Is Ghent University stepping out of the ratrace? An interview with Jan Dumolyn about the goals, strengths, and potential pitfalls of the new personnel policy

By Valerie De Craene, Anton Froeyman, Freek Van Deynze

In 2018, the University of Ghent and the Socialist Trade Union announced a new personnel policy, calling it “stepping out of the ratrace” and “no longer wishing to participate in the ranking of people”. The press release (by the University of Ghent and the Socialist Labour Union) was picked up by many scholars and media, also internationally. Inside Higher Ed even interviewed Rik Van de Walle, rector of the Ghent University.

Slow Science in Belgium read the new policy, followed the debates, and ended up with numerous questions. What is the new policy about? Will this policy be a start of a broader and fundamental change on the way universities are organised? Will this policy lead to different types of knowledges being valued and validated by universities and funding agencies, while preventing precarity in our universities? Or is this nothing more than window dressing with minor changes, and even only for the happy few? What about the broader context in which this policy is implemented? Luckily we found Jan Dumolyn -senior lecturer at Ghent University and, as member of the Socialist Trade Union, one of the people responsible for the negotiations and implementation of the new policy- willing to answer all our questions about the goals, strengths and potential pitfalls of the new direction Ghent University seems to take.

 

Slow Science: Very briefly and concretely, what are the main characteristics of this new policy vis-à-vis the previous system?

Jan Dumolyn: The former system was completely based on so-called quantifiable measures. Not only publications (with an elaborate ranking system) were measured, but grant applications and service as well, sometimes to the point of ridicule. The terms for promotion from one level to another stay the same: five years as a tenure track lecturer (docent, maître de conferences, assistant professor); then ten years as a senior lecturer (hoofddocent, associate professor); then eight years as a professor (hoogleraar, professeur); after that, one finally becomes a full professor (hoogleraar). Now, the quantitative approach has been replaced by a more qualitative method. A commission of five persons will be created for each staff member. This commission will be consist of the head of department, the president of the ‘education commission’ of the programme in which one teaches, a close colleague who knows the field, an HR-specialist and a member of the faculty board. In the first meeting the staff member presents a plan for what she will do during the next couple of years, then there is a feedback meeting two years later and finally after five years an evaluation. The idea is that every staff member who does her job correctly and adequately (so research, teaching and service) will be promoted. If this is not the case, the promotion is delayed. There is the possibility to appeal when one does not agree with a negative decision.

 

Slow Science: How long has this policy been in the making? And why did it get introduced now? Are there any examples or templates which served as inspiration (e.g. website of Leiden manifesto suggest so)

Jan Dumolyn: As trade unionists, we have been protesting against the former system from the moment it turned out that it would be based upon a purely quantitative logic (something that we never agreed to in the first place and was imposed upon us by the faculties). This is already ten years ago now. I had not heard about the Leiden manifesto before you asked me this question. In fact, we can be proud to say we were much earlier in saying this with ACOD-UGent (the socialist trade union at the university). When I already protested against this metric fetishism ten years ago, I was mocked by almost every powerful person in the Flemish academic world. Gradually, opinions changed, and now those in power mostly agree with us.

 

Slow Science: In the new policy, there is an important role for the so called HR-committee. Is it possible that people’s research will be assessed by someone who might be unfamiliar with your field?

Jan Dumolyn: I don’t see that as a problem, on the contrary. The HR-commission should contain both specialists of the field who understand the staff member but also other people who might have a fresh look or are not implied in specific feuds or controversies within the field. The composition of the HR-commission is made up by checks and balances.

 

Slow Science: One of its members is a person from DPO (Personnel Department). Who is this person, i.e. what is their profile/expertise/background? What is her/his role?

Jan Dumolyn: Her role will be that of a trained HR-specialist, a kind of career coach. These people will be mostly trained as pyschologists I suppose. Their task is to provide general suggestions for career management.

 

Slow Science: Will one person be performing this role for the entire university, or will this be several people? Do you expect this person to, officially or unofficially, also serve as “antenna’s” to give the central university level an idea of hiring and promotion practices?

Jan Dumolyn: Our university is recruiting them at the moment. There will be a few of them. And yes, I suppose they will serve as antennas in that way.

 

Slow Science: Part of the new policy is the requirement for academics to submit a so called ‘inpassingstekst’ or integration text: a text in which they show how they fit in the department. What about external people who do not know the department that well? Won’t they be disadvantaged by the new policy?

Jan Dumolyn: I don’t see why, they should be coached in this as well by the colleagues of their department. It’s normal that when teaching and service are concerned as a newcomer you don’t know everything.

 

Slow Science: In the new policy, there is a bigger role for the academic to choose to prioritize research, teaching, and/or service. How will this be evaluated? Are there any minimum criteria? What if, for example, academics choose to not publish any articles but rather aim to make a documentary or book? Would this be considered enough? Does all research need to be innovative, or is popularizing (existing) research also considered as valuable output? What about arts? What if someone aims to write a new opera? Is this considered research output?  Services? If so, will faculties allow it? What if they don’t?

Jan Dumolyn: In principle, all this should be allowed as long as one fundamentally remains a scientist. Of course, a lecturer or professor cannot just say ‘I don’t want to write scientific publications anymore’ but changing the focus to books or focusing more on science communication is of course a very valuable option. Of course, a researcher should always continue to engage in innovative research, we cannot just be popularizers or artists, these are different professions. So let’s not take things too far. Most of us are paid by tax payers’ money.

 The quantitative approach has been replaced by a more qualitative method. The idea is that every staff member who does her job correctly and adequately (so research, teaching and service) will be promoted.

Slow Science: Related to the previous question: do faculties want to focus on and value teaching and service more? If so, what needs to change in order to make this happen? Think about academics who are often present in mainstream media (e.g. Koen Aerts – Kinderen van de collaboratie, Carl De Vos): Aside from playing an important role in bringing scientific insights to the larger audience, they only provide an indirect benefit to their departments, in the form of publicity and possibly higher student numbers. Which role does this type of service play?Will this change anything in the current relationship between research, teaching, and service?

Jan Dumolyn: I think this type of academics are exceptional when you start counting them. In practice, universities have already for a long time been happy with well-informed and eloquent researchers who appear in the mass media. In all fairness, I do not believe in academic positions without research, or mostly oriented towards service. There can be no academic teaching or service which is not based upon original research.

 

Slow Science: Do you think the FWO too can validate this type of service like the one discussed above?

Jan Dumolyn: I don’t think it should. Fundamental research is the main objective for the FWO and it should remain so. Other types of funding could be created next to it. Fundamental research is always potentially under threat so we should not give too much weight to ‘impact’ either. There should be a balance. Otherwise private companies will tighten their grip on the universities. You and me are from the humanities, but let’s not be naïve, we don’t really count in the bigger picture, when it comes to money and funding. When we say ‘service to society’ we mean something else, in practice this will mean ‘service to big corporations’.

 

Slow Science: (How) can individual professors and/or the university avoid that this new policy eventually still leads to an output focused on quantitative metrics? The discourse might have changed, but how can this be applied in practice? Especially since the incentives that lead to the use of quantitative indicators (such as the internal allocation model, the financing decree and the BOF-distribution key) are still in place.

Jan Dumolyn: Yes, this is the next step that should be taken now; this is already going in the right direction, but slowly. Some rectors support moving away from focusing on quantitative aspects in order to divide the money between the universities in Flanders. The KULeuven however is trying to block a fundamental change as it profits most from the current situation and it has the most outspoken neoliberal discourse since a long time. It is up to the colleagues in Leuven to more actively resist their university leadership in this.

Rethinking the career of PhD-students and the ‘scholarship’ system, which is de facto a labour relation, is on our agenda for the coming year.

Slow Science: To what extent is the new policy part of a larger process of change? At this moment, the (external) incentives have not changed: the Flemish financing system as well as international criteria for funding remain the same. What about those incentives that undermine the new UGent policy? Will this affect competition to other universities who do not implement a similar policy?

Jan Dumolyn: Yes, but we are only the trade union of one university, we cannot do everything at the same time and we have to start somewhere. I would urge academics to join a labour union and work in these structures instead of only writing endless blogs to complain about ‘academia’ in purely individualist terms or signing the occasional petition. Only through collective organization one can  gain strength. And that is in a union. Academics should learn that they are workers too and are not ‘above such things’ as a labour union.

Evaluators could use their position to settle scores with the person being evaluated. We would have wanted a veto right by the candidate against members of the HR-commission as well, when she would think they are biased.

Slow Science: What about the careers of PhD students and Post-Docs? Is there something in the pipeline for them as well? And what will be the effect on PhD students and Post-Docs as long as there is no specific policy implemented for them?

Jan Dumolyn: Rethinking the career of PhD-students and the ‘scholarship’ system, which is de facto a labour relation, is on our agenda for the coming year. We have also recently reformed the statute of the ‘scientific staff’ i.e. mostly postdocs financed by external funding. As to the problem of the postdocs in general, the main solution is to create a lot more positions of lecturer, so more of them have a chance.

 

Slow Science: What do you, as labour unions, foresee as potential problems within the new system?

Jan Dumolyn: The downside of not using a purely quantitative logic is that there is more room for purely subjective judgments. Evaluators could use their position to settle scores with the person being evaluated. However, due to the composition of the committee, which is supposed to be balanced. And there are also possibilities to appeal.

 

Slow Science: Are you as ACOD happy with the new policy? Are there issues you wanted to see included too? What proposed elements didn’t make the cut?

Jan Dumolyn: We pretty much succeeded in obtaining the most important aspects of what we wanted. We would have wanted a veto right by the candidate against members of the HR-commission as well, when she would think they are biased. We lost on that one in the negotiations. Now there is the possibility to protest and write a letter to the dean and the faculty council but they can then decide if they want to maintain the nomination or not.

 

Jan Dumolyn (1974) is a senior lecturer in medieval history at Ghent University, a shop steward of the ACOD (Socialist Trade Union) and a member of the Staff Negotiation Committee.

 


Read more

UGent press release: (Nl) https://www.ugent.be/nl/actueel/nieuw-loopbaanmodel-zap.htm
UGent press release: (En) https://www.ugent.be/en/news-events/ghent-university-talent-rat-race-transformation-career-evaluation-model.htm
ACOD (Socialist Trade Union) Q&A on new policy: (Nl) http://www.acod1.ugent.be/?q=node%2F1027

Interview with Rik Van de Walle in Inside Higher Ed (En): https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/01/23/ghent-university-belgium-embraces-new-approach-faculty-evaluation-less-focused#.XEiPVQo3dhI.facebook

 

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