Academic Forum

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The Culture of the Collective

geplaatst: 25-03-2010

The Culture of the Collective

There was a time when politics was concerned about the calculating citizen. The calculating citizen is not dedicated to the collective. On the contrary, all his actions are driven by carefully calculating the costs and benefits. It seems that this calculating citizen has disappeared by the legalization of society. Or is it because of the fact that the political and economic elite do not recognise them anymore because they became calculating individuals themselves? Collective incentives are a remedy to create partnerships and to stimulate people to contribute to the common good. Are there opportunities for the calculating world of academia with their rankings and individual achievements too?

The world of academia and the world of taxation do have something in common. When everything becomes settled up with all the trimmings in the tax system, citizens start calculating. Tightening up and remunerating the individual for every single action stimulates the individualisation. That also counts for the university: when you remunerate academics particularly for their individual performances, and when you strictly concern and weigh every little task of them, the team spirit disappears. Models and rankings for measuring academic output go hand in hand with individualistic incentives. We think that measuring by models and rankings are valuable input, but you can never replace evaluation and judgement by peers. But measuring without knowing the quality of output is empty and idle.

We need a balance between individual and collective incentives at our university. The university cannot function based on individual incentives only. We also need incentives at the collective level. That means preferably not at the level of the faculty or the department, but of the research group. Has a junior researcher successfully submitted a paper in an excellent journal, reward the whole research group. High intelligent rational individuals need to get incentives, which stimulate the collective. That makes the individual responsible for collective achievement, even after calculation. Individual failure is a failure of the group as a whole.

Wisdom is called for, especially from the full professors. They have to be the role models for the juniors. Senior researchers do have more rights than juniors, but that also means they have more duties. The higher the position, the more responsibility for the collective. Noblesse oblige. There has to be a balance between rights and duties. What are these duties, concerning the common good? Seniors have to be people who unify others and stimulate the effort of the group for the collective. They should appoint new colleagues not only because based on journal publications and citations, but also because of their good citizenship. How do you measure this non-measurable parameter? Not in a model, but by asking what would be the value added of the colleague for the collective.

Candidates for a tenured associate or full professorship have to be judged not only on behalf of the publications and citations. One should additionally ask: Do we want this person as our colleague? Is he dedicated to the institution? Future colleagues have to be evaluated not merely regarding their research output, but also especially on the basis of other aspects, that is their soft skills and contribution to the common good. Is this person able to supervise and build a team? At Harvard University a faculty meeting is part of the selection procedure. The faculty members at Harvard consider themselves the preservers of the profession. And that means judging the candidate for his possible collegiality and his contribution to the faculty. When appointments were only about publications and citations the procedure would be superfluous, a computer would be enough for counting the best candidate. After all, we need the wisdom of the judgement by the peers.

When we want that our colleagues are contributing more to the collective, it is important to have a common view as university. A strong view that is vivid in the organisation. Like working together for Apple and Google means working for innovation power and modern design, in a dynamic and cooperatively competitive environment. Where will we be as Tilburg University in five years? Do we engage new colleagues explicitly also because of their excellent soft skills and their contribution to the common good or not? As part of that, a strategic plan is extremely important. But even more important is the making of the operational context: we have to get the incentives at a collective level. When models and rankings do not particularly determine the strategic plan of our university, the hidden powers of the team spirit can flourish as never before. Team spirit is crucial for our university.

Sylvester Eijffinger
in samenspraak met Annemarie Hinten (Academic Forum)