Many assistant professors do essential and indispensable work at the UvA as supervisors of PhD students, but it is often difficult for them to be official supervisors. The university must quickly give them the recognition they deserve, professor Guy Geltner believes.
Of all the blatant injustices that Dutch academics endure, few are easier to correct than the narrow concentration of the Ius promovendi, the right to confer a PhD degree. The privilege belongs to “chair holders” or full professors, regardless of their supervisory role, which could in fact be indirect and minor. At the same time, seemingly junior colleagues — the universitair docent (UD) and universitair hoofddocent (UHD); rough parallels of assistant and associate professor, respectively — are excluded or marginalised as “daily supervisors” or “secondary supervisors,” and receive limited compensation for and institutional recognition of their work. Symbolically, this entails being prohibited from wearing a gown during the university’s very formal PhD defence ceremony. Such divisions, formalities and titles may (!) reflect practices in the deeper past. Yet the increasing atomization of knowledge and shifting institutional responsibilities within academia mean that UDs’ and UHDs’ role in supervising PhDs is both common and often essential.
Amendments to the regulations concerning the Ius promovendi were recently introduced, charting a path for UHDs to obtain it. That helpful if belated step also created an opportunity for UDs to do so under exceptional circumstances. However, the application of the latter is dragging behind, which continues to demoralize a large group of scholars: colleagues whose academic rank in the rigid Dutch system reflects neither their skills nor their experience, or else inhibits their desire to build these. A reluctance to share the privilege more broadly is also placing a stranglehold on UDs’ ability to become members of PhD committees in sister departments and programs, especially in the Netherlands, where the division into those with and those without the Ius promovendi continues to dictate membership (and here we begin to intersect more visibly with gender and other forms of inequality). To wit: for a PhD defence in many fields, it is easier to invite a small group of full professors with general knowledge of the topic, than justify the inclusion of UDs with direct expertise.
The problem is essentially structural: Dutch academia still mostly adheres to an antiquated model of hierarchical “chair groups,” run by full professors who oversee a fixed number of UDs and an even smaller number of UHDs. In this pyramid scheme, most UDs (which comprise the largest segment in the tenured academic workforce) will never become UHDs due to an externality: their promotion would impact the budget and/or violate the fixed numbers or ratio of appointees in a given group or department. Moreover, not only are UHD positions scarce, some colleagues gain that rank in recognition of their talents as administrators, or ascend the ladder thanks to grant money they’ve obtained from external funding bodies like the NWO or ERC. Whatever the latter’s merits (and they exist), they also mean that many of those who engage regularly in PhD supervision (or could do so) never get formally appreciated. This includes glaring cases where the very PhDs being supervised are funded by grants obtained by UDs and UHDs in the first place.
But the structural problem can in this case have a simple solution, and a costless one to boot. One that will alleviate rectors’ and deans’ concerns about creating “dangerous precedents”: since the regulations already allow UDs to supervise, lets’ establish field-specific criteria to allow all qualified colleagues to get on with crucial supervisory work, develop the necessary skills, and be recognized when their contribution is unique and significant, that is equal to or greater than that of full professors’. This reflects our lived experience as scholarly communities and is already a common practice in other areas of academia, for instance in scientific publications, grant applications and presentations. Establishing criteria and paths to meet them per field can happen at a department or school level, which are the closest witnesses to such practices. Beyond conferring the Ius promovendi on qualified staff, department and school directors can thus also take part in approving PhD committees’ membership when external scholars are named, and in recognition of their relevant disciplinary expertise. In this way, the UvA can lead in addressing one aspect of a wider structural problem.
Until then, however, I advocate abandoning the use of the university gown. So long as the labor of all experts is insufficiently appreciated by their institution, in both panel compositions and the award ceremony, our gowns evoke hierarchy for hierarchy’s sake. As such, they should have no place in our procedures.
Guy Geltner is professor of medieval history.