While the dust of the much-polarizing Maagdenhuis rally is settling down, a certain group is emerging as the unrivaled champion of the last eventful five weeks; a celebrated group  called “the whole academic community” (“de gehele academische gemeenschap” in Dutch). From challengers (De Nieuwe Universiteit, Manifest) to the incumbent (De 10 punten van het CvB), all seem to fully agree that the “academic community” must play the strongest role in making decisions for the university. My question is: who represents this illustrious group?

The Wikipedia entry for Academia defines it as “the internationally recognized establishment of professional scholars and students, usually centered around colleges and universities, who are engaged in higher education and research.” By this definition, it is easy to agree that the academic community consists of every professional scholar and student. In practice, however, when choosing the best representatives for this community, one often encounters very creative methods of deciding who should be in and who should stay out.

Here are examples from propositions I have encountered, ordered by their inclusiveness. The most effortless way of choosing representatives is, obviously, to cut from the bottom of the pyramid. The students are eventually too inexperienced to contribute significantly. Their presence is short-lived and they are unaware of the history of events. So are the flex-workers, which on top of being temporary, their knowledge of Dutch language might be “insufficient”. Next comes the role of the junior faculty. They still need to get used to the university politics, to learn how to get the best out of negotiations, and they must focus on building their own networks, so we do them a favor and keep them out of the hassle of making serious decisions. Professors are better equipped in this regard, since they can be critical without risking their jobs. Not all the professors, however, are contributing to academic “excellence” and some have lost their edge. Consequently, it is better for the academic community to be represented by the most distinguished professors. Those that have many prizes must be the wisest. We really want to listen to all our top-professors, but many of them are already swamped with sitting in various committees, so it is better to get just a handful of the most experienced together and ask them to oversee the national research agenda. By the way, many research directions are anyhow set in Brussels since they have the best resources to do a “proper” prediction of the most pressing societal needs for Europe. Let them do this important task for us. They also have the deepest pockets and the best advisors, including many Nobel laureates. And the Nobel laureates are, no doubt, the highest representatives of the academic community, aren’t they?

The reader of these lines might say that I am too sarcastic or exaggerating. Perhaps! But I am sure those ruling elite who enthusiastically dance to these chords are not just a few exceptions, else the decision-making hierarchy in this proud-to-be-egalitarian society would not have run so far down the road of exclusion as it has done in recent years. I am neither in the position nor have much to say to those elitists who find the content of the preceding paragraphs a “natural” way of choosing the best representatives. I can only suggest that they could spend a few minutes on listening to the physicist Richard Feynman and his response to the BBC-reporter who asked him about his Nobel prize at minute 24:00 of this interview [1]. Other academicians would probably propose that there must be some short-listing method anyhow, but not as extreme as I have pictured in the previous paragraph. My suggestion to this group is to find the sentence that most closely relates to their rank in the pyramid and read the rest of the paragraph from there, once more. Being excluded hurts! Doesn’t it?

Whether it is possible to represent “the whole academic community” without selecting a small group is a good topic for another blog. Here, I would like to only emphasize that any selection criterion that cuts part of the academic population pyramid, horizontally, is inherently prone to the exploitation of those factions that are excluded from the decision-making process. For those who find this claim not self-evident, I will try to elaborate with just one example, out of many.

Currently, an “experiment” is being run by the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, unofficially called the PhD-studentship experiment. Previously, a PhD researcher was employed by the university and had all the rights of a government employee. The proposed PhD-student will receive a stipend or scholarship as it is practiced for example in United States. Such a proposal is the result of years of lobbying by Dutch universities. Justifying it, is very easy: it is an international (read anglophone) norm and it saves a lot of money for the universities. Who do you think have pushed so hard to make this reform? Aren’t they part of the “academic community”? Why didn’t they ask the opinion of the rest of  “academic community” whose life would be affected the most, before suggesting this “solution” to overcome the financial stagnation?

In my sixteen years of being in academia, I have encountered many hard-working and knowledgeable professors and worked closely with tens of them. Most professors that I have met are truly devoted to the academic advancement and some of them are my personal heroes. Yet, I have not seen a single professor myself who would say to his director: look, this is a very important project, please take one third of my salary and hire a young and energetic researcher who can help me advance this project. I know it sound like a crazy expectation but is the PhD-studentship proposal anything different in its reality? I hereby rephrase the “experiment” to emphasize the similarities; the society (and its representatives in parliament) does not like to spend any more on universities, professors do not retire any earlier, overhead costs are only growing, international competition entails more output even without additional resources, so why not split the salary of a PhD candidate and hire two instead? In other words: all current resources are exhausted, let us spend (again) from the future of the younger generation by cashing in their social security and pension schemes.

Decision making in academia is often not a rigorous scientific process by itself. It is based on personal opinions and intuitions of the decision-making committees and their opinions are best characterized by what they are called: personal. Therefore, it is very important that any such committee should consist of representatives from all over the spectrum within the academic community. If I had to list all the things I have learned from the student-activists in the Maagdenhuis, in order of importance, on top of the list for me would be: not all wisdom is exclusively capped by gray hair.

And finally, as “beta” as I like to be, I would suggest a quantified criterion for the composition of any committee in the university, be it for hiring, promoting, or evaluation as an over-simplified but easy to implement way of “fair-sampling”: Half of the members of each and every committee should be under 40 (adapted from Global Young Academy membership conditions). It is very easy to implement and it brings a lot of fresh blood in the decision-making structure. Note that given the demographics, the younger academicians will still be under-represented according to this age-diversity criterion, but for the moment, I stay pragmatic.


[1] Here is the transcript of that part of Feynman’s words, although I still recommend listening to the interview:

The Pleasure Of Finding Things Out, Richard Feynman Interview (1981)

“I don’t like honors. I appreciate it for the work that I did and for people who appreciate it. And I notice that other physicists use my work. I don’t need anything else. I don’t think there is any sense to anything else. I don’t see that it makes any point that someone in the Swedish

Academy decides that this work is noble enough to receive a prize. I have already got the prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation of other people use it. Those are the real things. The honors are unreal, to me. I don’t believe in honors. It bothers me. Honors bothers me. Honors is epilepsy. Honors is uniforms. My papa brought me up this way. I can’t stand it. It hurts me.

When I was in high school, one of the first honors I got was to be a member of Aristo, which is a group of kids who got good grades. Hmm? Everybody wanted to be a member of Aristo. And when I got into the Aristo, I discovered that what they did in their meetings was to sit around and to discuss who else was worthy to join this wonderful group that we are. Okey, so we sat around trying to decide who it was who would get to be allowed in to this Aristo. This kind of thing bothers me. Psychologically, for one or another reason [that] I don’t understand myself, honors from that date to this always bothered me. I had trouble when I became a member of the National Academy of Science and I had ultimately to resign, because there was another organization most of whose time was spent in choosing who was illustrious enough to join, to be allowed to join us in our organization, including such questions as we physicists have to stick together because there is a very good chemist that they are trying to get in and we haven’t got enough room for so and so. What’s the matter with chemist? The whole thing was rotten, because its purpose was mostly to decide who could have this honor. Okay? I don’t like honors.”