A faculty divided
Runia is not the only one
How many professors does it take to grade a final paper? Three, says vice-dean Daan Raemaekers. Sometimes, it takes three people to confirm that a paper should be marked a six, and not a five. Nevermind the extra time and paperwork; in the Faculty of Arts a lot of things require extra time and paperwork.
Discontent is brewing in the Faculty of Arts. Months ago the proposal to cluster different departments was met with pushback from the staff. The Faculty Board acknowledged this in a June memo: ‘The Faculty Board is aware [of] persistent unrest among the staff.’
But there was more – and the Board didn’t see it coming.
Eelco Runia brought the unrest to the forefront in his recent op-ed. Some found Runia’s allusions to Lenin and the secret police overstated. ‘Hyperbolic is a good word for it’, says senior lecturer in American studies Mark Thompson with a wry smile. ‘But Runia kicked the door down. He is forcing people to address these things in public. And I think that’s why people are acting panicked.’
A great institutional fluster followed Runia’s letter. There was a fumbled email from a professor advising employees not to speak with the press, a discussion of the issues hosted by the Faculty Board, a student protest, a response by Modern History professor Mineke Bosch in De Groene Amsterdammer, a formal reaction to the Runia discussion from the Faculty Board, and a response to their response from Runia.
What is going on?
Everything comes down to two major issues: visitation committees and money. According to many staff members, managing these issues results in bureaucracy, micromanagement, an increased workload, output funding, faculty restructuring, and staff who feel they don’t have much say in any of it.
And, of course, internationalisation pains – but that topic warrants its own article.
The dark spectre of the visitation committee looms large over the Faculty of Arts. Visitation committees draft quality assessment reports that the university submits along with re-accreditation applications.
No one wants to relive that traumatic experience’
Six years ago a negative visitation report terrified the history department. So the Board of Examiners instituted a documentation system to prove that everything from syllabi to exam questions satisfies national quality assessment standards.
‘You can imagine that this is a lot of extra work’, vice dean Daan Raemaekers says. But the work is necessary ‘because no one wants to relive that traumatic experience.’
Assessment fears beget bureaucracy. ‘We don’t invent this paperwork because we like it, but because the outside world requires it’, says Raemaekers. ‘This issue is shared by all of us.’
That doesn’t diminish the burden on staff, who say ‘the paper trail is endless and leads nowhere’. One staff member in the faculty says, wearily: ‘Show us your syllabi, show us your grades, show us examples of your tests, show us examples of the written work, show us how you graded them, show us the rubric you use to grade assignments, explain why those rubrics are valid, give us five percent of exams from a given course, give us all the examples you have of high grades and low grades, as well as the written comments associated with the evaluation of a piece of written work. Give us all that stuff and then we will tell you if you’re doing your job right.’
What does the extra work have to do with teaching and research? Not much, says International Relations professor Luis Lobo-Guerrero. ‘Most of it is utterly useless. But we have to do it, and that takes time. It takes emotion and passion from our teaching.’
Runia says professionals are losing autonomy. They no longer have the authority to determine academic quality for themselves, or the freedom to experiment with pedagogy, or the time to focus on work that really matters to them.
The Faculty Board says they are also concerned by the ill-effects of the current supervision system. ‘This happens in both the corporate and non-profit sectors’, they write. ‘This is a widespread social development that has been going on for decades.’
This could be the moment to look critically at what we are doing’
Thijs Lijster is an assistant professor of philosophy, art and culture. He found the board’s response nuanced and helpful. He agrees: micromanagement and over-regulation are everywhere. ‘But that doesn’t remove the responsibility from our own organization. And there are currently enormous counter movements – in lower education and medicine, for example. This could be the moment to look critically at what we are doing.’
The Faculty Board has no solutions, they say. ‘We do not decide on our own budget.’ However, they will ‘assess what funds can be freed up to alleviate work pressure’ and ‘review solutions to be found in the organization of teaching’. They will also create another committee: the ‘red tape committee’ will look for ways to reduce the bureaucratic workload.
Runia says market forces are to blame for the problems in the Faculty of Arts. The Faculty Board disagrees. ‘We do not endorse Runia’s analysis. If we were really in the clutches of market forces and neo-liberalism, we would immediately cancel most of our degree programs, because only one third of our budget depends on student numbers.’
But Lijster says the Board missed Runia’s point. The complaint is about the creeping ‘mindset of market players’ that is imposed on universities generally, he says, ‘and adopting the attitude of competition, scarcity, strife, and becoming bigger and bigger.’
Although the Board says they do not have an ‘exclusively financial perspective,’ they also blame the increased workload on decreased funding per student by the government: down from 19,900 euro in 2000 to 14,600 in 2018.
The funding shortfall results in an emphasis on efficiency over quality, according to Runia. Everyone simply has to do more with less.
Department boards were bundled into program ‘clusters’. All degree programmes were folded into clusters ‘large enough to absorb the fluctuations that accompany out-based funding’, according to a faculty memo.
The long run effects of outrage and powerlessness are worrisome’
The Board says Cluster Boards will give staff more control over degree programs and teaching strategies. It will also make the financial decisions more efficient. ‘What we have done, in our perspective, is transfer some of our work to a lower level – including the financial responsibility – because it is quite difficult in a big faculty to decide which issues are more urgent than others’, says Raemaekers.
Not all staff were happy with the change, but many felt powerless to resist. One Faculty of Arts staff member wanted to remain anonymous because critical remarks could further complicate working relationships: ‘They forced clustering through over the clear and reasoned objections of a large portion of the staff. The Faculty Board’s approach was the very definition of power and runs against the spirit of open debate. Staff are then obligated to simultaneously implement and subject themselves to these policies. The long run effects of outrage and powerlessness are worrisome and have never been properly addressed.’
Raemaeker strongly objects to claims that the Faculty Board dismissed staff objections. ‘I find it very difficult to understand where this complaint comes from, apart from the fact that the outcome is not what some staff members would have liked to see’, he says.‘The board went to great lengths to inform staff and respond to their concerns.’ They also made sure staff members were involved in the process, Raemaekers says.
Runia got fed up and quit. Lobo-Guerrero doesn’t blame him, but thinks there is a better way forward. ‘We can complain all we want’, he says, ‘but we are the university. We need to do something if we want to see a change. In the day-to-day university – in the classrooms, in the corridors, in the offices – it’s us.” He echoes the Faculty Board’s call to ‘join hands’ and build a functioning faculty.
But what will that take? A lot more work.