Modernize the requirements for tenure rank

Kristin McGee says the time is ripe to reassess the outdated requirements for achieving tenure rank. She hopes to see a serious debate about the goals and organizational structures of Dutch university professional life.

In the Netherlands, the path towards obtaining tenure, or the Associate Professorship rank, has only been implemented in several universities within the last few decades.

Since the Bologna Accord of 1999, many Dutch universities implemented educational revisions and began modeling the career development and promotion models upon either the American or the British system.

However, the qualifications which professors working in the Dutch university system must meet in order to obtain tenure status have not been implemented universally, nor with the same standards as those generally implemented in the very country within which this system originates (the United States).

Tenure requirements in the US

In the United States, for example, in the faculty of humanities, professors are typically hired under a five to eight-year tenure plan, which means that during the last year of the tenure plan, the professor undergoes an extensive evaluation procedure which requires that the candidate compile an application containing internal and external peer reviews, research and publication evaluations, and teaching evaluations.

If successful, the candidate will either be granted tenure, which entails a permanent full-time position and the appointment of related title of Associate Professor. If the candidate is denied tenure, in most cases, he or she will be asked to leave. The evaluations tend to highlight achievements in the areas of teaching, research and related publications.

If the candidate has a generally positive or at least acceptable publication and teaching record, the outcome is generally favorable. Having earned financial and scholarly awards and research grants are also valuable criteria for such an evaluation, but generally not required for obtaining tenure.

Further, specific tenure tracks can be awarded to validate differing academic skills, such as research versus teaching. For example, in Canada, professors can seek associate level ranks in either a teaching or in a research tract.

Tenure in the Netherlands

Conversely, in the Netherlands, many professors are not even hired within this tenure track system (nor are career paths introduced or clarified through a consistent and transparent procedure).

Those that are hired under a tenure plan are required to meet an extremely competitive and, many would argue, unrealistic set of demands. These include some of the standard criteria such as satisfactory publication record (an average of two peer-reviewed articles per year) and positive teaching evaluations.

However, candidates also have to prove that they have acquired significant research monies for their universities. They also need to show that they have experience mentoring PhD theses.

Research grants in the Netherlands

These last two criteria are increasingly difficult to meet because of built-in obstacles within the Dutch university system. The first is the simple statistical fact that only around 7 percent of research applications are awarded monies by either NWO or other large-scale European research initiatives such as HERA or ERC.

Sometimes, these percentages are slightly higher or slightly lower, but the fact remains that very few professors have a chance of receiving research monies in a system that chooses to annually award only a handful of multi-year, multi-million euro research projects, in place of awarding a larger number of smaller, short-term research grants to support short-term research projects of six months to a year.

The effect of such a grant system is a smaller group of “star” professors, who continually receive grant monies and are promoted to the higher Hoogleraar (full) or UHD (associate) rank, while a larger number of arguably expert researchers are afforded fewer financial resources to implement their research initiatives.

Supervision of PhD theses

Additionally, one of the main requirements for UHD (Associate) status is that professors mentor students writing their PhD theses. However, Dutch universities still require that the supervisor of a particular PhD thesis is a Full Professor (Hoogleraar).

The consequence of this requirement is that many Assistant Professors are not given the opportunity to mentor PhD theses. In 2001, three young Dutch professors summarized the negative impact of this system in an article for the De Jonge Akademie.

Here, they pointed out how many Assistant or even Associate Professors function as “daily” supervisors of PhD subjects and therefore do the bulk of the mentoring work while the full professors receive credit for these PhD projects and are often awarded financial bonuses when these theses are successfully completed.

Finally, as supervisors, Full Professors, and not the daily supervisors, gain ultimate control over the direction of PhD research project. In reality, because there are so few Full Professors (because of the unreasonable standards set by Dutch institutions), Assistant Professors often lose the ability to solicit PhD subjects that most relate to their field of expertise.

The second outcome of this undesirable situation is that Full Professors often head committees without demonstrating the necessary expertise required to adequately mentor the PhD candidate for his/her research area.

This leads to a paternalistic and hierarchical system, which promotes and rewards rank over expertise, and therefore fails to fully satisfy the academic needs of both the prospective PhD student and the research initiatives of younger professors who may well demonstrate such expertise.

Considering the unrealistic set of criteria applied to the Associate Professorship (UHD) rank in the Netherlands, many professors believe that the requirements for such a ranking should be revised and updated for a more fair, equitable and modern democratic process, commensurate with the goals of a democratic university system.

At the very least, the required criteria should be redesigned to parallel the very system and set of guidelines from which these terms were appropriated and translated into English.

Otherwise, Dutch universities will continue to employ a number of excellent researchers who, in other non-Dutch institutions, would be promoted to higher ranks after six to eight years, yet languish in the Catch-22 system of unrealistic and largely unattainable demands for mobility in the Dutch academic system.

Ultimately, this system is demoralizing and demotivating for those committed to both excellent research and education and to the specific needs of incoming PhD students.

Statistics relating to rank in Dutch Universities

The following statistics from 2011 relate to percentages of professors working as:

Hoogleraren (Full Professors)
Universitair Hoofddocenten (Associate Professors)
Universitair Docenten (Assistant Professors)
WP (Lecturers, Postdocs and Assistant Researchers)

Of 28,252 total faculty members at Dutch Universities, these are the numbers of positions by rank:

3,153 Hoogleraar/Full (11 percent)
2,437 UHD/Associate (9 percent)
5,422 UD/Assistant (19 percent)
8,230 WP/Post-doc, lecturer (29 percent)
9,009 Promovendus/PhD (32 percent)

Given these statistics, 80 percent of Dutch university professors are employed as Assistant Professors or less, while only 20 percent of Dutch professors work as Associate or Full Professors.

Given this cycle of promoting and greatly rewarding only a small number of scholars over motivating and more modestly rewarding young and mid-level faculty, I believe )as do 17 professional academic Dutch organizations) that the time is ripe to reassess these outdated requirements and begin serious debate about the goals and organizational structures of Dutch university professional life.

Kristin McGee, Professor of Popular Music, Arts, Culture and Media