Radboud University

Blog 1: All-round is the new excellent - responses

Recent years have seen a lot of buzz around Recognition & Rewards. Everyone of course welcomes improvement in how we recognize and reward scholars, but we rarely hear about one of the most palpable side effects for the younger cohorts of academics: we are now expected to score well on all fronts.

No one will say so explicitly of course, but it is a simple consequence of being judged by seniors with different frames of reference. For every Recognition & Rewards adept, there is a dinosaur salivating over papers in journals with a high impact factor. For every team science fan there is someone who asks, “But where are the first-author publications?” One assessor appreciates good teaching evaluations, another nods sagely but says he'd like to see some more leadership. “And where is the public outreach?” says the next.

That motley crew reviews our articles, evaluates us for promotions, and decides on our grant proposals and preproposals. And so, while countless committees and dialogue tables merrily talk about how to lighten the rat race, the younger generation has to play chess on at least five boards simultaneously.

Academic institutions may have embraced Recognition & Rewards in their vision documents and roadmaps, but in fact, they still barely allow for flexible and qualitatively different career paths. Excellent teachers are still subjected to harmful temporary contracts unless they publish excellently because rankings. If you do a lot of public outreach, you get to shine in the annual report, but it's all taken from your research time — not your teaching time, of course, as the university’s business is to deliver graduates, not increase knowledge. To be allowed to write a grant application, your profile must fit our educational needs. But to actually have a chance at winning that grant, you must publish especially well. And don't forget to mention that collaboration with industry in your narrative CV: the committee will love it.

The result: where previously the demand was for folks fitting some —too narrowly— defined notion of 'excellence', currently the way to succeed is to be that AND all the other things. All of us have to be allrounders now. And that, I believe, was precisely not the intention of Recognition & Rewards.

Perhaps these are all symptoms of a system in flux. As an optimist by nature, I would like to believe that. But for now, it feels as if we are being mangled between competing interests.

As members of the Radboud Young Academy, we interact with many organizational layers of the university, and this sometimes makes the tensions strikingly visible. One professor can encourage us to continue thinking critically about scientific impact, while a research director tells us the impact factor is still 'a useful signal'. A senior administrator can say they fully support our initiative to broaden the ius promovendi to associate professors, while at the same time the college of deans can formulate a policy document that continues to serve the interests of full professors.

Recognition & Rewards aims to change the system: a goal we sympathize with. But an unintended consequence can be that “all-round” becomes the new “excellent”. We’re getting tired of playing chess on five boards simultaneously. It is now the university’s move.

~ Mark Dingemanse