiking. I am lucky as my wife is an accomplished mountain guide. I have to confess a weakness for tennis and swimming. My other passion is reading with a special liking for Cold War spy novels such the ones by John Le Carré or Eric Ambler and many others. Read, read, anything but read. It just makes us better persons.