Turning Humanities from primarily teaching-oriented to an organization where teaching and research have equal weight. Dean Thony Visser had barely begun realising this ambition when the pandemic broke out. With many things suddenly requiring ad hoc solutions, there was also still a need for a new Strategic Plan, which the Dean delivered. Her reappointment will allow her to further implement her vision for the faculty. ‘Strengthen each other. That is what we need to do.’
A condition for socially relevant and up-to-date teaching is a strong connection to research. ‘This was something we always expected of our lecturers, but there was also some tension around it. We were stuck in a teaching-oriented culture: people were appointed on the basis of teaching mandates, and the general feeling was that research was something you did when you had some time left. This did not prevent people from producing high-quality research, and trying to link it to their teaching. So the question was: How can we shape our organization so that these efforts are acknowledged and rewarded? How can we embed research so that it can develop strategically? That was what we wanted to articulate in the new strategic plan,’ says Visser.
One of the practical outcomes of the strategic plan is the new vacancy policy, in which research plays a leading role. ‘We no longer hire people to teach a specific subject, but people with a specific research profile. We then look at how this profile fits into our teaching. This means that we sometimes have to adjust a course unit, because the best researcher has a slightly different profile than their predecessor.’ And does this benefit teaching? ‘Absolutely! It benefits it very much! Because it allows us to integrate the newest developments in our degree programmes. In this way, we can align our teaching with the interests of students who want to address global issues. This goes a lot further than the content of a single course unit.’
Looking at her own mandate in European Literature and Culture, in particular German Literature and Culture: ‘Young people are interested in broader themes and issues, and not so much in a specific language or culture. In research, this has been the trend for some time. For example, linguists no longer see themselves as experts in a specific language, but work together with other experts on challenges such as multilingualism, language acquisition, computational linguistics, etc. For cultural scientists and literary scholars, this is a more recent development, but in these fields too, you see that research groups are organized around themes, not only at our faculty, but across the Netherlands. Researchers work together on issues that go beyond the boundaries of national languages. If you organize your teaching along those same lines, teaching and research can strengthen each other.’
With the Humanities Sector Plan and accompanying funds from the Ministry, research and teaching in Groningen will be given an incredible boost. At national level, the chosen themes are Humane Artificial Intelligence and Cultural Heritage. ‘We have strong research groups in these domains, across the entire faculty. These groups cooperate with each other, but also with other research groups within and beyond their cluster, as well as with groups at other universities.’ The UG was able to hire an additional 24 assistant professors (UD’s) for the two themes. That was a stressful period, explains Visser. ‘Everyone thought: “What is going on here?”, but also: “Oh wow, we suddenly have funds, how great is that!”. A great number of people ended up on Appointment Advisory Committees, where they did a great deal of work. We are now entering a somewhat calmer period in which we communicate internally how the entire faculty benefits from investments in Humane AI and Cultural Heritage. The sector funds are also allowing us to invest research support and infrastructure.’
And then there is the national Recognition and Rewards project for staff members. Visser is convinced that this too will strengthen the connection between research and teaching. ‘As the Faculty Board, we asked ourselves: “What do we really need to focus on?” We started with the development of leadership qualities, not only for our professors, but also for more junior members of staff. This is in line with the UG vision on leadership. In a leadership track people get to know each other across clusters, and this creates a network within the organization. You see that we do not live on an academic island, but that we are connected to society. So it's also about the conditions in which you do your work, why and how a sector plan emerges, and how you deal with what the Minister or other parties require of us, without losing our autonomy.’
Translating the faculty's strategic plan, sector plan, and Recognition and Rewards programme into the daily practice of research and teaching: that is what Visser will devote her full attention to for the next four years. ‘As a Dean, you can make plans and hope that these plans are successful, but for that to happen, your plans first need to land in the community. This is about the content, the primary process. The entire faculty will be involved in the implementation, and they can do it. I have complete faith in this. We are ready for the challenges of the coming period.’
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