Wetenschap - 1 januari 1970

Preparing for the future, learning from the past

Preparing for the future, learning from the past

Preparing for the future, learning from the past

In the past weeks many people have critized the business plan Krachtig op koers and expressed their concern about the future of the university and research centre. The criticism is mainly aimed at two aspects. One is the strategic vision as stated by the managing board. It is imputed to be inconsistent, outdated or both. The other target is the management of the Executive Board, departmental directors and other leading figures. Accusations range from not very elegant to mismanagement and nepotism. A question that has hardly been addressed until now is why WUR would need a strategic vision and why WUR appears so difficult to manage. I think most of the answer to these questions can be found in the history of the Wageningen institution. The archive of this university provides much interesting comparative material for the current discussion. Let me concentrate on three points

1) The ministry of agriculture takes the initiative

In March this year the university will celebrate its 81st anniversary. In 1918 the agricultural school in Wageningen acquired academic status and was rebaptized as Landbouwhogeschool. The agricultural school had opened 42 years earlier to provide the Dutch rural population with education in scientific agriculture, but it was not a great success. The agrarian population did not see the use of scientific education and in the first ten years student numbers never exceeded 20. The situation improved after the agrarian crisis of the 1880s. The government decided to invest in agricultural schools, research stations, and an extension service. These institutes had to be staffed with Wageningen graduates, and student numbers steadily increased. The objective was no longer educating farmers in science, but creating experts for the institutes. A special department (later ministry) of agriculture was also created whose mandate was to decide what kind of innovations agriculture needed and thus what knowledge and technologies the institutes should provide. Policy implementation of the ministry took various forms. For example in 1918 the minister of agriculture himself (F.E. Posthuma) was part of a committee that decided who should be appointed as professor in the new Landbouwhogeschool. The government policy making for agricultural research was mainly influenced by food shortages caused by the two world wars or unstable food prices, caused by economic depression. In the late 1930s large sums of money were spent on research to improve the baking quality of Dutch wheat varieties. Every wheat breeder already knew that in the Dutch climate there was an inverse relation between yield and quality for bread baking, which was exactly the outcome of the research. The economic depression made wheat imports costly and the ensuing world war brought them to a standstill. It is understandable that the Dutch government (from the 1950s in combination with EU policy) requ
ested the help of scientists to increase the food supply. It is equally understandable that scientists were willing to support this move

2) Academic drift

The difference in legal status between universities and professional schools like in Wageningen had already ended in 1903. From that period the Wageningen institution was caught in a process of academic drift. Both the managing bodies and the professors displayed a constant urge to imitate other universities, primarily by stimulating fundamental research. The effect of this academic drift is best visible in the changes between 1950 and 1980. In the first half of this century many research institutes were started in Wageningen, headed by the professor in the related discipline. These institutes conducted research in support of the regional research stations and the extension service. Inspired by the idea that professors had to concentrate on fundamental research, the more practical research was moved to a separate institute. For example the research to support breeding companies, which had been performed by the Institute for Plant Breeding (IvP) since 1912 was transferred to the Foundation for Plant Breeding (SVP, later subsumed under CPRO-DLO) in the late 1940s. The IvP had to concentrate on fundamental breeding issues. Academic drift however was tempered by the strong influence of government policy. In most fundamental research the links with agricultural problems are clearly visible. Another example is the appointment of new professors. There are many cases in which a background in the agrarian sector was considered more important than a doctorate and research experience. While the combination of academic drift and the orientation towards agriculture and agrarian policy can sometimes be conflicting, it also proved to be highly effective in the production of agricultural scientific knowledge

3) Group survival

A last important feature in the history of WURC is the strength of relatively small groups to resist organizational changes. Until the 1960s the most influential group was the council of professors, the senate. Shortly after university status was acquired the ministry and the advisory board (college van curatoren) urged the senate to implement a faculty structure in Wageningen. Three attempts to make a workable proposal (in 1921, 1931 and 1933) were voted down by the senate. The main argument was that a faculty structure would not improve co-operation between professors and might even be harmful because any subdivision would lead to chairs that belonged in more than one faculty. Negative effects on teaching were foreseen as well. There was a lot of student protest in the 1960s against the undemocratic functioning of the Senate, but more dangerous for the coherence of the senate was the growth of academic staff numbers. Liability within the group of professors was threatened by liability within the group around the professor. Departments (now chair groups) became the new strongholds to be defended against outside pressure

Is a strategic vision needed?

Wageningen University has always been dependent on the policy of the ministry of agriculture. Since the ministry is pushing the institution to become more self-reliant the Executive Board decided to take over the task of the ministry and formulate an agricultural policy itself. As several persons have argued in this newspaper, the vision is not very creative or innovative. But does a self-reliant university need an elaborate, centrally-defined vision? Do other universities have strategic visions as in Wageningen? Every university states that its aim is to supply high-quality research and education. Quality is achieved by faculties and departments, control by peer review and evaluating committees. This option can be followed by the Executive Board as well. What happens now is that the traditional (hierarchical) organization structure, where decisions about chair groups fit in, is based on the centrally formulated vision. Another option is to stimulate departments and chair groups to promote themselves in their fields of work. Which groups can stay is then determined by quality assessment and the results of evaluation

Options for the organization of research

The implementation of the business plan in fact means protection of the core chair groups against the outside world. Their position will not be threatened as long as they fit within the definition of the strategic vision. Quality assessment by peers will have some effect, but it will be very difficult to deal with low-quality research that fits well within the strategic structure. In a decentralised organization of research many chair groups will have a hard time. For the market oriented research, university researchers now have to compete with the DLO institutes. Competition with other university and foreign institutions will also be hard for fundamental research. But small groups are persistent. What happens now is that chair groups aim their defensive strategies towards each other in order to find a place within the strategic vision, with questionable results for the quality. Being competitive with outside research groups is likely to have a positive effect on quality. It might even stimulate solidarity within WUR, so desperately sought by the Executive Board

Options for the organization of teaching

Whereas organization in small chair groups can be healthy for research, it is very destructive for education, which needs to be organized more centrally. Chair groups defend their own position within curricula at the cost of quality but also at the cost of flexibility. Chair groups have always defended their position by pointing at the crucial academic combination of research and teaching. But there are many ways to organize these. When this university still had a senate, education was organized in five programmes in which students had a relatively wide range of options for filling in their ingenieurs degree. A modern option comes close to proposals made by Professor Rabbinge. Teaching would be organized by a small body of experts in university teaching, advised by a committee of students and chair group members. They would buy teaching units from the departments. To prevent bargaining and political deals, the leading figures should not have a departmental position and should rotate or move every three or four years