Tenure, sort of

OK, it’s official now: after a working life of about 15 years I will finally have my indefinite contract at Wageningen University. So while teaching (a lot), publishing (less than I should/want to), attracting research funding (more than I dared dream of), and presenting and writing my research vision to the advisory committee, I must have done enough right to convince the committee that the university should keep me. The committee will reconvene in about a year, however, to decide whether I’m good enough to be appointed associate professor.

So yes, I’m happy that I can continue with what I am doing, and that I can further develop my line of research here. I like Wageningen University, although I admit that the only other universities I have ever worked at were Tilburg University, where I did a post-doc from 2006 to 2008, and UC Santa Barbara, where I have spent a sabbatical in 2010. The environmental economics tradition in Tilburg is much more theoretical and monodisciplinary than the one in Wageningen. Admittedly, they publish more in the top journals like JEEM, ERE, or REE than we do, and I think we should have the same ambition. On the other hand, the tradition in Wageningen is more problem-oriented, more involved in developing countries, and more interdisciplinary. I feel the Wageningen approach suits me better.

How do I feel about the whole tenure track system? A lot of people complained before, during, and after its introduction. And yes, I’m one of them, but I’m convinced it’s better than my university’s old system. The elementary particle of Wageningen University’s institutional structure is the chair group, which comprises a scientific discipline or subdiscipline such as aquatic ecology, environmental systems analysis, or environmental and resource economics. The head of a chair group is the chair holder, and in the old days the chair holder was mostly the professor of the chair group. There were some personal professors, but mostly these positions were created by the management, after which a suitable person was recruited. In other words, staff smart and ambitious enough to become a professor had to wait for the chair holder to leave, and hence mostly left before the chair holder did. I’m sure there was a way of getting rid of truly disastrous professors, but mediocre professors could remain unchallenged for their entire career because the smarter staff went elsewhere. The old system was a recipe for stagnation and intellectual laziness.

At least tenure track offers the staff that would have left under the old system a path towards professorship inside Wageningen University. This raises the question how many professors a university can pay, and this question has been asked repeatedly. I don’t know how the university expects to pay for all these people, but my experience in Tilburg, which at the time employed about three professors in environmental and resource economics (besides a host of others in microeconomics, experimental economics, and what not), is that tenure track can develop the organisation into a healthy market for ideas. As far as I could see the professors in Tilburg seemed colleagues rather than rivals, although I guess there must have been some form of competition for funding and the brightest students. They exchanged ideas, read and commented on each other’s papers, and wrote papers together. (The Dutch language has a great word for this: conculega, a portmanteau of the Dutch words for competitor and colleague.) I think that is a much healthier situation than the little monarchies we have had so far in Wageningen.

So if I think tenure track is an improvement, what do I complain about? Partly the way it is implemented; partly the typical problems you always run into when you introduce a new system; partly the logical disadvantages of tenure track. Wageningen University tenure track staff is expected to meet 18 different benchmarks, including teaching load, teaching evaluation scores, funding, publications, and PhD supervision. Originally these benchmarks were set by natural scientists and applied to social science, but this has been corrected, up to a point. A lot of criteria are unclear; some information we get is self-contradictory. This all shows that the organisation is still learning from its experiences, and I’m sure they’ll get it right someday. Nevertheless, it makes you feel like a cross between a front soldier and a guinea pig. More fundamentally, publish-or-perish has enhanced the risk of academic fraud and created a boom in predatory open-access publishers. We will have to be more vigilant with respect to plagiarism, falsification, and fabrication of data. (I’m tempted to refer again to Tilburg here, but I won’t: first, Diederik Stapel wasn’t at the Economics Department; second, his fraud has taken place on such a massive scale and over such a long time that I don’t believe publish-or-perish was the main reason.)

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