Checklists are no longer the point of departure

Recognition and Rewards: Vanessa LaPointe of MERLN about their “more on development instead of assessment”-focused tenure track


The Maastricht research institute MERLN gave the tenure track a facelift. Researchers have an annual conversation with a permanent sounding board about their development, instead of receiving a verdict of senior scientists, every three or five years. “Those people in the sounding board listen to your story and really get to know you through and through,” says associate professor Vanessa LaPointe who came up with the idea for a new procedure. It’s viewed as one of the best practices of Recognition and Rewards by the Maastricht Executive Board.

The Canadian Vanessa LaPointe made the change from the University of Twente to Maastricht in 2014, in the wake of professor Clemens van Blitterswijk. She was given a position as a postdoc with the MERLN institute for regenerative medicine. She is an associate professor now. It was LaPointe herself who came with the idea of giving the tenure track a facelift, focussing on the development of the individual rather than the assessment. Colleagues embraced the initiative. At the moment there are about ten scientists at MERLN in the acclaimed tenure track.

Climb the ladder

What makes the procedure at MERLN so special? The goal has remained the same: finding a way (but not the only way) as a scientist to climb the ladder, get a permanent position, as an assistant professor, an associate professor, or possibly even a professor.
The difference is in the interpretation, LaPointe explains: “We work with sounding boards, committees of about five people, who speak to their ‘own’ tenure tracker once a year. It is up to you, as the candidate, to convince the committee during those two hours what you are good at. You talk about your experiences, background, research results – obviously structured, based on competences, otherwise it would be chaotic. Also, think about answering questions such as: what are you proud of? Or disappointed, for example because you didn’t manage to get the subsidy that you worked for very hard? Did you build up a network? Do you like teaching?”

Cut up a paper

Checklists are no longer the point of departure, says LaPointe. “Because there is always a way for scientists to get around certain requirements. Imagine you have to have published ten papers; what does that number say? I can always cut up a paper into separate pieces, that will then give me already five or six. No, the important thing is the discussion about it – why did you write it? Did you use a new methodology? Yes, that two-hour discussion with a sounding board is intensive and you can’t truly prepare for it, but you don’t have to. So what if the performance isn’t perfect; the people in that committee know you, because they are there every year. They know if you are having a hard time. Also, it is okay if you haven’t produced as much during the COVID-19 pandemic, because last year they saw that you were on the right track. Plus, you can also ask for help, for example with the expansion of your international network. You are in it together, so get the best out of it together.”

Whole life

The idea is that the people in the sounding board “stay with you your whole life,” LaPointe laughs. “No, that would be taking things too far, but the point of departure is that the composition of the group remains more or less the same for years.” At MERLN, they are colleagues from your own faculty, but also from outside the UM, even from outside the Netherlands.

Traditional scientists

But much depends on the final decision; does the department chairperson think you are ready to be promoted to assistant professor, or not? What if that person mainly focuses on ‘traditional’ issues like h-indexes and citation scores? “Ultimately, the advice from the sounding board is weighty. The department chairperson will not easily disregard that. Besides, ‘traditional’ scientists are also necessary. It is okay if someone looks at the number of publications, because they will continue to be important. I have noticed that there are deep and interesting discussions going on in those committees, exactly because the members are different types. Also, there is nothing wrong with criteria, but you must look at them with the best intentions for your candidate.”

Tough world

LaPointe disagrees with the idea that this way of ‘tenure tracking’ would make it easier to climb the ladder. “Academia is still a tough world. Not everyone can become a professor, but you do feel more supported this way. You receive an honest, individual and realistic story – no matter how painful it is when they feel that you are not ready for a higher position.”
At MERLN, a ‘small’ institute, it is a success. But is this tenure track also applicable to other faculties with large groups of young scientists? “Certainly, we see no impediments. It is not discipline-specific. They could also apply it to Law or Business and Economics.”

Pie-eating contest

Lastly: a tenure track is more often than not regarded as a prestigious position, but LaPointe would rather not make that association. Grinningly she refers to a slogan that is doing the rounds on Twitter: “The tenure track is like a pie-eating contest where the prize is more pie, you work hard to pass everything, do all kinds of duties, but at the end of the road it only becomes more.”

Recognition and Rewards

What do Dutch universities want with this initiative? What happens at UM?

In November 2019, all Dutch universities and organisations such as the VSNU, KNAW and NWO emphasised the importance of a new way of recognising and appreciating scientists. The advisory memo is called: Room for everyone’s talent. Rianne Letschert, rector of Maastricht University, and the rector of Eindhoven University of Technology are the primary leaders.

Simply put, the new initiative is mostly a cultural change, a different mindset. The rat race in which scientists find themselves must be abolished. Why should everyone be the best in the field of research with all its quote scores and checklists? The one-size-fits-all model is a thing of the past. Personal growth is important. What gives someone pleasure, what is that person good at, what is their most important value for the academy? Teaching? Educational innovation? Is someone a crack in the field of ‘impactful’ research? Can they translate their research for the wider audience and society, politics or the economy? Or are they born leaders? Scientists should be given the freedom to develop themselves in one or more fields, and yes, that combination can change during their careers.

But this entails much more than a cultural change. Universities will have to introduce new rules for recruitment, selection, promotion and development. HR policies will have to be reformed.
Letschert and the deans of the faculties (Recognition and Rewards Committee) are leading the development of the programme within Maastricht University. Four working groups that looked into the themes teaching, research, impact and leadership (patient care is a fifth one for staff in the hospital) last year, have written down their ideas in ‘narratives’. There have been brainstorming sessions about these in all faculties since then.

The so-called implementation phase is to start this summer, says a recent visionary memo. Until December 2022, the existing policies will be adapted step by step – things like the tenure track, UFO profiles (University Job Classification (UFO) system) and HR regulations.

But just how easy or difficult will it be to introduce those changes? How do you bring about a different mindset in everyone’s head? Those in charge will have to develop a feel for individuals’ talents. The rector realises that investing in leadership development is therefore not a superfluous luxury. A taskforce is already dealing with it.

As far as the OBP (administrative and support staff) is concerned: there will also be new career policies for them too.