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Is it really that bad on the Grote Gracht?

Is it really that bad on the Grote Gracht?

Photographer:Fotograaf: Simone Golob and Joey Roberts

Portrait of a faculty in turbulent times

MAASTRICHT. What is going on with the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, a.k.a FASoS? Within a year, seven 'yellow cards' were issued by the national inspectorate NVAO ("a beating, we were terribly shocked," says an employee) and then the stories come out. Some are told in all openness and some literally pushed under the door of the Observant editorial office. That the faculty is divided into camps, that staff are on the brink of being overworked, that you could cut the atmosphere with a knife, that people are afraid to express themselves mainly because the management style is top-down, and so on. And also that this was “bound to happen,” that education has been neglected for years.

What is the truth in all these stories? Is it really that bad on the Grote Gracht?

Yellow cards

"The reason why we received yellow cards, is because of people like me."

Autumn 2013. The judgement passed by the Accreditation Organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders (NVAO) was rigorous: six of the seven programmes assessed were substandard and rejected. If matters remained unchanged, the government would withhold funding.

The verdict came like a bombshell. Initial reactions on the Grote Gracht varied from disbelief to resistance and vexation. “We were angry at the committee, we felt that we were not able to explain properly how we do things here,” says Sylvia Haerkens, a policy officer supervising the recovery process.

Tannelie Blom, professor of European Studies, is still critical: “This committee assessed a European Studies programme while not one of its members has ever had anything to do with ES. The same goes for PBL. Here at the UM, there are always two obstacles with external committees: PBL and the interdisciplinary nature of programmes. We are measured against their own discipline, but a historian sets different requirements than a political scientist."

Professor Thomas Christiansen: “I have worked in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe. Our academic year is the longest of them all, we have the highest number of contact hours. Our programme is the largest in Europe, we are growing each year, whereas numbers have decreased elsewhere. Then a committee of five people turn up thinking that they know better. That is absolutely outrageous.”

There were other recriminations regarding the committee too. They implied, after all, that the faculty was too easy-going, too tolerant with regard to theses assessments. Not at all, feels historian Ernst Homburg: “You deliver an individual to society, and then you have to assess the process, the growth potential. Just looking at the final product is a neoliberal accountant's approach. I don't tally. But now we have to be stricter. Look, I had someone who had carried out rather complicated research, using 17th-century sources, I felt that it was worth a 7. It was just that the formulation of the theory and the presentation of the question could have been better, but it was compensated by the other chapters. The second reader, however, pressured by the committee's criticism, gave a five. Fortunately there was a third assessor who gave a pass. Things could have turned out different. No matter what, the reason why we received yellow cards for this, is because of people like me."

Philosopher Maarten Doorman adds: “I am not saying that all theses were that good, but the 'mercy passes' (in Dutch: genadezes), the fact that everyone is so against those now, makes them sound really firm and tough. But how is it possible that a student whom you teach for three years has trouble getting a six for a thesis? Then something is wrong with your programme. And it happens often enough that a student understands the material well enough, but cannot put it down on paper properly. That is why the mercy pass exists. But that is not allowed anymore."

Exhausted

Later on, the atmosphere in the faculty changed; maybe what the auditing committee said wasn't so crazy. "First we went on the defence," says professor Sjaak Koenis. "But indeed, not all theses were good. The grade didn't just reflect the product, but also the process."

According to historian Georgi Verbeeck there was more. FASoS never really "properly digested the switch to the bachelor's/master's structure. The bachelor's became a final station, for which we were insufficiently prepared. Before the BA/MA system, we asked students to write an essay, which became an academic paper. This requires a different approach. The assessment committee judged our final pieces on the basis of criteria that we were not prepared for."

What was worse, say other members of staff, the faculty had been warned. Already in March 2008 a group of seven lecturers from the Arts and Culture programme (CW) sounded the alarm. In a letter to the faculty board, they wrote that the workload had "reached a critical limit" because of "the increasing pressure of regulations" and "the substantial economising on teaching hours in recent years".

Lecturers lose faith in the faculty, feel exhausted, overworked and unappreciated. They protest against the erosion of the education programme. They believe that good-quality teaching is hardly possible anymore in the hours allocated. Feedback on papers and theses suffered and is regularly done through e-mail. They feel that education is becoming an item "at the bottom of the list, mainly good for losers".

What didn't do (interdisciplinary) education any good, say the critics, is the abolishment of the consultation structure such as year groups and planning groups. Blocks became 'one-man affairs' of individual lecturers, says former programme director Pieter Caljé. “It is true that most of them were positively assessed by the accreditation committee, but cohesion between the blocks has disappeared. And of course that takes its toll in the supervision of interdisciplinary theses." Caljé made a list of the complaints and sent this to the faculty board. Nothing at all was done with it, he says. "Frustrating."
Dean Rein de Wilde: "That's incorrect, we did react within the bounds of our possibilities. Looking back, this was perhaps not enough. But I don't agree with all his conclusions. Education is not an item at the bottom of the list, and it never has been. The number of standard hours at the time was not that low, certainly compared with other faculties."

In the same years, moreover, the emphasis shifted from education to research, to acquiring subsidies. “This eventually led to unbalanced growth,” concluded lecturer of literature Jan de Roder. In itself, this wasn't unique to FASoS. The UM president at that time, Jo Ritzen, was heading in the direction of a research university. De Wilde saw the need for this, if only because of its appeal to talented new members of staff.

Alarm bells

Unfortunately, it isn't long before FASoS experiences the downside of this unbalanced growth. In December 2008, three programme co-ordinators (among them the one for the bachelor's of European Studies) even raise the alarm in a letter to the faculty board. Senior staff members were apparently spending more and more time working on their research proposals for subsidies, thus 'buying themselves out' of teaching duties. As a consequence, there is a significant lack of thesis supervisors. The co-ordinators are forced to use newly graduated master's students. And then, they write: “As you all realise, for the external assessment committees that scrutinize our programmes, the quality of the bachelor's papers and master's theses constitutes an important part of their assessment.” These words would turn out to be prophetic.

De Wilde admits that he should have acted sooner where it concerned the re-assessment of theses. “I already knew in 2011 that they would count heavily in the accreditation.” But he argues against the fact that the unsatisfactory marks issued by NVAO could have been prevented with more teaching time or with more money: “We should have trained our young lecturers in the supervision and assessment of theses. Also, we should never have sent our educational theorist away."

 

Culture based on fear

"I was called to the dean's office"

There is not only friction when it comes to education, the atmosphere in the faculty supposedly leaves a lot to be desired too. Sources claim that there is even a culture based on fear. Is that correct? “From my own experience, I know that openly expressing criticism is not appreciated. Having made some statements in public, I was called to the dean's office. I have learned my lesson." These comments come from a foreign researcher who agreed to talk to Observant on the condition of complete anonymity. He is one of the staff members who was approached by the editors for an interview. Another: “I am afraid that what I say can be used against me and could damage my career.” In reply to the question whether this is a realistic fear, the interviewee sums up names of outspoken (by now former) colleagues who missed out on a tenure track position (often the step-up to a permanent appointment).

Dean Rein de Wilde listens to this tale in astonishment. “I cannot remember the incident with that young researcher, but I don't have a memory for that kind of thing. Maybe I don't realise enough that a raised eyebrow or a remark on my part can have a huge impact on some staff members. We grew rapidly, became very international and have employees with different cultural backgrounds; we don't always know the academic traditions in their countries of origin very well." He is crystal clear about one thing: "People don't need to be afraid. If employees feel that we are treating staff members unfairly because they were outspoken, they should come and say so."

Turmoil

The vast majority of senior staff interviewed did not appear to suffer from any fear whatsoever. “I say what I feel, directly to someone's face,” says Nico Baakman, lecturer of Political Sciences and voted both faculty and university Lecturer of the Year. Tsjalling Swierstra, professor of Philosophy and chairman of the department of the same name, is also “not afraid of his bosses. But what can they do if you hold a permanent position?" Georgi Verbeeck, acting chairman of the History department, believes that “you can say anything you want here”. De Roder and Koenis confirm this, as does Pia Harbers, student adviser and chairperson of the faculty council, “I have been in the faculty council for a total of seven years and I have never experienced that something was not debatable, nor that someone was punished afterwards for statements made during the meeting.”

But are the rumours nonsense then? No, say the senior lecturers unanimously. In particular among junior researchers with temporary contracts, there is "existential turmoil," as professor Wiebe Bijker puts it. “I think it is a bad thing to call it a culture of fear. That would be the case if one were punished secretly by a superior." Frank Huisman, one of the leaders of Science in Transition, and Nico Baakman, however, do use the word "fear". The combination of a “stupendous” (Baakman) workload, an unusually high burden of teaching and the realisation that ultimatley it is research (something young colleagues hardly get round to) that is the dertermining factor for future academic careers, makes this group very vulnerable. Huisman: “They are falling into a trap.” Baakman: “They cannot afford to complain.”

But according to Thomas Christiansen, uncertainty is part and parcel of the first few years of an academic career. “I personally changed countries five times because I couldn't get a permanent appointment. It is no better elsewhere. In fact, there is no better system than the Dutch system: tough but fair. In Germany you are an assistant or a professor for life, which creates a civil servant mentality. In the Anglo-Saxon world, it's more like the Wild West.”

Heidi Maurer, who started as a teaching assistant at the faculty and has climbed the ladder to lecturer at the department of Political Science, feels that she herself is living proof that an outspoken attitude need not be an obstacle for one's career. “I have never felt restricted and I have always said what I wanted. I feel safe. The head of my department, Sophie Vanhoonacker, takes care of that. But I can always talk to the dean too. I don't think that I would have had the same opportunities at other universities with my outspoken attitude." Professor Tannelie Blom welcomes such an attitude: “A PhD candidate who does not dare to speak out, not even about university politics? As a professor you have to beat that out of them; it is your responsibility. It would be very boring and tedious if PhD candidates were to bow to everything."

Fierce competition

It's not just that an outspoken attitude can work against you, there is also favouritism when it comes to allocating tenure track positions, according to two junior members who wish to remain anonymous.

Someone like Ties van de Werff, research trainee at the department of Philosophy and involved with the platform 'Hervorming Nederlandse Universiteiten', (H.NU), contradicts this. “I have never known anyone not to be promoted because of their outspoken attitude. But it is true that sometimes good people don't get offered a tenure track. But those who do get offered one, are always good too. Competition is fierce. The committees only have good researchers to choose from."

De Wilde also dismisses the recriminations. "People get turned down, yes. And the committees, with all the department heads and myself, are fallible too. But we look for the best match, candidates have to fit in with the faculty, feel comfortable with PBL, be able to do the work, and they have to be good. We don't just look at their research, although it is an important factor. A faculty is like an orchestra, you have soloists, percussionists, et cetera.  Anyone can see the procedures that apply. The past four years – I am talking about some twenty appointments – there was always consensus about the allocation of the tenure tracks.”

 

Workload

“Students are demanding, occasionally arrogant, sometimes even absolute ‘bullies’”

“Everyone is very tired,” says lecturer of Media Studies Karin Wenz. The workload was already great and has only become worse after the yellow cards and the extra effort to put things rights. “People are grumpier, and I hear from the secretaries that staff are increasingly working from home because they don't have the time or the inclination to come to the faculty,” says historian Joop de Jong. Other views can be heard too. Van de Werff, for example, points out the ‘advantage’ of the yellow cards: “There is a lot of room for modernization.”

However, the ever increasing jungle of regulations and bureaucracy is a thorn in everyone's flesh. De Jong: "We used to simply grade exams and write comments in the margin. Now we often have to complete a separate feedback form, which also needs to be filed in a particular way. It's all extra work. There is also a lot of fuss about timetables."

Dean De Wilde is surprised: “We have organised the filing system in such a way that lecturers don't need to abolish their old habits of writing in the margin.” But he admits that the margins are limited. “The way in which tests are filed, is regulated by law, the way in which you deal with theses is the same throughout the Netherlands. Look, we don't make it up, those rules come from NVAO, they are introduced mainly because of pressure from student unions, who want to have rules for everything. We have now appointed an education expert, with the sole purpose of steering things in the right direction. It is in line with the trend of having more and more control, in all kinds of fields. And if you don't play along, you get an unsatisfactory mark."

The dean also refers to the increasing pressure from students on staff. "They negotiate about grades, threaten to make official complaints, even to take matters to court. We now have workshops on how to properly and robustly fill in a feedback form, so that students are less able to complain." A case of assertiveness training. Not a luxury, a member of staff reckons: “Students are demanding, occasionally arrogant, sometimes even absolute ‘bullies’” Thomas Christiansen: "I don't negotiate about grades, if they bring it up, I ask them if they think I have not done a good job." The way in which he looks, saying this, makes it clear that students will pull back, but, says Christiansen, "younger colleagues have more trouble taking that stance."

Wiebe Bijker would like to tackle this: “We hold each other's hand in this culture of calling people to account and slowly slide down the slippery slope, to a situation in which students receive feedback every week instead of studying. As far as I am concerned, we should immediately abolish resits, interim tests and many of the existing forms, and simply return to studying. The lecturer is given full responsibility again."

Standard hours? A joke!

The standard hours (the number of hours a member of staff receives for a tutorship, checking a bachelor's thesis, a lecture, et cetera), are another source of general irritation. Qualifications range from “a joke”, “shameless fiction”, “completely unrealistic”, and “we work ourselves to death” to “slave labour”. Again, younger and less experienced members of staff are at a disadvantage. Tsjalling Swierstra: "They have to work twice as hard because it is all new to them." His colleague Tannelie Blom: "They don't have the routine we have. There comes a time when you know all the relevant literature in a particular field, but they don't have that yet. An experienced member of staff treats a thesis differently than a younger colleague, for the latter it is tougher."

Research trainee Van de Werff agrees. "Those meagre standard hours abuse my loyalty." His problem was already acknowledged in the faculty, also by the faculty board, and even before the New University came into being. “I can only hope for new policies [the faculty announced a series of measures last summer – costing 1.2 million over a period of three years – to reduce the workload in the short term, ed.].”

Frontlines

"The younger members of staff do all the hard teaching work and in doing so ruin their careers. The senior members take it easy," a young anonymous member of staff grumbles. "They are not on the frontlines, they don't know what is going on. That's how problems arise. And yellow cards. If a job were to come available somewhere else - chances are slim with the present labour market -  I would take it. And many more with me," he emphasises. In the meantime, he does research work abroad as much as possible. Away from the burden of teaching.

The pressure of teaching is always discussed during job interviews, says Heidi Maurer, who knows that her faculty is a popular place to work for foreign colleagues. "They see us at conferences, notice that the atmosphere is good. Besides our reputation is excellent, partly because of alumni who do well elsewhere." Despite the warning, teaching for some can be an unexpected blow. "Colleagues are disappointed and complain.
 It is hard work," says Maurer, "but you are taken seriously, get a good salary, and are part of a community. That includes the PhD candidates. I worked in Vienna, so I can compare. We sometimes forget how good things are here. Once you have obtained a doctorate, you have many opportunities. You should make sure, however, not to stay in a pure teaching job to long, or your career will falter."

And of course, Maurer acknowledges: there are many PhD graduates and only a few follow-up jobs. Ties van de Werff, in the last phase of his PhD track: "I have a house, and just had a baby. I would love to stay. And I am not the only one who feels that way. When I meet former colleagues who work elsewhere in the academic world, I always hear the same thing: they miss our openness and collegiality. That should be said too."

 

Management style

"Don't make me laugh, what do you mean top-down here in Maastricht!"

It buzzed through the faculty like it was a story about a 'raid'. In the History department a professor was supposed to have been appointed without anyone in the group knowing about it. Moreover, the guy's field of specialisation was rather far from the discipline involved. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, was the cynical comment. All was supposed to be a typical example of how the faculty was run these days: about us but without us, top-down.

What had happened? It is correct that part of the History department was taken by surprise last February with the announcement that another professor would be joining: Cyrus Mody, an American professor of the History of Science and Technology, and an expert in the field of nanotechnology. People had heard something about the guy, he had already given a public lecture, but since when was there a vacancy at the department? Why was it not discussed beforehand?

Ernst Homburg, also working in the field of the History of Science and Technology, did know about it. He explains that it concerned the succession of the departing faculty celebrity Wiebe Bijker (64). "Dean Rein de Wilde negotiated cleverly with the Executive Board and came out with two places. To maintain the balance between the groups, this post ended up with us, the history department. A number of people were evidently not aware."

He is not very bothered about it, but with hindsight, has mixed feelings about the procedure: "It used to be that for a professor's appointment, we would draw up a job description beforehand, which was discussed in the faculty, and then the vacancy would be advertised. Today, appointments increasingly take place without job descriptions. This has been the case for some time, but it is not elegant. However, it would be wrong to speak of a coup in this case. Besides, Mody is a very good choice."

Rein camp

The excitement has died down again. Those involved speak placatingly about communication problems, partly due to the fact that the actual department chairman has been abroad for some time, and his replacement was not aware of all the ins and outs. That sounds plausible. What definitely plays a role too, is the apparent lack of regular communication between the department members themselves.

But why this unusual course of events? Dean De Wilde does not want to comment when asked: "There was a trivial reason for things going the way they did, I won't go into it now, it concerns something personal. But if people find the course of events absurd, why don't they just come by and ask?"

The fact that this hasn't happened, may say something about the prevailing cynicism of some towards this dean and what is regarded as his entourage. The 'Rein camp', as it is occasionally referred to. It must be said though that this is not or hardly recognised by most of the informants, just like the so-called division of the faculty into camps. "Who, where?" most ask.

Another possibility: people are afraid of De Wilde's angry outbursts. Tannelie Blom grins: "Ah well, when he is like that you say 'hey, easy, Rein' and he checks himself. There are more managers who now and again go off at the deep end. Then you mustn't be too much of a wimp, don't just complain."

The dean himself acknowledges blame: "Yes, I can go off at the deep end, it is a weakness of mine. I always try to make amends."

Aside from all personal moods, is there indeed a top-down management style in the faculty?

This impression can be found in particular among the 'Culture' side of the faculty. Joop de Jong: "It is not that people never listen, but there is room for improvement," he carefully remarks. Ernst Homburg agrees: transparency, democratic level, it could all be better. As far as he is concerned, the new dean, Sophie Vanhoonacker, should "work more transparently, allow more interaction."

Still, in his view, De Wilde hasn't done a bad job. "He has a view of what the university should be, I think he has authority in the Board of Deans, and he set up our research policy."

But an example of how things should not be done is the way in which the recovery plans were drawn up after the 'yellow cards': "That was panic behaviour, decisions were taken too quickly. For the majority of the staff, it felt a bit like a raid, the board and a small group taking the decisions, but with something like that you need broader consultation of permanent staff; that is how you create support. This procedure was experienced as top-down."

Dean De Wilde listens with raised eyebrows: "If ever anything was discussed on a broad basis, then it was the recovery plans. In the programme committees, a meeting in the Turnzaal with all the staff, an update during the annual education day, each education programme with programme committees and lecturers involved, you name it."

Karin Wenz, co-ordinator of the master's of Media Studies, confirms that haste was called for concerning the recovery plans: "At Media Studies we had two months to draw up new proposals. Then you arrange extra meetings, but not everyone can always attend."

There is no top-down approach; the dean denies this most emphatically. Others support him in this. For example, Tannelie Blom, one of the creators of the programme of European Studies. "The way things went with Mody in the history department, I think is strange. But top-down management? What am I supposed to understand by that? That the co-ordinators at ES are shouting all kinds of things at us? Like a bunch of authoritarian snobs? Ha ha, are you mad, that really doesn't happen here. And Rein de Wilde doesn't work like that either."

What about that elite little club, the 'professors' meeting', which was introduced by the dean, separate from all formal faculty bodies? Mody's appointment had been discussed there elaborately, says Ernst Homburg.

Blom: "It is an informal meeting, no decisions are taken, we are just being kept up to date. There is also a meeting by the department heads, who report back in the department meetings. I don't see what the problem is. Don't forget that the university, and therefore also the faculty, has a hierarchical structure. Rein often has to do what the Executive Board says, or even the minister. As a dean, he is ultimately responsible within the faculty and he is the one who has to make decisions, that is simply the way things are."

Boomerang

Blom is definitely not the only one who thinks like that. Many feel that there are plenty of consultations and meetings at FASoS, rather too many than too few. Ask the German lecturers (Karin Wenz, Thomas Christiansen), who mockingly point to the tradition from which they came: don't make me laugh, top-down here in Maastricht! Christiansen goes one step further: "I would actually prefer stronger leadership. There are too many committees, too much time is spent discussing."

Policy officer for education Sylvia Haerkens, once a student at FASoS, came from the business world when she returned to the faculty six years ago, this time as an employee: "That was a culture shock. I wrote a policy note, which went through ten committees and was continually adapted. So no, not top-down, just the opposite, open and democratic."

But no matter how you look at it, there is an undeniable feeling of dissatisfaction among at least part of the staff. Dissatisfaction that people apparently cannot vent through the bodies responsible. It partly has a structural background, Joop de Jong analyses: with the introduction of the so-called 'modernisation of university management' (MUB) in 1997, councils were given less authority, they lost face and subsequently couldn't attract people of importance. De Jong: "When the faculty council says 'yes' to something, there is still resistance, because 'there is nobody from my programme in the faculty council', they say."

He acknowledges that it is a reproach that hits back at the staff like a boomerang; after all they could have put themselves forward as candidates. "It is too simple a reproach. In this case the faculty should look at itself."

 

Support staff

"But surely you cannot always make the right decision, can you?"

Let's get back to the atmosphere at the faculty, and specifically to what is referred to as the culture of fear. Because it supposedly not only exists among young academic staff , but certainly also among support staff at the faculty's office. Observant received reports, some anonymous and even a letter under the door of the editor's office, pointing an accusing finger at former FASoS director, André Koehorst. He was supposedly responsible for an atmosphere of unfairness, in which employees were put under pressure and even silenced, jobs were changed randomly, people were even fired without mercy. An unfortunate remark, an e-mail that didn't go down well "and suddenly you are allegedly performing poorly and end up in a downward spiral. That is where the culture of fear comes from: that for the slightest thing you can be sent packing," says an employee who has left, but feels "discarded" after a long term of employment. The anonymous letter mentions "a fearful atmosphere, loss of job satisfaction and motivation, and increased absenteeism." As far as the latter is concerned: the latest absenteeism figures, from 2013, show that FASoS does better than a number of other faculties and is below the UM average.

One matter in particular stands out, which is the case of an employee with a rather outspoken mind, who - after years of employment - was suddenly threatened with dismissal and was suspended as well as banned from entering the building, sat at home for months, successfully contested his case and is back again at the faculty. Collisions with his former boss are a thing of the past, because the latter has recently moved to the "Mountain", as the UM's new HRM director.

Koehorst himself won't say much about the matter, because "I cannot and will not say anything about individual personnel matters." What he will say is: "Things happen everywhere. I was director of FASoS for five years, then there is a list of ten to fifteen people 'where there were issues'. Every faculty director can produce such a list. You try and solve the problem, sometimes you see eye to eye, sometimes a little and sometimes not at all, and then it can escalate."

In this case, that is clearly what happened. All the way up to a judgement by the advisory committee within the framework of the General Administrative Law Act. Which - it is difficult to conclude otherwise - was quite crushing about Koehorst's policy in the matter: insufficiently prepared, insufficiently motivated and abuse of authority.

Koehorst: "I acknowledge the conclusions to an extent, and I was indeed called to order. But surely you cannot always make the right decision, can you?"

One-sided image

The case isn't over yet, as the employee's lawyer is still trying to get compensation from the UM and is convinced that other employees have also been treated badly by the former director. Inquiries have yielded a few names, but those concerned either don't respond or (anonymously) draw a different picture, in which Koehorst sometimes doesn't even play a role. Are there any positively inclined individuals as well within the office? Definitely. After the interview with Observant, Koehorst sent an e-mail to all his former subordinates with the question whether they would like to maybe counter a threatening "one-sided, negative and partly incorrect image". Various reactions did indeed reach the editor's office, all claiming that the atmosphere is good, colleagues are nice, doors are always open, both the director's and the dean's, any awkward situations can always be discussed. It is remarkable, however, that those who make these comments, prefer to not have their names mentioned in the article either.

This doesn't apply to a number of prominent scientists such as Swierstra and Bijker; who would "stake their lives on Koehorst". Neither does it apply to the head of the education office, Ien van de Leur. She concludes: "If there is a culture of fear – I don't see it in my department – it exists because of the stories that people themselves tell. There is always a lot of buzz here; I expect it won't be much different at other faculties. Then again, as a boss you sometimes have to make unpleasant decisions. But we always do things by the book. What I don't understand, is why would you think that if something unpleasant happens to a colleague, that your head will be the next to roll? We are a civilised institute, aren't we?"

Grimace

How will things go now? First the faculty will have to be given the go-ahead by NVAO; some still have a gnawing doubt whether everything will be alright, but the message that they (want to) bring across, is: We will manage. The first positive news, for the master's of Media Studies, has already arrived. Does this mean that the job is done? No, says Pieter Caljé. "Many lecturers long for a situation in which teaching is appreciated more, just like during the first ten years of the faculty. A situation in which investments, discussions, deliberations and innovations regarding education pay off. It is important that education does not fossilize but continually renews itself."

Rein de Wilde will no longer experience this as a dean. He is finally returning to the world of research. Later than planned: his deanship finished two years ago, after two four-year periods, but a successor could not be found within the faculty. Nobody at all wanted a professional dean, so De Wilde signed up again, for another two years. Shortly after that, NVAO dropped its bomb, when the letter containing the yellow cards came through the letterbox. Is he sorry that he renewed his deanship? De Wilde is sitting with his arms crossed and is silent. On his face is a telling grimace.

 

Text: Wammes Bos, Riki Janssen, Maurice Timmermans

 

 

 

 

Background and procedure

For the past eighteen months, several complaints have reached Observant about the culture, atmosphere and workload at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (or FASoS), a faculty that is trying hard to eliminate seven unsatisfactory marks issued by the education watchdog NVAO. To see whether the image that was being created was correct, Observant spoke to (or received information from) 37 employees, mostly academic staff but also support staff and a small number of students. Observant also approached more individuals, but not everyone wanted to co-operate. “I mostly work elsewhere and I am not aware of what is going on,” “I have no opinion,” “I don't think this is the right moment, because the faculty is working hard now,” were some of the replies. Some want to remain completely anonymous, others do not want to be referred to by name.

Dean Rein de Wilde was given the opportunity to react.

This article was written on the basis of the interviews and a number of documents. It is divided into chapters set up around the main themes: yellow cards, culture based on fear, workload, and top-down management style.

 

 

Criticism and remedy

NVAO's core criticism was that there were too many weak theses. Of the seven programmes (bachelor's and master's) that were looked at, six initially received an insufficient mark. Later, the research master's of European Studies also received a 'yellow card', mainly because the curriculum allegedly lacked focus and cohesion.

The Maastricht faculty was not the only one to be hit, as the same happened to sister faculties in the country. Since the avalanche of yellow cards, FASoS worked frantically, introducing recovery plans in order to secure re-accreditation of its programmes.

Theses are supervised more strictly, staff is being trained to do so, and there is always a second 'reader', also in the bachelor's phase; students have less freedom in their choice of subjects, which must be covered by staff's expertise; more attention is being paid to academic skills and methodology; there is a stricter attendance policy; the research master's of ES has in the meantime adapted its curriculum.

Students are sometimes satisfied, sometimes dissatisfied. Some believe that the link between the thesis and the expertise of staff should have been introduced sooner, some complain that compulsory attendance in the year after a failed resit means that students are hardly able to go abroad, whereas this is also important for their academic education.

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2015-09-09: David
A brilliant investigation, thank you!

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