Recognition & Rewards

“We will only make progress with crystal clear criteria”

As far as Maastricht University Professor Lies Wesseling is concerned, Recognition & Rewards has too many complex elements. She fears that tinkering with promotion criteria opens the door to bias and that the gap between teaching and research will widen. Her advice: “Ask yourself the key questions and examine the programme for these questions.”

Ahead of this interview, you warned that you spend limited time at the university due to a transition to another job. Is this something that is related to the professorship?

“I am an older employee: at 65, I am at the end of my career as a Professor of Cultural Memory, Gender and Diversity. I have no problem giving up my university activities, but I’m not giving up my active role in society. I am transitioning to organic horticulture. This has everything to do with a sense of urgency about climate issues. I will continue to work, if not at university. I don’t want to become one of those consumer pensioners who fly around the world and wonder daily where to go to be pampered next. The consumerist aspect of retirement seems a bit nightmarish to me. I think the fact that I’m an older employee also influences my perspective on Recognition & Rewards.”

What did you think when you first heard about Recognition & Rewards?

“What a complex approach. I’ve worked in the field of gender studies since 1991. At the time, women were very poorly represented in senior academic positions. I’ve spent part of my time trying to improve this by striving for proportional representation. Through trial and error, I found the best strategy for me was to aim for crystal clear promotion criteria, and then to advocate monitoring procedures that can go some way towards ensuring the implementation of those criteria. One never gets perfect results, but it’s the strategy I’ve always pursued. One of my inspirations has been the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen. When I was active in this field, Pim Levelt was its director. He was very clear and uncompromising. He didn’t have a feminist agenda; he was clear and consistent and genuinely applied the institute’s unambiguous promotion criteria. As a result, they had the highest number of female employees of any university and para-university institution at that time.
“Emotions can run pretty high when it comes to promoting one’s own colleagues.”
This gave me pause for thought. I’ve been on appointments committees countless times, in part because I’ve spent most of my career at an institution that was growing rapidly. On the committee advising the faculty board on internal promotions, a lot of calibrating led to fairly clear criteria that we improved every year. It was quite a challenge. Emotions can run pretty high when it comes to promoting one’s own colleagues. On selection committees for new colleagues, I noticed that when it came to professorship appointments, very vague arguments were often put forward to exclude female candidates. The one I heard most often was: ‘I don’t see her as a leader.’ The old boys networks made use of the loopholes provided by ambivalent promotion criteria. I’ll say it loud and clear: I’ve always been opposed to positive discrimination. Discrimination is never positive. If we formulate criteria as clearly as possible and if we are willing to implement them and monitor their implementation, the rest will follow naturally.”

Could you give an example of a clear criterion?

“Here we get to a difficult point. A clear criterion is a requirement you can set with regard to a person’s output, or the positive evidence of their qualities as a lecturer. Things like that. Sometimes, demonstrable success in raising research funds can also be a clear criterion.”

Criteria that Recognition & Rewards is modifying.

“That’s precisely my concern with Recognition & Rewards. In my view, the programme allows vagueness, ambiguity and ambivalence to take hold. Numerous criteria are now emerging for appointing and promoting people. My fear is that this vagueness will lead to all sorts of bias. To my mind, the most effective way of eliminating biases is to be absolutely unambiguous about what you want and to take this seriously. It’s an empirical fact that bias will take hold as soon as things get ambiguous. Gender bias, racism, sexism, you name it; issues the university is already grappling with now.”

Do you recognise that something needs to change?

“There’s something I find highly undesirable, and I hope this qualifies my earlier remarks. My professorship contract mentioned an amount in euros. Every year, I was expected to raise that amount on average. This fully satisfies my plea for clarity, but in this specific case I don’t think it was right. We were under such enormous pressure for so long to raise money… And it was clothed in all sorts of expressions along the lines of ‘earning back your salary’. As if we’re some sort of commercial enterprise. I also take strong issue with the adulation of academics who bring in money successfully. In recent decades, everything was about the divas who raked in big heaps of research money. I think that’s highly undesirable. As NWO got a greater say in the research funds to be distributed, a schism began to grow between those who teach and those who mainly do research. I find that equally regrettable. I think this whole NWO business has had mostly negative consequences, which is why I no longer participate in it. At one time I thought it made sense, particularly from a gender perspective, but I changed my mind. People can also be given a research bonus for their educational efforts; that would be a much simpler system. Academics are intrinsically motivated people who don’t have to be continuously supervised, monitored and patronised with incentives. It would be a good thing for that one-sided, neoliberal focus to disappear. It’s as though we’re supposed to be guided by market forces, as though we’d turn a profit by securing money. I think that’s really excessive.”

Shouldn’t the university’s core task be stated more clearly, then?

“It should: the university’s core task is teaching and research, each in conjunction with the other. This has very much taken a back seat. In that case, why not merge with higher professional education? If universities no longer have distinctive features, why not create a single institution for tertiary education? I think this whole terminology about higher and lower should be banned. This classification is now wreaking havoc on us as a society. Such a move would also raise the value of vocational education, which is socially urgent. Without those people society can’t function, life can’t reach its potential. It’s as simple as that.”

Are there parts of the programme you do find relevant?

“First of all, I must confess I have no detailed knowledge of Recognition & Rewards. I get that people want to reform things, which is laudable in and of itself. But if you inadvertently give rise to unmanageable complexity, that’s not an improvement. You see this happening on many fronts. Many regulations are too complex to implement, causing an awful lot of social misery. With all this complexity, how can you still object to or argue for supporting a promotion or an appointment? I fear that it will take an enormous group of HR personnel to explain everything. Keep it simple. I also think it’s a very bad thing that it’s now been institutionalised that students are largely taught by lecturers who have no time to do research themselves – even though they may be excellent lecturers that students are satisfied with.”

The Faculty of Business Administration at the University of Groningen has a newly compiled associate professor profile with an emphasis on teaching. The profile includes a research duty, but this duty carries less weight than that of an associate professor with a research focus.

“I can get on board with that. But there’s a whole contingent of junior teachers – recent graduates who get a three-year professorial appointment – who have no time to do research. They serve a large part of the student population. At the knowledge level, there is very little assessment. There’s a big difference between learning carpentry from a skilled carpenter and learning it from a YouTube video or a manual. This same difference in quality is at play here. Incidentally, this widening gap between teaching and research was not caused by Recognition & Rewards but by the shifting of research funds from direct to indirect funding. NWO has been the main player in this.”
“Ask yourself the key questions. Do we want to maintain the unity of research and teaching?”

Do you discuss these concerns internally, with colleagues?

“Not all that much, though we do discuss them at the times set apart for this. I don’t think it’s entirely appropriate for me, while I’m in the process of resigning, to give my solicited and unsolicited views in dominant ways. In our case, the faculty board went round the various departments to canvass our opinions. It gave me an appropriate opportunity to express my views on this topic. I explained my experience as a professor of gender studies. This was met with a positive response; I feel the faculty board truly listens. Our dean is a woman; so is the vice-dean of research. The points I contributed carry weight in their eyes, too. I think that as a consequence the various profiles were elaborated with as much detail and as clearly as possible.”

Agree or disagree with Recognition & Rewards, the programme is up and running. In your mind, how can the best possible use be made of the energy and hard work of so many people?

“Ask yourself the key questions. For me, these are: Do we want to maintain the unity of research and teaching? If so, how do we prevent this unity from being further diluted? Next, examine the programme for factors that further weaken the unity. Or you say: No, we’re letting this go; we accept the fact that there are researchers, there are lecturers and there are people who get worked up over social issues in the media. This would lead to the key question to ask oneself: What is the added value of the university in the educational landscape? Why would you still want to be a distinct institution at all? HBO is achieving no mean feats, mind you. Students there, too, graduate on research projects that have a neat academic design; the only difference is they are practice-oriented. If you require scholars to valorise their research all the time, this distinction also vanishes. A third key question I suggest: Have you really made sure that this will improve the gender balance and better representation of new Dutch nationals? Or will this again result in women taking teaching jobs and men taking research jobs? It’s by no means an unrealistic scenario. Currently, women are inclined to take on care responsibilities while men score with publications in leading journals. Will Recognition & Rewards counter or encourage this spontaneous tendency?”

Lies Wesseling is Professor of Cultural Memory, Gender and Diversity. She studies the cultural construction of childhood in fiction (children’s literature, novels, films) and science (developmental psychology, parenting advice, anthropology) between 1850 and 1900. Her current projects focus on narrative models for forging kinship in global adoption. Wesseling led the international Platform for a Cultural History of Children’s Media (PLACIM) network as well as the research programme Emergent Cultural Literacy: Assimilating Children’s Literature.
She was director of the Centre for Gender and Diversity, a research initiative of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Since the beginning of her academic career, Wesseling has contributed to the development of new, interdisciplinary art and science curricula, first at Utrecht University (General Literature) and then at Maastricht University (Culture and Science Studies). She has supervised numerous Bachelor’s and Master’s theses in the fields of postcolonialism, postmodernism and literary and science studies.

Striking results of the culture barometer among professors job category:

  • Professors are overrepresented among respondents.
  • 69% of professors are largely or fully familiar with the Recognition & Rewards programme.
  • In the job category of professors, associate professors and assistant professors, the programme is talked about more than in other job categories.
  • On average, in comparison with other job categories, professors feel more recognised and rewarded for the work they do.
  • They report experiencing a (somewhat) positive change as a result of Recognition & Rewards more often than other job categories do.
  • More than those in other job categories, professors expect to experience more frustration/annoyance in their work and higher workloads as a result of the Recognition and Rewards programme.