Excuse me, I am just a university professor

economic downturn in Europe, often denoted as the Euro crisis, is often rightly associated with the negative effects of the "neoliberal meritocracy" we
live in. The term meritocracy perhaps deserves some explanation. It was
coined in the book of Michael Young, entitled "The rise of the
Meritocracy", which appeared in 1958 and sketches a world in which the
best, i.e., those with the highest intelligence and the highest work
power, climb the social-economical ladder very fast, and vice versa [1].

Also the universities, and Delft University of Technology
unfortunately is no exception, suffer under the yoke of this neoliberal
meritocracy, which has created an atmosphere in which professors only
become visible and respected if they have successfully competed with their colleagues
and have won an award, of which they subsequently advocate that it is
the most prestigious in their field.

Another effect of this
neoliberal meritocracy is that it all is about numbers that pretend to
reflect quality rather than that they are part of the quality itself. To me, the
best book ever on true quality is Robert Pirsig’s "Lila",
the worthy successor of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" (1974) and
which appeared in 1991. Naturally, an abstract topic like "quality" that
needs more than a book to give the reader a notion of its true essence
cannot be reduced to a number. Yet, in universities, the meritocracy
florishes due to numbers. In a self-assessment, made for the periodical
accreditation of our university, the quality of the research of its
professors was reduced to a number, in this case the Hirsh index or h-index. For a detailed discussion on h-index I refer you to the many web sites of Elsevier’s Scopus,
but for the moment just remember that it is a number that supposedly
indicates the influence of one’s scientific publications and thereby of the author himself on the field.
As if all fields are equally important, of equal size and all scientific communities
deal with their publications, authors, etc. in the same manner. Of
course not!

Quality of education of course is another aspect that
should be of concern to universities. Unfortunately, here the numbers
are more difficult to generate, if possible at all. As also education is more
inside-oriented and research is more outside-oriented and universities
would like to show to the outside world how great they are, they have a
tendency to stress the impact of their research more than the impact of
their education. Also, a university is an education institute of which
the major outcome, i.e., the student that successfully completes his studies
with a diploma on time and thereby is well equipped for his professional life to come, is a result of the great work of many individuals in a
team, including, of course, the student himself, but definitely more
difficult to trace back to the individual effort of a single professor. I
believe that, as a consequence of this more hidden impact of the
efforts of an individual professor, less appreciation exists among their
colleagues and bosses for the great work they are doing. Also, it is
striking to notice how many years must pass before a teacher that
clearly underperforms (according to which numbers?) will be no longer
able to pursue his damage. 

However, this is also not my main
issue here. I guess my main issue is that in this meritocratic
university system there is no appreciation and thus no room for the glue
that keeps things together. To give you a few examples:

  1. If a
    professor falls ill and a colleague takes over and brings the expedition
    to a satisfying close, this will most often go unnoticed as the project
    or course officially is still under the wings of the original professor. You have to be
    a loser to help your colleague in situations like these. 
  2. If a
    student suffers from a delay in his studies due to lack of motivation,
    skills or talents and he finally makes it due to the strong motivation
    and commitment offered by his thesis advisor, whereas the thesis advisor
    instead  have spent his time on supervising at least two other more
    brilliant students, according to the numbers, the advisor did the wrong
    thing. You must be a loser to spend your time on less brilliant
  3. If a thesis advisor trains a student to let the creativity and the innovation come from the student himself rather than that he imposes his own solution to a
    scientific or engineering problem on a student,
    the result takes longer time to come to fruition and therefore requires
    more time from the thesis advisor. You must be a loser if you don’t tell
    your students exactly what to do and how. 
  4. If a thesis
    advisor himself writes major parts of the scientific paper that is based
    on the work of a student, this paper has more chance to be accepted for
    publication and even win an award. You must be a loser to let your
    student write his own paper.

If situations like those sketched above arise, I have accepted and even deliberately decided to be the loser. 


[1] Paul Verhaeghe: De effecten van een neoliberale meritocratie op identiteit en interpersoonlijke verhoudingen, Oikos 56, 1/2011

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