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A petty policy or progression?

Toga envy

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Over the past few months, three large universities have granted all members of PhD committees the right to wear a toga. But while Groningen did extend assistant professors the right to promote PhD students, it was clear that also giving everyone a toga was a bridge too far. ‘We have to make a distinction.’
3 April om 9:32 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 3 April 2024
om 10:28 uur.
April 3 at 9:32 AM.
Last modified on April 3, 2024
at 10:28 AM.
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Door Christien Boomsma

3 April om 9:32 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 3 April 2024
om 10:28 uur.
Avatar photo

By Christien Boomsma

April 3 at 9:32 AM.
Last modified on April 3, 2024
at 10:28 AM.

Anyone attending a PhD ceremony in Utrecht will have seen all the academics on stage wearing a toga since September. 

Anyone doing so at the UvA in Amsterdam will see the same; the university granted everyone on the PhD committee the right to wear a toga on January 24. 

And Leiden finally amended its policy last month.

The changes are in response to a growing need for less hierarchy in the academic community and increased recognition for the work that assistant and associate professors do. All too often, they do the same work full professors do without any of the same rights as part of a PhD track. They supervise, support, and pass on all their knowledge to a PhD student, but at the graduation ceremony, the full professor gets all the credit. The ‘real’ supervisor is allowed to act as co-promoter, but that rarely comes with the right to wear a toga, that visible acknowledgement of their role.

The Young Academy, therefore, declared 2023 the ‘Everyone Professor!’ year. If it were up to the Academy’s members, every single assistant professor, associate professor, and full professor gets to wear a toga, be part of the thesis committee, and promote their own PhD candidates – the so-called ius promovendi. 

Acknowledge and appreciate

People have also campaigned in Groningen over the past few months in an effort to expand the ius promovendi and the right to wear a toga both. Martijn Wieling, professor by special appointment of Low Saxon and Groningen language and culture and associate professor of information science, argued in favour of the change back in October of 2022. University council members Jessica de Bloom and Janet Fuller – professors at the faculties of economy and business and arts, respectively – raised the topic with the council and designed the Tunic for Overworked Mid-level Academics, or the TOMA, as a playful alternative.

Not allowing people to wear a toga is belittling and petty

‘The toga is a status symbol’, De Bloom explains. ‘Not allowing people on the PhD committee to wear one is belittling and petty.’ Besides, it’s not in line with the UG’s goals to ‘acknowledge and appreciate’ its staff.

Another argument is that because the number of female professors is only at 28 percent, the women who get to wear a toga as part of a PhD committee are under-represented.’ ‘I don’t know how to explain, either to my colleagues or to the outside world, why they’re being excluded.’

Bridge too far

But when the College of Deans, which consists of all the faculties’ deans and the rector magnificus, recently took a vote on the issue, it turned out to be a bridge too far for them. The members did agree to expand the ius promovendi to assistant professors, who would then also be allowed to wear a toga during the official ceremony. But anyone who didn’t have that right would not be allowed to wear it.

The history of the toga

The toga is based on the traditional garb that scholars wore in the sixteenth century: the tabard. ‘Professors wore them during public lectures’, says university historian Klaas van Berkel. However, private instructors, who taught special courses authorised by the senate, didn’t wear togas. 

During Napoleonic times, specific rules about who could wear the garment were introduced. The toga became a ‘representative garment’ that showcased professors’ authority, just like it did for judges and lawyers. 

That is why professors wear it when promoting someone to doctor. ‘When they do so, they represent academia’, says Van Berkel. ‘Now that so many other instructors other than full professors and some of them have been given the ius promovendi, it makes sense to give them the right to wear a toga during the ceremony. But the history of the toga provides no arguments to give other instructors that same right.’

Rector magnificus Jacquelien Scherpen says that ‘the toga is an acknowledgement of a person’s achievements’. She emphasises the College of Deans didn’t make the decision lightly. ‘We spoke to various people, including those who didn’t agree with us.’

‘This means we’re a straggler behind other universities in the Netherlands’, a disappointed De Bloom said during a council meeting. ‘Leiden, Utrecht, and the University of Amsterdam have already switched to the inclusive gown. That sends a big signal.’ 

Petition

One thing is clear. The right to wear a toga is a sensitive issue. Professor of marketing Maarten Gijsenberg became aware of this when he started a petition for it among his fellow UG professors in January. He wanted to show that professors were fine with expanding the right to wear a toga. 

He quickly collected fifty-two signatures from all over the university, which he then sent to the board of directors. But he never received a response. ‘I’m really disappointed’, he says. ‘I even sent a follow-up email to our rector when the matter was being discussed in the council, but I never heard back from her, either.’

Nearly all of the members on the College of Deans preferred not to comment on their decision to maintain the exclusivity of the toga.  

If you give everyone toga, you create this fake sense of equality

‘The decision is a good and logical step that recognises the responsibilities of assistant professors during the PhD track. The Faculty of Arts will obviously fall in line with this UG-wide policy’, says dean Thony Visser when asked how she feels about not expanding the right to wear a toga and the reasoning behind it.

‘I’d like to refer you to Anja Hulshof, who’s in charge of communication on the issue’, says Casper van den Berg, dean at the Campus Fryslân. 

‘At the UG, we’ve made great strides in making changes to the ius promovendi’, says spatial sciences dean Johan Woltjer. ‘For anything else, I’d like to refer you to Anja Hulshof.’

‘This issue is something the deans discuss in confidence’, says Peter Verhoef, dean at economics and business. ‘For more information, I refer you to Anja Hulshof.

The medical faculty and the Faculty of Arts didn’t respond at all. 

Consensus

Kees Aarts, dean at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences, is willing to talk about why he voted against. He admits that he is ‘conservative. I realise that won’t win me any popularity contests. But that’s okay.’

He emphasises that he’s got no issues with the expansion of the ius promovendi to assistant professors. ‘I think it’s only natural that the person who does most of the work gets the honour of making someone a doctor’, he says. ‘We all agreed on that.’

But they didn’t agree on the toga. Some people, he explains, think that everyone on the stage should be equal. That means they should all get to wear the toga. ‘But we shouldn’t underestimate the power of symbols’, he says. ‘The right to wear a toga was always reserved for full professors. If you give everyone on that stage a toga to wear, you create this fake sense of equality. Everyone on stage knows when they’re sitting next to an assistant professor. And the assistant professor knows they’re sitting next to a full professor.’

Besides, sometimes experts from the outside, like the director of a healthcare facility, are on the committee. Should they get to wear a toga too? ‘That would be a bit strange, wouldn’t it?’ says Aarts. ‘That’s why I think we should limit it to people who have ius promovendi.’

Not justified

Philosophy dean Lisa Herzog is sorry to hear it. As a member of the Young Academy, she was in favour of expanding the right to wear a toga. ‘I think it’s great that the UG is expanding the ius’, she says, ‘but at the same time it’s a shame that when it comes to the toga, hierarchies still play a role on this symbolic level which aren’t justified by the functionality of the procedure.

It turns out that other universities are jealous of us

Proponent Joost Frenken agrees. But, he emphasises, he’s a ‘glass half full’ kind of guy. ‘We did achieve two things’, he says. ‘Assistant professors now have the conditional right to be promoters, and they get to wear a toga during the PhD ceremony, showcasing that they’re equal to everyone else on the committee.’ 

That, he says, is an incredibly important part of acknowledgement and appreciation. Besides, the UG made sure assistant professors don’t just have the ius in exceptional cases, like other universities did. Instead, they all get it and there are clear rules. ‘It turns out that other universities are jealous of us.’

Work clothes

The way he sees it, it’s all about how you approach the toga. He remembers when he was at the university of Cambridge for a guest lecture and going to grab dinner at one of the colleges. His host grabbed a toga from the clothing rack at the entrance and told him to get one, too.

The fact that Frenken didn’t have the ‘right’ to wear it didn’t matter over there. ‘We were eating at the high table, and that meant everyone had to wear a toga. It was like putting on an apron, or a lab coat. They’re basically just work clothes over there.’

Other proponents, like Gijsenberg and De Bloom, agree with this assessment. ‘When you’re asked to be part of a committee like that, you’re on the same level as the other participants’, Gijsenberg says. ‘Banning someone from wearing the symbol of that status negates the contribution someone has made. And usually, the only argument people can produce in favour of keeping things the same is that we’ve always done it that way.’

But the people involved don’t think the right to wear a toga will actually be expanded any time soon. Sure, a toga falls under the heading of ‘work clothes’, says Aarts. ‘But they’re the work clothes of full professors. Old-fashioned though it may be’, he says. ‘Then again, the ceremony is quite old-fashioned, built on the idea that we’re not all equal. You can’t just equalise everyone without impunity.’

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