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Psst …. Wanna Buy an Academic Chair? It’s Free!

For students there are just good and bad teachers. For the academic staff, however, there is a huge difference between PhD, post-doc and assistant professors on the one hand and ‘real’ professors – entitled to call themselves ‘hoogleraar’ – at the other. Those in the first category work hard for little money, often on a temporary basis. In the end they may be rewarded with a lifelong and well-paid position as full professor – or kicked out.

The category of ‘real’ professors is not a homogeneous one, however. Apart from ‘ordinary’ (full) professors you will find some endowed (‘bijzondere’) professors in the second category. They are appointed and paid by an external organization, often a stichting (foundation). Their appointment typically lasts for five years and can eventually be extended by another five years. In the Netherlands, endowed professors often work one day a week at the faculty and have their main employment elsewhere.

As endowed professors are paid by their foundation, they have become very popular in expanding faculties with insufficient financial means to pay extra professors. In the University of Amsterdam (UvA) as a whole, the number of endowed chairs grew from 37 in 1980 to 254 in 2019. As a percentage of all professors, their share increased from 9 to 28 percent.

However, there is no such a thing as a free lunch, as economists say. An endowed chair has some disadvantages. It may take a lot of time to organize a foundation, select the ‘right’ board members and find sponsors to finance the endowed chair. Also within the university, it is not that easy anymore to get approval for a new endowed chair, or for an extension. For some people, endowed chairs don’t have a very good reputation, especially since the Onderzoeksredactie, a group of investigative journalists, published a major article in De Groene Amsterdammer in 2014 about enterprising professors. Although some full professors also like to serve well-paying clients – in economics Frederic Mishkin is the best known example, thanks to the film Inside Job – endowed professors seem to have more ‘conflicts of interest’, the Onderzoeksredactie wrote. In response, the Association of Universities (VSNU) promised that every university would provide an “actual and complete” overview of the ‘nevenwerkzaamheden’ (at Dutch universities translated as ancillary activities) of the academic staff, including endowed professors.

Whatever the reason, our faculty seems to have taken another route to attract ‘cheap’ professors: the so-called ‘onbezoldigde’ (non-salaried, in short: unpaid) professors. In 1990 they didn’t exist but now our faculty has 16 of them. In contrast, the number of endowed chairs declined after 2010: from 11 to 7 in 2019.

One of these unpaid professors is Bas ter Weel, the present managing director of the Stichting Economisch Onderzoek (SEO), our faculty’s affiliate for applied research. This is remarkable, because all his predecessors were endowed professors, paid by SEO. His most recent predecessor, Barbara Baarsma, also got an endowed chair when she became SEO-director on March 1, 2009. Five years later it was time for a contract extension, which she immediately accepted. However, she was not appointed until six weeks later, on April 14, 2014. This is quite strange, because the date of appointment always precedes the date of acceptance. Even stranger: she became appointed as an unpaid professor, not as an endowed one. Why?

Did the extension of her endowed chair raised some internal problems? Two of the faculty’s full professors, Sweder van Wijnbergen en Arnoud Boot, were very critical of SEO’s 2013 report on the economic impact of brievenbusfirma’s (letterbox companies, mainly used for tax evasion) in the Netherlands – co-authored by Baarsma. Van Wijnbergen and Boot dismissed the report as ‘stupid’ and a ‘painful faux-pas’ concerning the calculation technique applied by SEO.

Or did Baarsma anticipate a change of employment? Indeed, less than two years later she left SEO and moved to the Rabobank. Had she still been an endowed professor, it would be unclear who was to pay for her chair: Rabo or SEO. An unpaid chair prevents such a problem – a sufficient raise of her Rabo-salary suffices. In addition, on March 1 of this year her second term as an endowed professor would have expired and she would have had to leave the faculty. As an ‘unpaid professor’ she can stay indefinitely, giving her opinions a scientific touch.

Who else is an unpaid professor? NARCIS, founded by KNAW and NWO, is supposed to be “the main national portal for those looking for information about researchers and their work (…) NARCIS is also used by students, journalists and people working in educational and government institutions as well as the business sector”. Well, they better don’t use it if they are looking for “actual and complete” information. For example: according to NARCIS, Baarsma is still working at SEO and still an endowed professor. The reason is simple: only the researchers themselves are able to submit data to NARCIS. Apparently, Baarsma wanted to update her publications, but not her academic position. But she is not the only unpaid professor who doesn’t want to disclose this information. If you search NARCIS for ‘onbezoldigde’ or ‘unpaid’ academics at our faculty now, you only find Klaas Knot, president of the Dutch Central Bank, who also has an unpaid chair at the University of Groningen, as an honorary professor.

For the University of Amsterdam (UvA), the Album Academicum is a more reliable source of information. This database was published in 2007, in order to commemorate UvA’s 375th anniversary. It distinguishes two groups of non-salaried professors: first “retired professors who for a certain time, without payment, continue to supervise graduate students, do research or occasionally teach a class”. And secondly “professors who officially hold an non-salaried position, mostly temporary and often part-time, as the professor in question has his main employment elsewhere”. At our faculty, none of the unpaid professors belongs to the first group. And in the second group, the term ‘temporary’ doesn’t always make sense. Hans Strikwerda is an unpaid professor for 20 years already, Frans van Schaik for 15 years.

For others the unpaid chair is temporary in a very specific way. Marc Francke and Frank Kleibergen became full professor in resp. 2011 and 2015. But before that they had an unpaid chair, both from 2009. Did they use the years in between to find possibilities for becoming a ‘real’ professor? Francke already did his inaugural speech in 2010, Kleibergen didn’t until now. Francke is transparent about his other jobs, while Kleibergen (member of the faculty management team) says he has no ancillary activities.

These men (except Kleibergen?) have in common with Baarsma that they have or had a well-paid position in business. Van Schaik is partner at Deloitte, Baarsma is CEO of Rabo Amsterdam, while Strikwerda has its own consulting bureau – although he doesn’t tell.

Some public organizations have an unpaid professor at our faculty, too. I already mentioned Klaas Knot. Jeroen Hinloopen is another example. As a full professor he made a transfer to the University of Utrecht in 2015. In 2016 he became deputy director of CPB, the leading economic research institute in the Netherlands, – and got a unpaid chair at our faculty.

‘What actually is the problem?’, some would ask. The faculty gets extra teaching and research capacity, without paying for it. What could be wrong with that? First of all: if there is no problem and everybody benefits, why is it kept secret? Secondly: most unpaid professors don’t make a significant contribution to research projects or regular courses. You can check for yourself; also  whether they have a university office or consultation hour. Thirdly: as a matter of fact unpaid academic chairs are only available for top executives in the business and government sector. As (white) men still have a big majority in those areas, it is no wonder that just 5 percent of the unpaid UvA-professors are female. In contrast, the share of female endowed (bijzondere) professors is more than 25 percent in the last decade.

Fourthly, neither professors nor faculty are very generous with information about their ancillary activities. The latter is by far the most worrying, as it means that unpaid professors can get scientific credit for spouting opinions that benefit their main employer (or themselves) more than society at large. I am not saying they do abuse their position this way, but if students and the general public are unaware of these constructs, we will never be able to find out either. Only full government-enforced transparency and a critical follow-up by the media and students alike can change this.

Much more on this subject you may read (in Dutch) on his blog Eco-Simpel and in Argus, for sale at the bookstore

Note from the Rostra team:

This article was written by a guest editor and is not representative of the opinions of the Rostra team, nor did any member of the Rostra team help in the creation of this article. Rostra was approached by the author to publish this article, and as the magazine of the FEB we felt we should function as a stage for constructive discussion that could improve our faculty.


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