Lecturer will also have a career at the university

Top researchers are going share their place in the spotlight. Having a career at the university should also be possible if you are a good lecturer or a leader. But how will Tilburg University make this change and when will it be noticeable for the employees? Seven questions about the new recognition and rewards.

Beeld Bas van der Schot

It is high time that academic employees are more appreciated, the fourteen Dutch universities decided in 2019. Now the plans are taking further shape. At Tilburg University, a steering committee has been set up and is headed by emeritus professor of Human Resource Studies Jaap Paauwe.

In the coming period, they will hold discussions with employees, and serious policy proposals should already be on the table in the fall. Univers looks ahead with Paauwe and full professor of Communication and Technologies, Marjolijn Antheunis, and the Dean of Tilburg Law School, Geert Vervaeke, both members of the steering committee.

1. Why is it necessary to value academic employees differently?

Your students may think you are great, you can invariably step in when a colleague is sick or help out enormously with a grant application. But don’t expect applause if you do not win that grant yourself or if the publication in the top journal is not in your name. At the end of the day, you are judged on your own research results. The rest is secondary.

“Many people derive satisfaction from education,” says Marjolijn Antheunis. “But it is also seen as a necessary evil, because it comes at the expense of your research output and, therefore, gets in the way of possible appreciation, promotion, and a fellowship.” Jaap Paauwe sees this happening as well: “An assistant professor who has a lot of passion for education, that’s kind of looked down upon.”

The scientist these days seems like a one-trick-pony, he says, who is mostly good at research. “That doesn’t do justice to your position as an academic.”

2. How should it be done?

“It should become perfectly legitimate to specialize in education,” Paauwe says. The idea is that scientists will henceforth choose how they structure their careers. There are five areas for employees to focus on: education, research, impact, leadership, and team spirit. Profiles to choose from are being considered.

“Education and research are the foundation,” says Antheunis. No one can ignore that. “But if you excel in education and do fine in research, you can still grow.” So a Head of Department who manages and is also good at education does not need to excel in research.

This will pave the way for all kinds of talents that currently go unnoticed or are underappreciated. Paauwe: “We will continue to nurture top scientists, but no longer as the only ones.”

At the beginning of a career, employees gain experience in all areas. Paauwe: “That way you know where your strengths lie.” With more experience, it becomes possible to shift the center of gravity, says Geert Vervaeke. “People no longer need to develop all skills at once but do so over five to ten years.”

It all has to become a lot more flexible. For example, if the situation calls for it, a scientist can temporarily lecture more, without being judged for it.

3. What does “team spirit” really mean?

That it will become more normal to work in teams. And according to the three, this is actually already happening. Scientists are not just concerned with themselves. They help out in education, they help with practicing presentations. But until now, they have been judged mainly on their own research performance.

“People who jump into the gaps are crucial, but that’s taken for granted now,” Antheunis says. “Many colleagues are eager to collaborate. It improves their research and insights whilst before they had to fight for their own case.”

A change in mentality is sought. Vervaeke: “We should be able to celebrate together when a colleague has a top publication. And that colleague should be happy that others have taken over tasks. Because if you have a top publication, you have been given the space by your organization to achieve that.”

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Thinking more from the team and less from the individual. Taking responsibility together for goals of the Department or School. Paauwe: “For example, the expectation is that, as a complete team, you will soon be responsible for the Bachelor’s or Master’s programs, and fulfill different roles in them.”

Or working together on the major challenges of our time, such as climate change or growing income inequality. “Complex social issues increasingly require team collaboration from different positions and disciplines.”

4. This seems contradictory. There will be more emphasis on the desires of the individual, but at the same time, the team becomes more important. Aren’t people then still forced to perform a certain task?

“Forced is not a term that is in line with Recognition & Rewards, or in academia. That causes enormous friction,” Vervaeke says. “But sometimes there are things that need to happen in a team. That’s the case right now. Almost everything about our work is great, but not everything.” It is going to be a puzzle that employees are going to put together, he thinks.

“At its core, it’s about empowering talents,” Antheunis says. Of course, not everyone can focus entirely on research; the lecture halls would be empty. But the point is that not everyone wants to do research only. Talents can sometimes be found elsewhere.

And if a staff member wants to become a top researcher, but is actually mainly good at education? Then it is a matter of holding up a mirror. “But it will never be said, ‘You’re not allowed to do this, or you must do that.’“

5. How will scientists be evaluated in the future?

The five domains are already included in the result & development interviews (R&D), says Paauwe. It becomes possible to define your own emphasis. It is also the intention that quantitative measures such as impact factor and h-index will play a smaller role. But what will take their place, and how can we prevent the subjective judgment of the boss from playing too large a role?

“One idea is to look at behavior. With leadership and team spirit, you can name certain behaviors and ask if someone recognizes that,” Paauwe says. “Someone who plugs the holes, that’s a magnificent example of team spirit.” You can then have a conversation about that.

Vervaeke points out that Heads of Department are “in the proximity of the people” and “have a lot of information,” which would help form a fair judgment. He also thinks that Tilburg University has an edge here. With the Connected Leading program, managers have long been trained to be “self-reflexive,” to “discover their own preferences or aversions and use them in the most positive way. Not to the detriment of the people they work with.”

6. When will employees start noticing this?

“By the fall, much should have been realized,” Paauwe says. By then, new guidelines and criteria for R&D interviews, selection committees, and promotions are expected to be in place. By 2022, it should all slowly be incorporated. “You then start training people and having them practice with the new criteria and weightings.”

So actually, a new university is already in sight. “Someone from the University Council called me naive,” Paauwe says. He does not recognize himself in that picture presented. He is ambitious, yes, but above all optimistic. The plans are widely supported; the time is ripe.

Although Paauwe knows very well from his field that major changes require a long time. “We are dealing with a culture change,” says Geert Vervaeke as well. “You’re only going to see the outcome of that in the medium term. In five, ten, twenty years.” Marjolijn Antheunis: “It just takes time.”

7. Doesn’t the coronavirus slow down plans?

Not really. Paauwe would have preferred to be meeting physically with the academic staff. Then, it would be possible for someone to get angry and bang his/her fist on the table or make a joke. “I was looking forward to that, then you really meet the people. Now you miss some of the body language and passion. But the coronavirus situation is no reason to put it all off.”

It’s going to work, though, to get employees to talk about the plans, Antheunis thinks. Even from behind a webcam. “We know from research that online dialogue sessions do not detract much from the content.” She is especially pleased that the steering committee, with Paauwe at the forefront, persevered, despite all the pressure that the coronavirus brought. “It shows the importance we place on this. We want to make the academy healthier.”

You can find more about the planning and progress of Recognition & Rewards on the university’s intranet page.

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