Professor’s gown: from exclusive to inclusive?

Every doctorate ceremony emphasises that the university is a highly hierarchical organisation, says professor Martijn Wieling. He thinks this should change.

In just a short period of time, I had the opportunity to attend three doctorate ceremonies at our university from up close. Two as a promotor and a third one as a member of the reading and PhD commission. While these were impressive ritual closing ceremonies that add a special sparkle to the performance of the PhD student, every time a feeling of discomfort snuck up on me.

Because each and every time, the ceremony emphasises the highly hierarchical organisation of the university. The co-promotor without versus the promotor with Ius Promovendi and gown. The highly learned professor versus the very learned non-professor.

Since non-professors on a PhD committee are seen merely as non-voting experts, the somewhat absurd (and very uncomfortable) situation may occur that the one with the most knowledge of the dissertation topic may not be allowed to vote on whether or not to award a cum laude rating, while a professor with much less knowledge of the topic may.

At Dutch universities therefore, including Groningen, you only count academically if you’re a professor. It’s no wonder, then, that many have the ambition to reach that position, even if they’re not interested in the added (management) tasks that come with it.

At Dutch universities you only count academically if you’re a professor

Often, I believe, the position is aspired not so much for the work involved, but rather for the ‘I-am-at-the-top-of-my-field signal’ it sends out to the outside world. Unfortunately, we are in a situation with (financial opportunities for only) a limited number of professorial positions. Therefore, not everyone who meets the criteria will be able to reach this position.

Couldn’t this be done differently?

What if – as with our southern neighbours – we no longer make a distinction aimed at the outside between UDs, UHDs and professors. We give everyone with a permanent position as UD, UHD or professor the title ‘professor’, and, through our university PhD regulations, give them the right (ius) to promote PhD students (with an experienced promoter alongside if necessary) and the right to wear the gown.

What would be the result?

First of all, the doctorate ceremony will become a lot more inclusive, with all experts in a gown, daily supervisors who will then get to promote their own PhD students, and no more awkward voting in the promotion committee meeting.

What remains of the distinction between academic (principal) teacher and professor? It’s simple: that would be the amount of responsibility one is willing to take. My prediction is that in this situation many more scientists will be content in a position as a university teacher.

An associate professor can be expected to be, for example, a program coordinator, serve on a cluster board, or examination committee, and provide leadership to associate professors. In turn, a professor will provide leadership to associate professors, a cluster board, and faculty or university committees.

The willingness (and suitableness) for taking more responsibility is closely connected to the position and to a higher wage. My prediction is that in this situation, many more scientists will be content in a position as a university teacher with less responsibility, but with more time for performing scientific research themselves.

After all, the position then no longer reflects scientific stature (‘Everyone a Professor!’) so much as the responsibility one wishes to assume in the organisation.

A more inclusive gown, wouldn’t that be wonderful?

Martijn Wieling is associate professor of Lower Saxon and Groningen Language and Culture and associate professor of information science



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