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Departing dean Knoester on Recognition and Rewards

The quest for more balance in academic careers
20 December 2021
Jasper Knoester
Jasper Knoester

Text: Marjan Brouwers / Photos: Elmer Spaargaren

Just before the new year, and shortly before transferring to Leiden University on 1 January, Jasper Knoester, Dean of the Faculty of Science and Engineering and deputy rector of the UG, reviews the importance of the Recognition and Rewards programme, one of the pillars of the UG’s Strategic Plan. With this programme, the academic world is looking to achieve a new balance in the careers of academics. As a member of the committee of the same name, led by Rector Magnificus Cisca Wijmenga, Knoester has mainly focused on the careers of academics, the assessment of research, and academic leadership.

Why do we have to excel at everything?

It goes without saying that we need to take a good look at the careers of academics, thinks Knoester: ’We have set up a system in which we expect academics to excel at everything. In research and teaching, but also as innovators, team players, and leaders. And that whilst continuously having to justify themselves. The work pressure has grown enormously because of that. Fortunately, we have many excellent academics working at the UG, but why do they have to be the best at everything? Does a top researcher really have to be a top innovator in the field of teaching as well? And someone whose performance in academic teaching is out of this world, should they be a top researcher too?’

Tenure track position with an education profile

Eighteen months ago, in anticipation of the development of the Recognition and Rewards programme, Knoester initiated a pilot within FSE for a tenure track position with an education profile. ‘In this pilot, academics start a five-year track to become an associate professor, with the emphasis on teaching. Last summer, we started recruiting candidates for 18 positions and almost all of them have already been filled.’ The difference between this track and the traditional tenure track at FSE lies in the division of time and the expectations.

Emphasis on teaching

Knoester: ‘These academics spend 60% of their hours on teaching, 30% on research, and 10% on other activities. They don’t have to set up their own research profile or obtain funding, but they must have an active role in ongoing research. This is because we don’t want to let go of the link between teaching and research. We expect them to contribute to research, to publish, and to be involved in the supervision of PhD students. In the area of teaching, we expect them to become leaders in teaching, to obtain a double teaching qualification, to introduce demonstrable teaching innovations, to obtain funding for this, and to include their colleagues in all this.’

Milestone for a technical science faculty

In the meantime, the follow-up to the pilot is already knocking on the door: the track from associate professor to full professor. Knoester: ‘We are currently in talks with the steering group Career Paths in Science. The result should be that you can become a full professor with a teaching profile within FSE. For a technical science faculty, this would really be a milestone.’

'Fortunately, we have many excellent academics working at the UG, but why do they have to be the best at everything?'
'Fortunately, we have many excellent academics working at the UG, but why do they have to be the best at everything?'

Uproar about the assessment of research quality

Although Recognition and Rewards was embraced by all Dutch universities in 2019, it wasn’t newsworthy until last summer, when 171 academics, including 142 full professors, warned everyone in an open letter that this programme would damage Dutch academia. This group mainly objects to the replacement of measurable performance marks for research quality with a narrative CV and an Open Science system, in which the team is more important than the individual. The group also disapproves of doing away with the so-called journal impact factor; this factor measures to what extent an academic has published in leading academic journals. They want universities to retain the existing international, objective, and measurable standards to assess the quality of research.

Retain objective criteria

According to Knoester, it won’t come to that, but he is against completely abandoning quantitative criteria to assess the quality of research. ‘The question is what we should and shouldn’t look at. How important is it that you’ve published in Nature? Why do we attach value to the amount of citations? I’m not advocating a system in which we exclusively consider a narrative CV, like Utrecht University is planning to do. That is too insubstantial and subjective. I also know that early-career academics appreciate having clear and measurable criteria. To me, publishing in a journal with a high impact factor is a clue that your work is of high quality. If your work isn’t cited at all, it’s an indication that few people value your research. But you also have to consider how many authors worked on a publication. Are you one of two authors, or one of twenty? As you can see, quantitative criteria need to be underpinned. In a narrative CV, you can describe what you’ve done, what your own contribution was, and how that relates to the contributions of your co-authors. Choosing one over the other is too black and white for me. But, as they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I will follow the implementation process at Utrecht University with great interest.’

The full professor as a leader

Academic leadership is also a component of Recognition and Rewards that Knoester attaches great importance to. ’Traditionally, we expect our staff members, researchers, and full professors to excel in their research. Now, they also have to show that they are good leaders. They have to show vision, dedicate themselves to furthering their department or institute, pay attention to their team, and inspire people to develop further. Of course, this is a topic of debate. Are we fine with someone becoming a full professor without having the competences of a good academic leader? Does great subject-specific knowledge and visibility compensate for a lack of leadership? And what should we do with current full professors who were appointed on the basis of their track record in the area of research, but who do not possess the leadership qualities we now ask for? I expect that the way in which we will be assessing from now on will affect all current associate and full professors. The more value we attach to leadership qualities, the clearer it becomes, also for current academics, which standards they have to meet, including those regarding their leadership. And I think that they too will have to start taking action, if necessary.’

Evolution, not a revolution

‘The changes we would like to bring about with the Recognition and Rewards programme are too complex to implement quickly. It’s an evolution, not a revolution,’ concludes Knoester. ‘But the fact that we are debating this topic in itself is helpful. And now that young, motivated people are entering the University, you will see that changes are being made more and more rapidly, but not of their own accord; and that’s why this programme is so important. Give it time, take the right steps, and you will see that the evolution can no longer be stopped.’

Knoester was responsible for the fact that the FSE faculty has developed an engineering profile for both research and teaching. (The Linnaeusborg of FSE, Photo: Silvio Zangerini)
Knoester was responsible for the fact that the FSE faculty has developed an engineering profile for both research and teaching. (The Linnaeusborg of FSE, Photo: Silvio Zangerini)

Jasper Knoester, Dean and deputy rector

Jasper Knoester began his career at the UG in 1989 as a Huygens Fellow in the Chemical Physics department. Four years later, he was appointed Professor of Theory of Condensed Matter at the Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials (ZIAM) and, in 2003, as the director of ZIAM. Since 2010, he has been Dean of the Faculty of Science and Engineering (FSE), and since 2011, deputy rector of the UG. In addition to his work as a professor and researcher, he very much enjoys giving lectures and he has won the Lecturer of the Year Award four times. As from 1 January 2022, he will be Dean of the Faculty of Science at Leiden University.

Important for FSE

Knoester has meant a lot for FSE. Under his leadership, for example, five interdisciplinary research themes have been formulated. The 10 research institutes of the Faculty are working on these together. He was responsible for the fact that the F aculty developed an engineering profile for both teaching and research. In addition, FSE became the first technical science faculty in the Netherlands to offer 10 English-taught Bachelor’s degree programmes on the international study market simultaneously. By consistently making use of the Rosalind Franklin Programme and implementing numerous measures, he worked hard to create gender balance within FSE.

Advocate of collaboration

Knoester is a great advocate of more collaboration within and between disciplines, but also with partners from outside the University, and he has deployed himself in a number of national and international councils, boards, and committees. For example, he has been the chair of the national consultation between deans in the technical sciences since 2012, and he has been one of the driving forces and guardians of national sectoral plans in the area of science education.

Last modified:17 December 2021 11.51 a.m.
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