A match made in Maastricht: Alex and Lisa Brüggen
In at least one lively, laughter-filled Maastricht home, one date in early autumn will always be a red-letter day. On 14 September, exactly 17 years after they first met, a gregarious, goal-oriented optimist named Lisa and a dry-witted, bee-keeping realist named Alex will celebrate becoming Professors Brüggen and Brüggen in the company of family, friends and Maastricht University colleagues. The SBE scholars who share a last name and a life together reflect on joint inaugural lectures, coincidence and coffee, private and professional spheres, and Lufthansa’s close attention to academic titles.
In a university famed for small-scale education, you’d expect most School of Business and Economics undergraduates to meet eventually. But it nearly didn’t happen for Alex and Lisa, two German students who ended up at SBE thanks to his chance glance at “a little open-day advertisement in a high-school magazine” and her “good feeling” during a last-minute visit. But – spoiler alert; they’re now husband and wife as well as professor of management accounting and professor of financial services – their paths crossed after all.
“My cousin knew Alex,” says Lisa, “and thought he’d be a great guy for me, but never managed to introduce us. We had friends in common, too, but somehow during the whole time we were undergraduates, we never met.”
“I think we had a course together, though, so I at least knew you by sight,” interjects Alex.
“But the first time we spoke was at my graduation,” she continues.
“When I congratulated you,” Alex smiles.
“It was a Friday in mid-September, 2001,” Lisa muses. “Wouldn’t it would be funny if our inaugural lecture was 17 years to the day from then?” She checks her calendar and shakes her head.
“It was exactly September 14, 2001. Can you believe that?”
Alex smiles again.
His father passed away before he was born, Alex recounts, and he and his brother were raised in a village near Cologne by his mother, one of four sisters; it was “a women’s family, really, and to some extent that influenced me”. Keen to “do something a little different”, he reckoned that “with business you can always do something with it, and at least get a decent job”, and an open-day conversation with an SBE academic convinced him to head to the Netherlands.
By the time she was ten, Lisa’s “loud and lively” family of five had moved five times, settling at last in Niederrhein near the Dutch border. “My father studied business, and when I was younger I got some experience working at his company. I wanted to study in English and do something different. I still remember liking the SBE building very much; sometimes little things – irrational or not – drive choices.”
First, find an accountant…
When both Lisa and Alex stayed on at SBE for their PhDs, an introductory course for doctoral students helped to play Cupid. “It wasn’t the most romantic setting,” Alex admits. “Different departments ran modules, and the accounting department’s assignment required us to work in small groups. For me the work wasn’t too difficult, but Lisa wasn’t familiar with accounting… and was totally not interested. She obviously thought, ‘If we get the accounting guy on board, we’ll get a pass’. So that’s how it all started.”
Lisa, laughing, protests, “The facts are more or less true, but of course I did it all in a very charming way. And I contributed too, didn’t I?”
“You definitely bought the coffee,” winks her husband affectionately. “It’s the overall group effort that counts.”
Wedding bells and new careers
By 2006, both had their doctorates; by 2007, they’d had civil and church weddings, and were assistant professors at SBE.
“These days it’s not very common for universities to hire their own PhD students; I think I was the second-to-last in my department,” Lisa says. “We were so lucky that there were positions open and we had the chance to stay in an environment where we could develop and flourish.” However, both would spend time abroad and apart: as a doctoral candidate, Lisa went to the University of Arizona, and Alex had a stint as a research fellow at Michigan State University.
Lisa recalls: “It was difficult, but we decided that if we couldn’t be apart for four months, perhaps our relationship wasn’t strong enough to last. We knew we’d manage.”
Their time in America – and, during a joint sabbatical in 2012, Australia – made Alex “value European institutions much more”, he says. “It’s very inspiring to be in the US, and I saw that academics there knew how to play the publishing game a little better. But I also saw the value of what we have here.”
Lisa adds: “We realised how much we like Maastricht and the Netherlands. Some people say the Dutch are a bit too bold, but I appreciate their honesty, and ability to cut through the hierarchy and the bla-bla-bla. You quickly know what you get here: good constructive discussions, and critical thinkers.”
Team efforts and matching titles
Although the professors Brüggen are members of the same SBE research theme, Human Decisions and Policy Design, they have no interest in co-authoring papers after one less-than-fruitful attempt. Lisa recalls: “Very quickly we saw it wasn’t working out, and decided we’d rather keep our professional and private sides a little more separate.” But do they ever feel competitive twinges across the breakfast table?
“No,” says Alex. “Our fields are too different to be directly comparable. And although we are both focused on our careers, sometimes it’s Lisa who is more focused and me a little less; sometimes the reverse.”
Lisa adds: “Neither of us are jealous people. Alex got tenure much sooner, which I thought was great, because it gave us more security. If they had decided I was not worthy of a chair, it would have been disappointing, but not because Alex became a professor and I didn’t.”
But all went well, and by November 2017, they could have made a restaurant reservation under the names Professor Brüggen and Professor Brüggen, had they so desired.
“Funnily enough, we still haven’t done it. Of course in Holland it doesn’t really matter, but in Germany it definitely would,” says Lisa.
Is it just that little more exciting for Germans to become professors?
“Maybe there’s some truth in that,” she laughs. “Although it’s not so much the title that’s important, but the rights that come with it. You’re no longer dependent on another professor, and you can much better arrange your own research and select the people you want to work with.”
“The thing is,” adds Alex, “we never use those titles in that way, unless you’re booking a flight with Lufthansa, which is the only airline that asks if you are Herr or Frau Professor. Although people outside the academic world do look at you a little differently than if you say you’re an assistant or associate professor, when they assume you must do something, possibly some administrative work, for Herr Professor.”
“Whereas in the academic world,” adds his wife, “you tend to be judged not on your title but on what you can or can’t do.”
Alexander Brüggen (1976) was born in Cologne, Germany and studied international business at Maastricht University, where he obtained a doctorate in accounting in 2005. His main research interests are performance evaluation and incentive schemes, internal capital markets and experimental research in accounting. Named professor of management accounting in 2017, he is director of executive programmes at UMIO.
Lisa Brüggen (1977) was raised in Sevelen, Germany, and studied international management at Maastricht University, where she completed a PhD in marketing in 2006. An expert on pension communication, she is a member of the board of Nibud. Named professor of financial services in 2017, she leads the School of Business and Economics’ Human Decisions and Policy Design research theme.
Inaugural lectures of Alexander Brüggen (“Beyond the Crystal Ball: Management Accounting for Future Proof Decision Making”) and Lisa Brüggen (“Tomorrow I will really start with my retirement planning: How to improve retirement decision making”)
16:00, 14 September 2018
Aula, Minderbroedersberg 4-6, Maastricht University
The event is preceded by Future-Proof Decision Making, a Human Decisions and Policy Design research theme symposium, from 10:45 to 15:00.
Different tribes, shared spotlight
Inaugural lectures are famously a chance for new professors to take the spotlight. Why share the glory?
“Shorter speeches!” retorts Alex. “And I never thought that sharing the glory would be a bad thing.” And, says Lisa, “we realised that 80% of the people we’d invite to an inaugural lecture would be the same. So Alex was nice enough to say, ‘I’ll wait for you – and let’s have one really big party’.”
“We supported each other a lot along the way. To be able to stand there together makes it feel really special. It says something about our relationship that we managed this, along with raising our daughters Matilda and Paulina and being there for them,” she adds.
Despite coming from the “different tribes” of accounting and marketing, their subjects of their inaugural lectures fit “surprisingly well together, with more overlap than we thought”, Alex confirms. Lisa adds, “We both focus on decision-making, in different contexts and at different levels: I look more at financial decision-making and retirement planning, and Alex at decisions within organisations.”
Chairs, benches and holding hands
Where do Lisa – the generous, warm-hearted perfectionist and slightly reckless driver, according to her husband – and Alex – the humorous, occasionally absent-minded professor fond of intoning “it is what it is”, says his wife – see themselves 20 years after taking up their professorial chairs?
“Still together, still having something to say to each other, still being nice to each other. Professionally, the great thing about being a professor is that you can develop in so many ways, do so many different things. Time will tell,” Lisa smiles.