Ghent’s choices

The University of Ghent has announced transformation of their university into a place where talent feels valued and nurtured. They will no longer partake of the rat race between individuals, departments or universities. They want to foster collegiality, cooperation, well-being of their academic staff. On top of everything else, they want to evaluate them every 5 years, while giving up on the idea that more of everything is necessarily better.

Ghent’s rector, Rik van de Walle, is right. This is radical. In this post, I want to make a couple of comments on his announcement. In fact, I want to help out with a few foundations of such transformation.

I think the first thing to consider is the context in which the announcement is made. As the pressure to produce grows, publications have long since stopped being a meaningful outlet for good ideas. The pressure to win funding has long since been a means to do research. Rather, for a long time we have published in order to publish, we get grants in order to have grants. Things have gone so bad that we have invented the concept of minimum publishable unit!

After all it’s not about publications that make sense, that contribute or drive knowledge forward. No, it’s all about how many we have and what bibliometric properties they sport. Does it make sense? No, not really, but there you are.

That’s not all, though. A recent Twitter thread

makes another thing very clear. Academia has gone brutal, predatory. No, not the journals – academia itself. Put differently – we have! We also get more and more anxious, as universities no longer care about our well-being. For example, astonishingly, Cardiff University’s apparent response

to their academic’s suicide is so crass, I would have thought it impossible not so long ago. Alas, one can only wonder who, after Stefan Grimm (Imperial) and Malcolm Anderson (Cardiff) will be next. And if things go as they do, there will be more. And, please do believe me, I don’t say this lightly.

In all this, we have a Belgian university which says ‘no longer’. No longer should we be prepared to tolerate a culture which drives our colleagues to distraction, which makes our colleagues despair. But we have gone so far that what seems a human and humane action, becomes a radical policy to write home about. And it is this apparent radicalism that I want to write about.

1. I think that the most transformative of what UofG wants to do would be the assumption that most academics actually work, want to work and are quite keen on what they do. Most of us have come to academia because we are interested in finding out new things through research and tell others about them through teaching. Most of us don’t actually need to be checked and controlled on a daily, monthly or yearly basis. Ghent’s move to change their evaluation schedule to five years is excellent.

There are two additional points to be made though. The 5-yearly evaluation can easily be transformed into a major event which will take one’s breath away on its approach. I hope this will not happen.

Second, of course, there will be people who do less than others, or simply very little. But before we jump in with the assumptions that they are simply lazy gits, perhaps we should consider why this is so. Let me offer two possibilities, just for starters.

It’s really impossible to be creative all the time, to start doing new research immediately after finishing another, to start writing the moment you finished the previous piece. You must have time to consider, re-think, re-group. Academic work is becoming (for many has already become) a conveyer belt which it is not and should not be. We more produce more of the same, all counted in minimum publishable units.

Working effectively also means having appropriate working conditions, conducive to one’s endeavours, ones, for example, without fear of absence of immediate success, or missing the conveyer belt timing. More generally, I think, constant pressure rarely motivates people to work effectively.

2. In his announcement, Ghent’s rector talks very aptly about little space for disruptive ideas. I couldn’t agree more. But this has consequences. Publishing an article which is outside the well-trodden disciplinary practices is difficult and success is even harder to come by. If you really want people to engage in ‘disruptive ideas’, you must understand that they will be off the publication conveyer belt. That winning funding will not be easy, it might actually be unlikely.

All that, however, doesn’t mean that researchers engaging in niche, unfashionable, ‘disruptive’ research are lazy, useless or unworthy. No, it means that they try out new things and it takes time.

Seeing people’s work in its disciplinary context also seems a no-brainer.

3. Some time ago, my Twitter timeline was full of tweets about academic failures. We all tend to fail considerably more than succeed. Most of us, for example, will have submitted considerably more grant applications that failed than those that were successful. That’s the nature of the job. I hope that the University of Ghent will understand this.

Of course, we all need success. But it’s good to understand that success is something that happens between failures, not the other way round.

4. All in all, I hope Ghent will understand that seeing academic work as an athletic exercise in which you achieve ever better results, as you publish more and more and, obviously, win more research funding (regardless of whether you need it or not) is hardly useful. Such goals tend to quickly transform into a stick to beat academics over our heads.

In such a view of academia, publication cycles never vary, your ideas are always wonderful, reviewers always get the point and academic bias exists only in the parallel universe. On top of this, there are no academic/research fashions, while your students assess you in a rational and honest way. Needless to say, all metrics are a true and accurate representation of reality.

I think songs will be sung about Ghent if its goals will never become knuckledusters.

Obviously, there is more to be written, more to be discussed. I am writing it as a quick response to a development in academia which I find extremely promising. I do wish the University of Ghent success on their new path. I congratulate Rik van de Walle on his courage and ability to see his colleagues as his peers and fellow human beings. It’s just about as radical as it gets in today’s academia.

I hope they will succeed in being a wonderful place to work for and through this they will forge a new way which other universities will follow.

  1. Oh, it’s so easy to bandy about these high-falutin’ generalities…
    You’re very right in invoking the importance of context. And the actual context is this: for years, Ghent University faculty have been hounded to publish in JCR-listed journals as per a simple scheme: top quartile by Impact Factor gets you 4 credits; 2nd quartile is worth 3 credits; 3rd quartile is 2 credits; finally, 4th quartile gave you 1 credit. Nothing else mattered at all, it might never have been published as far as the university admin were concerned.
    So, I think the right question to ask is: what took Rik van de Walle so long to wake up?!

    1. Dariusz Galasinski

      It’s a good question, one which can be asked of many rectors/vice-chancellors.
      However, regardless of the motives and the extreme publish-or-perish policy, I have no doubt that the about-turn of the University is very welcome and I wish it all the best on its way. No doubt many universities will be watching Ghent with interest. If they succeed, others will hopefully follow, though it will neither be eeasy nor immediate, given, for exmample, the proceeds from the British REF to be gained in the rat-race.

      As it is, though, in my view, the system is unsustainable.

  2. charles antaki

    Well said, Dariusz; and here’s to a saner, healthier and happier 2019 for all of us.

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