Organisation - November 4, 2009

Wageningen tenure track needs more carrot, less stick

Wageningen's tenure track system puts a heavy burden on future professors. It uses too much stick and not enough carrot.

The bar is too high for talents
Wageningen University makes excessively high demands of talented scientists who are being groomed for professorships. So says Kristine Kern, who teachers in the Environmental policy chair group. Kern went to school in Germany and comes from the University of Minnesota in the United States. In the course of her academic career, she has got to know the tenure track systems in the US, Canada, Sweden, Germany and Switzerland. Wageningen should have made use of the experiences in those countries, she thinks.
'The demands on assistant professors are very high', she says. In Minnesota there is a strict selection at the start of your career, but many assistant professors are taken on who do not have a PhD yet. To get a job in Wageningen you have to have published four to six articles in top journals. In the US and Canada they select the best, but don't put so much emphasis on publications.
Once you're appointed, the tenure tracks in those countries are flexible, says Kern. 'Young researchers who manage to obtain a grant don't teach for six months or a year, and concentrate on publications. That sort of reward is absent from the Wageningen approach. Here, talented people have to deliver good teaching and good research, as well as obtaining research funding. There is no encouragement to develop according to your talent. In this sense, the Wageningen system works mainly with negative incentives.'
Not that postdocs overseas get jobs more easily, says Kern. The rule in American universities is that postdocs have to get jobs at other universities. The reputation of a university depends on the number of postdocs that get jobs elsewhere as assistant professors. And the other way round: the assistant professors you take on always come from outside. Often it is a board of external assessors who decide on the candidates. In Sweden candidates have to write an extensive paper. These procedures are a lot more transparent than Wageningen's internal procedure, Kern thinks.
Another plus 
Another positive point at foreign universities is that assistant professors have considerable freedom. They are not assigned to a chair group, as they are in Wageningen, but work independently with their own budget from the start. Germany and Switzerland have introduced this system in recent years, too. That freedom goes together with training in leadership, as a preparation for leading a research group.
Kern is not the only member of staff who feels the Wageningen criteria are very strict. 'I'm all for clear quality criteria. But the standard is so high that instead of encouraging talented researchers, you discourage them', says researcher Lourens Poorter of Forest ecology and management. 'Many professors don't meet the criteria. Many Wageningen research groups are doing extremely well, that was clear from last month's external visitation. And now we hear that most of the people who are responsible for those good grades are not good enough.'