The hierarchy of the ‘exclusive’professor’s gown is outdated

The entire system that gives people the right to graduate doctoral candidates needs changing, argues associate professor Jessica de Bloom. These rights shouldn’t be reserved to a select few.

In his article on ‘exclusive togas’ (UKrant, October 27, 2022), Martijn Wieling makes some important points. However, I feel that gowns are just one sign of the greater underlying injustices concerning doctoral graduation rights (or ius promovendi).

After doing a post-doc in Finland, I came to the University of Groningen in 2017/ In Finland, I’d earned the title of dosentti, the highest academic title that allows the person holds it to be a PhD supervisor (akin to the German title of Habilitation). Any university employee can apply for this title and it isn’t connected to their academic function, unlike the title of professor in the Netherlands.

Most people apply for the title at a different university than the one they’re employed at, to guarantee the objectivity of the assessment. Not only does the other university gather a committee to assess the application, but there are also two external assessors.

They appraise whether the applicant, in addition to writing a dissertation, has composed a productive and wide research line (of approximately the same size as a doctoral thesis), has a good teaching record, and serves as a good co-supervisor to junior researchers.

They felt it was patronising to mark researchers as incompetent outsiders

I supervised two junior researchers in Finland and acted as their doctoral adviser. But when the first junior researcher I supervised in the Netherlands was nearly done writing his thesis, I ran into a problem. I wasn’t allowed to graduate him: only professors or associate professors with ius promovendi were.

While I was an associate professor, I didn’t have the right to graduate doctoral candidates. Fortunately, people were sympathetic to the situation and to the injustice of assigning a random professor as my junior researcher’s graduating professor. Supported by my manager and various colleagues who recommendations I required, I was able to apply for ius promovendi quickly and graduate my student.

But then I ran into another problem. On graduation day, I wasn’t allowed to wear a cap and gown. Many of my international colleagues who attended the ceremony asked me why I was the only one on the committee not wearing a gown. I was forced to explain to them that this right was reserved for full professors only. My colleagues were flabbergasted.

They thought the Netherlands had flat hierarchies and felt it was patronising to publicly mark mid-career researchers as incompetent outsiders by forbidding them from wearing a gown. These days, associate professors who have ius promovendi are allowed to wear one. But other associate professors or assistant professors who are part of the supervising committee are still being excluded. The hierarchy of the ‘exclusive gown’ is awkward and no longer of this time.

Whenever we’re debating the use of ranks and rights, it’s important to realise that the current Dutch system of ranks is relatively young. Until 1963, there was only one category of academic staff. They were both in charge of education and research and all academic staff members had ius promovendi.

Perhaps we should treat ius promovendi and advisory capabilities as a pilot’s licence

In Belgium, as well as in many other countries, it’s common to refer to all academic personnel as ‘professor’. After all, a professor is someone who publicly teaches at a university and is an expert in a specific academic field. This applied just as much to associate and assistant professors.

According to the law (Article 7.18 of the Higher Education and Research Act), associate and assistant professors can be given ius promovendi. As the Young Academy, among many other parties, remarked, there are plenty of arguments to apply the ius policy more generously and uniformly. At the UG, however, only associate professors can apply for ius promovendi. Some faculties also say they can withdraw associator professors’ graduation rights. That’s not necessarily a bad idea, but this should also apply to full professors.

Perhaps we should treat ius promovendi and people’s advisory capabilities as a pilot’s licence: once every few years, people have to renew their licence by proving that they’ve taken the relevant courses and that junior researchers under their supervision receive their doctorate in a timely manner, in a safe working environment, and with satisfaction.

In my view, the ius rules are long overdue for a revision, and the university council’s personnel faction will shortly introduce concrete proposals that they’ll also include in a memorandum to the board of directors.

The key points are as follows: each associate professor should have ius promovendi, assistant professors should have the option of applying for it, there should be unambiguous and uniform criteria for each faculty, and independent review of the applications.

Allowing everyone at a doctoral ceremony to wear a gown would be a small first step in the right direction: it would signal more recognition of and appreciation for academics in all phases of their career.

Jessica de Bloom is associate professor of psychology (with ius promovendi but no right to wear a gown) and a Rosalind Franklin Fellow. She works at the Faculty of Economics and Business.



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