News - April 14, 2010

New chairs for old: Managers and lecturers in chair group tussle

The sciences groups have submitted proposals for the new chair group plan. Chair clusters are formed but professors and managers are at odds about management of finances and staff.

'The new-for-old directive is a hassle for scientific renewal'
The teaching assignments of Wageningen professors are being examined again this year in the light of a new plan for the chair groups. The five sciences groups have each submitted their respective plans to Rector Magnificus Martin Kropff at the end of March. The rector will come up with a chair group plan before the summer holidays.
The planning should have followed a 'new for old' directive which stipulates that a new study subject may be introduced only after giving up a chair group which is past its prime. However, this method of renewal has so far been largely ignored in the plans of the sciences groups, according to those involved. 'The new-for-old rule is a hassle for scientific renewal', says a professor. Chair groups do not like to be described as old and therefore need to be renewed, within themselves or among one another. The directive, however, has made this a pre-requisite for renewal. 'No-one wants to step on another's toes, especially since they have to work together a lot in the future.'
The situation looks rather odd because the university management - the executive board and the managing directors - does want to cluster the chair groups into bigger units. The aim is to enable the groups to work together better in both education and research. An example is the combined nutrition group of the professors Frans Kok, Pieter van 't Veer and Michael Muller.
Working together sounds good to many professors. Working together in bigger research projects according to programmes is fine. This works for education too, especially now that the BSc programmes have become more comprehensive. Furthermore, clustering will enable subject areas to be more streamlined.
But there is a catch. The management has also advocated merging the finances and staff of the chair groups. 'To that, the professors have turned a deaf ear', says one of those involved. Imagine that a chair group makes losses and has to trim down; this setback would have been borne by the group's professor and its managing director under present circumstances. But dropping this shortcoming on the chair cluster would make other professors responsible too for the loss and downsizing. This would be a hard pill to swallow.
In any case, professors have been grouped into clusters in the proposals of the sciences group. The differences in opinion between the professors and the managers concerning the jurisdiction within each cluster have not been openly declared. And they intend to keep it that way. When approached, a soft-spoken professor says: 'Sorry, I've been specifically asked not to say anything about it at all'. 
Own group
Judging from the plans submitted by the sciences groups, the sizes of the chair clusters vary greatly. For the Environmental Sciences Group, eighteen chair groups are clustered into five centres or work areas, together with content-related DLO departments. But each professor is responsible for his own group as usual. The Animal Sciences Group wants its ten chair groups to be fitted into three clusters. The seventeen chair groups of Agrotechnology and Food Sciences have been grouped into four clusters.
The Social Sciences Group plans to form no less than eight clusters from its twenty chair groups. 'Our initial plan was to have four big clusters, with the economists and sociologists together', says a professor. 'But that would be too big and cumbersome. We should cluster professors who can get along with one another.' By limiting the cluster sizes - most of them now comprising two or three chair groups - more support has been given for the plan within the Leeuwenborch.
It's wait and see whether the executive board will agree to these plans. 'The professors are chiefly concerned with content, while the directors, with the financial aspects', says a professor. 'This tussle also takes place in the administration centre between researchers and controllers. We don't know which model will eventually be implemented.'