For the time being Disaster Studies will have to do without a professor. After three recruitment rounds no suitable candidate has been found. An associate professor is now being recruited instead. A missed opportunity, in the view of assistant professor Bram Jansen, as it means Wageningen’s voice is not being heard in the current public debate on the refugee crisis, whereas the organization has a lot to offer on the subject.
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Disaster Studies, which comes under the Sociology of Development chair group, has been leaderless since the departure of professors Georg Frerks and Thea Hilhorst in 2013. The difficulty of finding a successor to them is ‘most unfortunate’, says professor and chair of the appointment advisory committee Bram Büscher. ‘Disaster studies is a very important field of studies in Wageningen and we occupy a niche in the field. We would very much have liked to get hold of a figurehead, someone with experience and a good reputation, who would be a draw. Unfortunately, after three rounds it proved impossible to find a candidate with enough seniority and baggage to fit the profile.’
Bram Büscher noticed too that the Wageningen tenure track system was putting some applicants off. ‘Several very promising candidates thought the tenure track criteria and the points system too rigid. They genuinely wondered, for instance, whether the required publications, acquisition and other points would leave them any time to invest in social contact with their new colleagues.’
Disaster Studies is now focusing on recruiting an associate professor rather than a full professor. ‘That means we ourselves can offer the person opportunities for professional development to grow towards a full professorship. There are already people within our group who are developing in that direction.’ It does mean though that Disaster Studies will have to do without a full professor for at least another three years, because each step within tenure track takes one year. ‘That is not dramatic because there are very good people around with whom we can develop things. But there’s no disputing the fact that it would be better if we did have a professor.’
The lack of a professor is sorely felt within Disaster Studies, says assistant professor Bram Jansen. ‘A professor is a key figure when it comes to how we organize ourselves as a university in relation to the theme of disasters. This is a typically Wageningen topic, there are people working on it in several departments and disciplines, but we don’t come together. A professor could forge links between Disaster Studies and Wageningen’s traditional fields of interest.’
And it is high time this was done, Jansen feels, because in the current refugee crisis Wageningen could put its stamp on the discussion. ‘Our approach to crises is unique in the Netherlands. There are many educational institutions that look at migration, natural disasters, conflict and aid interventions separately, but there are few that make the link between these themes, and approach the crises as social phenomena rooted in society. We have a lot to offer in terms of quality, both within the group and in the university as a whole, and there is a lot of interest among students. But Wageningen is not visible in the debate at the moment. NGOs and Foreign Affairs don’t know we are here. We have now even reached the point where we must fear for the loss of the great discipline we’ve got.’
In Jansen’s view the selection criteria for the professor could be relaxed a little. ‘Apparently it is difficult to match up to the existing profile. But surely that can’t just be the end of the story? The current recruitment system is crippling and gets in the way of a creative solution. Instead of just looking at the bare figures, the university should look at whether a person is creative, capable of exploring new areas and looking beyond borders. If we want to expand it might be time to be a bit more flexible with our requirements.’