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Report on Everyone Professor! symposium

February 16, 2024

On the afternoon of 2 February 2024, the hall at the Trippenhuis was packed when Sanli Faez, chair of the Everyone Professor! working group, opened the proceedings. He explained how the working group, made up of members of The Young Academy, had been active since 1 April 2023 and had held talks with various parties.

He then introduced Joeri Tijdink, also a member of The Young Academy, who would chair the proceedings. ‘The aim of this debate is to seek a wide range of perspectives,’ said Tijdink.

In Dutch
At the bottom of this page you can watch a video of the afternoon’s proceedings.

No gown, no title

The ‘Mentimeter’ enabled all attendees (whether in the hall or on line) to answer a number of questions during the afternoon, with the results being shown on a screen in the hall. The first question was intended to establish exactly what categories of staff were attending the debate. The largest percentage of attendees was made up of universitair docenten (ud’s) [usually translated as ‘assistant professors’] (35%), followed by hoogleraren [full professors] (22%), policy officers (20%), and universitair hoofddocenten (uhd’s) [associate professors] (11%). There was also a small minority of PhD candidates (3%). The total number attending came to almost a hundred.

Prior to the start of the debate, Marie-José van Tol (chair of The Young Academy) briefly summarised the main features of the Everyone Professor! campaign. She pointed out that universitair docenten basically had the same duties as hoogleraren – such as applying for grants, setting up their own line of research, carrying out peer reviews, and supervising PhD candidates – but they didn’t have the same rights. They couldn’t wear a professorial gown, they couldn’t use the title ‘professor’, they couldn’t serve on dissertation-assessment committees, and they couldn’t confer the degree of ‘doctor’ on their own PhD candidates. The Young Academy was therefore calling for the traditional distinction to be abandoned; after all, ‘credit where credit’s due’. The proposed change would level out the expertise hierarchy, make maximum use of the expertise of ud’s/uhd’s, and reduce the workload and supervision burden on hoogleraren; it was also in line with the national ‘Recognition and Rewards’ programme. 

An anomalous feature of the Dutch system

After Van Tol’s summary, the four panel members introduced themselves. Marjolijn Antheunis said she was a hoogleraar at Tilburg University, and she hoped that The Young Academy’s call for change would be heeded. After all, she said, responsibility needed to also entail recognition. However, there was one of The Young Academy’s arguments that she disagreed with, namely that the proposed changes would affect the hierarchy and social safety. ‘Different roles will always remain,’ she said. ‘They’re necessary to keep a university running. Different roles create differences in power, and that means unsafe situations can always arise. You can never create completely flat structures.’ 
The second panel member was Joost Frenken, a hoogleraar at the University of Groningen and dean of the Faculty of Science and Engineering. He said he was already almost at the end of his career, but he could still remember the feeling of unfairness that he’d experienced as a novice universitair docent because he wasn’t allowed to be responsible for his best PhD candidates. ‘You’ve acquired the necessary funds yourself,’ he said, ‘and you’ve recruited and superviseed the individuals, but at the climactic moment the PhD diploma is presented by someone wearing a professorial gown.’ Frenken called this an anomalous feature of the Dutch system. It was time for change, and in Frenken’s view, that should be step by step, starting with the ius promovendi, i.e. the right to confer the degree of ‘doctor’. 

Don’t forget the PhD candidates

The third panel member was Ioana Ilie, a universitair docent at the University of Amsterdam and president of APNet, the ‘national network of assistant professors’. Ilie was in favour of Everyone Professor! because universitair docenten in the Netherlands were currently at a disadvantage compared to their colleagues in other countries, where staff members with a similar position often did have the ius promovendi. The fact that that wasn’t the case in the Netherlands meant, unfairly, that Dutch ud’s were viewed as being inexperienced.  

The final panel member was Henk Kummeling, rector magnificus of Utrecht University. In his view, the primary question should always be how PhD candidates could be supervised properly. That was why he thought you couldn’t just grant the ius promovendi to everyone: ‘PhD candidates are at a vulnerable stage of their career,’ he said. ‘The ius promovendi should therefore only be granted to those who have demonstrated good supervison skills.’ He also noted that there needed to be a greater focus on the responsibilities of hoogleraren than on their status. 

The ‘basket of crabs’ effect

The audience were then invited to use the Mentimeter to show which arguments for Everyone Professor! they found convincing. A big majority of those present (72%) voted for ‘equal duties, equal recognition’. As far as arguments against were concerned, 42% selected ‘there’s a serious risk of poor supervision of PhD candidates’. That was immediately met with a critical response from the audience: ‘Doesn’t that risk also apply to current “professors”?’ A lot of people nodded in agreement. Another question: ‘In your view, which academic bodies are holding back the introduction of Everyone Professor!’ A majority of those present said it was current hoogleraren. A hoogleraar from Nijmegen said that he’d come up with a metaphor for that situation, namely the ‘basket of crabs effect’. ‘Those professors have had to clamber up to the top themselves, and now they’re pressing down on those below them,’ he said. 

A former rector magnificus said that it was particularly important for the discussion to first be conducted everywhere. And he also pointed out the danger that ‘everyone professor’ would mean ‘nobody professor any more’. ‘Look at the US,’ he said, ‘they don’t call one another “professor” any more, so that way you’re going to abolish the whole title.’

They aren’t mice to experiment on

A professor emeritus said that what was lacking in the debate was an analysis of how the current problems had originated. He pointed out that the number of university staff had quadrupled, but the number of professors hadn’t increased accordingly. ‘If you ask me,’ he said, ‘the reduction in the number of hoogleraren has had a disruptive effect on how universities are organised.’ Kummeling said that money created a restriction. Researchers also needed to be able to demonstrate that they could handle the supervision process, he said. ‘PhD candidates aren’t mice to experiment on.’ 

The president of the PhD Network Netherlands (PNN), Benthe van Wanrooij, was pleased that Kummeling focused so much on PhD candidates, but questioned whether the ius promovendi as it currently existed could in fact guarantee quality. A member of the audience added: ‘We also need to take a critical look at the qualities of the group that’s currently in charge: it includes some professors who leave PhD candidates “wailing and gnashing their teeth”. PhD supervision needs to be evaluated in that context too.’ Van Wanrooij agreed, because good supervision contributed a lot to the well-being of PhD candidates. Antheunis wondered whether it was also possible to deprive existing professors of the ius promovendi.  ‘That’s not legally possible,’ said Kummeling, ‘but in practice it does happen.’ 

Rising stars

A member of the audience from the UK wondered why the Dutch system didn’t involve appointing two supervisors, one on the basis of their expertise and the other to look after the PhD candidate’s well-being. Frenken said that although the ‘four eyes principle’ would apply, there still needed to be recognition for the ud’s who took on the day-to-day supervision of PhD candidates. ‘You want to treat ud’s like the rising stars they actually are; you don’t help them by denying them the ius promovendi.’

At the end of the afternoon, a member of The Young Academy pointed out that a lot of the discussion had been about whether or not to grant the ius promovendi. Another aspect of Everyone Professor!, namely entitlement to wear the professorial gown, had consequently not been addressed, even though that was an important part of the proposed change. 

Make equality visible

Marie-José van Tol brought the afternoon to a close by looking back at the discussion. She was gratified that for those present it was the quality of PhD supervision that was paramount. She expressed the hope that current hoogleraren would also be assessed according to that criterion. Van Tol also suggested that existing hierarchies could be levelled out by involving not just hoogleraren but also other researchers in decisions where job hierarchy was relevant. Finally, she stressed the importance of both the title ‘professor’ and the ius promovendi as well as the professorial gown: that was how you could really make equality visible. For example, in fields where there were few PhD candidates and hardly any hoogleraar positions, the title of ‘professor’ was important for someone to be taken seriously in the context of international cooperation. Van Tol thought that the exchange of knowledge during the symposium had been very valuable, and said that The Young Academy would continue discussions with universities about Everyone Professor! She urged everybody to discuss the entire Everyone Professor! proposal with their local young academies, fellow hoogleraren, deans, and Doctorates Boards, and to take the necessary initial steps. 
 

Everyone professor! Symposium

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