Doret de Ruyter and Joke van Saane have plenty to say about ‘the ideal university’. In their respective roles and with a deep sense of intrinsic motivation, they are committed to changing the recognition and rewards system for academic staff. They know that this is a long process, but they agree on one thing: it is worth continuing to strive for an ideal university.

(Read this interview in Dutch)

As chair of the Recognition and Rewards committee of the Dutch Denominational Universities (Nederlandse Levensbeschouwelijke Universiteiten, NLU), a position she shares with Prof. Bram de Muynck of the Theological University of Apeldoorn, Doret has been closely involved in drawing up the NLU’s vision for a new way of recognising and rewarding academic staff. ‘Developing a vision for the NLU was an interesting and inspiring process. We obviously had to deal with differences both within our university and between the four partner universities (University for Humanistic Studies, Theological University of Apeldoorn, Theological University of Kampen and Protestant Theological University), but we also shared a lot of similarities in terms of what characterises an ideal university.’

All four universities felt a strong sense of urgency. Joke says that having a well-organised recognition and rewards system is part of a university’s job: ‘I believe in science that has time to think and move forward, but I also believe in science that matters in society. The dissemination of such scientific knowledge really brings added value to society. If you reduce the quality of science and academic practice to the number of publications and the amount of funding acquired, then you are not doing justice to your duty as a university.’ Doret adds: ‘The Recognition and Rewards programme is desperately needed: we can see that the workload is disproportionate. On all fronts (research, education, valorisation), high demands are placed on staff. Everyone is working very hard, and many are working too hard.’

Doret: ‘I’ve been in academia for 30 years and I’m used to the fact that you usually work more hours than your official contract. You do this because, as an academic, you are intrinsically motivated: you love your job, so you just enjoy doing it. But what was once optional and voluntary has now become almost always required.’

Eight characteristics of an ideal university

The NLU’s vision describes eight characteristics of an ideal university. As stated in the vision, the ideal university obviously does not exist and will never be fully realised. But aiming for this ideal will bring us closer.

The ideal university:

  1. Forms a (learning) community;
  2. Connects education and research;
  3. Shares research results with others in an accessible manner;
  4. Encourages peer review and cooperation;
  5. Focuses on content and quality;
  6. Thinks in terms of what staff and students need to flourish;
  7. Appeals to the intrinsic motivation of staff by tapping into their talents;
  8. Is led by development-oriented leaders.

These characteristics are described in further detail in the NLU’s vision document.

Joke: ‘The idea of Recognition and Rewards is so good because it goes back to why we have universities in the first place. It shouldn’t just be about numbers, but about what we really value about academia.’ The eight characteristics are also discussed in meetings of the Executive Board of the University for Humanistic Studies (UvH) and in the joint discussions of all four executive boards within the NLU. ‘These characteristics are great, manageable topics to discuss, so we try to regularly reflect on them in meetings to keep our sights on where we want to go.’

The word ‘flourish’ and the concept of helping each other stand out in the characteristics from the vision. From the NLU’s perspective, however, these are very obvious aspects of an ideal university. Doret: ‘These characteristics fit perfectly with our type of universities. At the UvH, for example, our research (and education) is focused on a meaningful life and the humanisation of society.’ Joke adds: ‘If you also look at the theological universities, their aim is first and foremost to contribute to the community: in other words, helping others rather than pursuing personal gain. We see symptoms of unhealthy competition as well, of course, but at the core we are aware of the fact that we have to do it together.’ The small-scale nature of the universities plays a role in this. In a smaller organisation, it is important to openly discuss how positions are filled. Joke: ‘We don’t have the luxury of shifting positions and creating space for everyone, so we have to look for solutions together.’ Career differentiation is a core element within the Recognition and Rewards programme, but at the same time it is also a challenge for these universities. ‘Since we have limited opportunities for advancement, our staff must be able to continue their career elsewhere and still be evaluated in the same way. That is why it’s very important for all Dutch universities to make this major cultural change together,’ Joke explains.

The small-scale nature of the NLU member universities was also helpful in drawing up the characteristics and vision, however. ‘While developing the vision, we were able to ask everyone what they thought was important. And during discussions of the vision, all staff at each university had the opportunity to share their ideas,’ Doret says. Doret and Joke describe engaging in dialogue, eliminating obstacles and identifying directions for the future as a pleasant and open process at NLU.

‘As soon as you start getting close, things get exciting.’

The next step is to implement the vision and take the first steps towards change, but this daunting task is easier said than done. As soon as it starts getting concrete, things get exciting. The way a person is evaluated now might change, after all, and what does that mean for someone’s job? The tangible and visible steps will certainly raise justified questions and concerns. Joke: ‘What also makes it difficult for us is that we can’t try something out on a smaller scale, such as within an individual faculty, for example. We are too small for that, so for us it’s also a kind of “all or nothing” situation.’

In our conversation with Doret and Joke, there is an important topic that cannot be ignored: leadership. What exactly is academic leadership?

Joke explains: ‘For me, this is related to two things: an organisational factor and a human factor. On the one hand, a leader takes responsibility for the greater whole and not just his or her own position. That means really looking after the whole university. At the same time, a leader takes active interest in others by coaching and encouraging them. Encouragement doesn’t mean pushing someone in a specific direction, but helping them to take developmental steps.’

Joke talks about ‘academic service’ and being aware of what is going on in society, what lies ahead and how this relates to the organisation. Doret mentions personal leadership as another important component. ‘To be a good leader, it’s also important to question yourself, reflect and be open to other ideas and perspectives.’ With Doret, who is also Director of Education at the UvH, the link between leadership and education is immediately clear. What does good leadership in education look like?

Doret: ‘Leadership in education primarily involves lecturers treating students in the way described above. In a sense, the lecturer is there to serve the students. Which does not mean blindly following the students’ wishes, of course: education is also fed by your own expertise and educational vision. But as a lecturer, you try to help students develop so that they can flourish.’

Once again, there is a natural link to Recognition and Rewards, as both Doret and Joke say it is important to acknowledge and appreciate teaching more. Teaching is still too often viewed as something that people want to get out of so that they’ll have more time for research. ‘We need good leaders in this area, too: people who really believe that teaching careers deserve appreciation. ’

Doret adds: ‘Education and research are both important social components of a university. It’s important that science makes a contribution to society. By the way, this doesn’t mean that every research project has to have an immediate impact on society. Slow science also needs space and time to develop and think through things that can deliver results in the longer term.’ Joke adds: ‘That’s why working in teams is so important. A team has people who are good at making the connection to society, but also people who can do research and think on a more conceptual and fundamental level. Each type complements the other, and that is a major advantage of working in teams.’

The hour flew by in our passionate conversation with Joke and Doret. Joke shares her final thoughts: ‘We realise that this is a huge cultural shift which is easier on paper than in reality, but it is so worth it. This change brings us back to the essence of academia.’

Doret de Ruyter has been professor of Education at the University of Humanistic Studies since 1 June 2018 and Director of Education since 1 September 2020. Prior to that, she spent fifteen years working as a professor of Philosophy of Education at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Doret is one of the two chairs of the NLU’s Recognition and Rewards committee. Flourishing as a goal of upbringing and education is one of her research and teaching themes.

Prof. Joke van Saane is professor of Meaning and Leadership. Since 1 July 2019, she has served as rector and chair of the Executive Board of the University of Humanistic Studies. She previously worked at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. From 2014 to 2019, she was professor of Religious Psychology and Education Theology & Religion Studies and Education portfolio holder at the Faculty of Religion and Theology of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

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