After conflict with foreign scientist

Why UU quit a European project prematurely

elev8 lesson study
Photo: Shutterstock

It doesn’t happen often that an interesting project that is subsidised by the European Union ends prematurely. But that’s what happened to the Erasmus+ project Lesson Study, in which Utrecht University’s Freudenthal Institute was the main actor. In late May, Director Toine Pieters told the participants that the Freudenthal Institute was fully withdrawing from the project due to possible legal and public action against the institute and a number of its employees. He takes the threat seriously and sees no other option but to quit the project.

The perceived legal threat Pieters is referring to comes from a Japanese-American researcher, Aki Murata. She was involved in the Erasmus+ project from the beginning (October 2021) and worked on the research proposal. In January 2022, she stopped her collaboration with the UU, disillusioned because she felt that her work was underappreciated and UU’s offer of paying her was unreasonable.

How could this happen? What went wrong in the research proposal and how can this be avoided in the future? DUB went on a quest to find out.

Teacher professionalisation
The collaboration between the Utrecht Freudenthal Institute and Aki Murata began in 2018. She’s a world-renowned specialist in Lesson Study, was connected to Stanford University, and at that time, worked as an associate professor of Education at the University of Florida. In 2018, she was invited to come to the Netherlands to give a lecture at a conference, the Lesson Study NL Consortium (link in Dutch, Ed). This group consists of Utrecht University, Amsterdam VU University, Groningen University, Twente University, the Windesheim University of Applied Sciences, the Stenden University of Applied Sciences, and the Utrecht University of Applied Sciences, and focuses on the implementation of Lesson Study in education in the Netherlands.

Lesson Study is a teacher professionalisation method founded in Japan, which is becoming more and more widespread globally. The idea is that teachers study their own education by creating an educational programme and then observing the students learning in the execution of the programme. That helps to improve it.

The Freudenthal Institute focuses, among other things, on didactical education in maths and natural sciences and is studying how Lesson Study can be used in secondary education. For example, how can you best teach students what a black hole is?

Guest scholarship
“We clicked instantly. It’s clear that Murata has a lot of expertise in this area and she would be a part of our network,” says Freudenthal professor Wouter van Joolingen. A few years later, the two meet again at a conference in Canada and continue their professional dialogue. In 2020, during the pandemic, Murata tells Van Joolingen that her son is studying in the Netherlands and that she would like to live there for a while. She says to Van Joolingen that it is not about the money. “I have my own funds.” The idea of inviting her as a "guest scholarship" comes about. That’s a year-long unpaid position often used for international researchers who are on sabbatical and then gain experience in the Netherlands with the salary from their old university.

No sooner said than done. Murata is given an (unpaid) position as a guest to work on the Erasmus+ research proposal she’d been working on in previous months in the United States, along with the project partners. There are no other agreements about tasks and time. She receives a residence permit to stay in the Netherlands for a prolonged period of time.

According to Van Joolingen, Murata told him that she didn’t need a salary because she’d be able to live on her own funds. As for her, she says that she agreed to stay in the Netherlands for a while, that she liked the residence permit and that she’d live off her own savings account at that time.

The proposal had been in the works since October 2020 and it was already clear which eight universities in Europe would join in submitting the proposal on Lesson Study to Erasmus+. The universities came from the networks of Murata, Van Joolingen, and Sui Lin Goei from Amsterdam VU University, other co-founders of the proposal. The participating universities are located in Norway, Spain, Estonia, Austria, and the Netherlands. The first concept is ready around New Year’s 2020/2021 and the partners provide their feedback.

When she moves to the Netherlands in March 2021, the substantive proposal is being processed into a proper application that is submitted in May. Murata is told that she can be given a paid position if the proposal is accepted, equal to the number of hours budgeted for her in the proposal. For her contribution to writing the proposal, she was to receive 500 euros.

The proposal is indeed accepted, with Utrecht University as the coordinator. The grant is worth almost 300,000 euros, of which 80,000 euros are available to Utrecht University as the main applicant.

Unrealistic proposal
So far, so good, but then things go wrong. As a project-based employee, Murata can get a position of four hours a week for a period of three years. In her view, not nearly enough time. Van Joolingen agrees with her and suggests a position for one day a week instead. Van Joolingen: “That was equal to the work mentioned in the proposal. If you look at the finances, the budget would be only four hours a week but, looking at the amount of work, it would certainly be an average of one day a week. So, that’s an investment we wanted to make.”

An Erasmus+ project doesn’t mean a lot of money to spend freely, states the Director Toine Peters. “You always have to invest your own money in a project like that. And that's something we wanted to do because Lesson Study is globally seen as an interesting form of teacher professionalisation, something we really wanted to spend time on.” Van Joolingen then becomes the project coordinating partner and the institute appoints a research manager.

Aki Murata experienced this process rather differently. First, she was suggested to work four hours a week, which she felt was unrealistic. Even that one day a week wouldn’t be enough to do all the work that needed to be done. “I wrote the proposal and I knew what had to be done. Setting up education workshops in collaboration with the partners, for instance. It was soon clear to me that that coordination would be one of my responsibilities. The work I would have to do would cost at least two days a week, and I indicated this as such. I asked if I would be paid extra if I worked more than the specified hours in a week. The answer was no. I received the response that, in Europe, it’s normal to work more hours than what you’re given. The main thing was that the intended tasks would be done and, if it were to take more than eight hours a week, then that was just how things were. That felt unethical to me. I’ve been in situations in the past where I worked for more hours than what I was contracted for. In these cases, however, I had the university’s salary to rely on and the extra hours were considered my representation of the university. At UU, I did not have that kind of position. The hours I was given were all I was eligible for payment. Otherwise, I was living on my savings account.”

Another factor was that she felt more and more that she was used within the institute for all sorts of odd jobs without being acknowledged for it. She joined Van Joolingen’s lectures, for example. Murata: “That wasn’t written down anywhere. It wasn’t mandatory but, due to the way it was communicated, I felt as though it wasn’t a voluntary thing to teach. It sounded like an order.”

Potential conflict
In January 2022, Murata is given a contract of one day a week. After much back-and-forth, she decides not to sign it and instead steps back from the project. “It just didn’t feel ethical to sign a contract when we knew the work would require much more than specified. In the United States, you negotiate the details in a contract and then you sign it. Here, I was asked to sign first and I was told ‘we’ll talk about whether we can adjust it later’. That’s not how it works in the States. Moreover, I’ve seen too often that people of colour like myself have to deal with broken promises. I’m not saying it would be the case here, but it is the experience you bring with you.”

Utrecht University decided to continue the project without Murata. The first meeting with the partners took place in January, a few days after Murata had informed the partners via e-mail that she was to step back. Van Joolingen: “It was rather odd when she suddenly joined that meeting online. It caused some unease. There were even attempts to see whether Murata could remain involved in the project through a partner. That didn’t happen in the end.”

A letter from the research manager states that the reason she isn't involved in the project as a partner is "the potential conflict that’s happening in the background" and that "the partners do not feel like they can speak freely". There is an issue, however: UU, VU University and Murata had recruited universities for the project and the universities recruited by Murata form the majority of those that disagree with the way she felt forced to withdraw from the project.

Taking all the credit
In the meantime, Murata grew sourer. She felt like the lynchpin of the research proposal about Lesson Study and that UU was now taking all the credit. She resented the lack of recognition for her efforts. The research manager e-mailed Murata in February, instructing her not to speak about it with anyone other than her until further notice. Kept in the dark for months, Murata finally sent an e-mail in May demanding updates about the project from the research manager.  Van Joolingen calls in sick, partially due to the tensions that have arisen, and his successor can’t manage to smooth things over. Moreover, the standards of an Erasmus+ project like this are so strict that there is a fair chance the targets won’t be met and the grant will have to be paid back. Under these circumstances, Toine Pieters decides to withdraw from the project.

UU is pulling the plug on the project, which means that June 7 was the final meeting for the ELEV8 project. Options of a possible new proposal in the coming years – perhaps even in 2023 – are being studied. But they will not include Aki Murata. One university has withdrawn entirely, one that came from Murata’s network.

At this point, Murata contacts the UU’s confidential advisor and complains that the university did not treat her well.

aki murata

Aki Murata, photo by Jules Morgan

She gets even more upset when Director Toine Pieters writes a letter in which he says that the past year must have been tough for her. He says that Covid and remote working didn’t help the situation and he can imagine her disappointment but, given the Erasmus subsidy’s budgetary restrictions, Utrecht University cannot give her a better offer. He hopes her future in academia will be brighter.

Murata takes this as an insult from a director who has completely misjudged the situation. She wishes her work and effort to be recognised in some way. Pieters, for his part, doesn’t understand what is in his eyes a disproportionately intense response. “The fact is that we never promised a position. I worded this in a decent manner.”

He says he’s supported by the confidential advisor, who, according to him, empathises with Pieters and his letter.

Murata responds to the letter and to the confidential advisor’s attempts at calming her discontent. She’s never received the promised 500 euros for her share of the research proposal and condemns the casualness with which her contribution to the project is dismissed.

Cultural differences?
What lessons can be learnt from the failure of this project? Was it due to cultural differences? Pieters doesn’t believe the issues were solely caused by cultural differences. “There are countless PhD candidates and guest researchers from non-EU countries here and that is always fine.” He does think that, in the future, agreements should be written down more clearly. “In this case, the expectations were higher than what we could offer.”

To Van Joolingen, cultural differences do perhaps play a role. “In the United States, it’s much more common that a project leans on one single person. It’s possible that she saw herself as the person around whom the project revolved. But that wasn’t the case. It was a joint project.”

Aki Murata also thinks cultural differences play a part. “I spent most of my academic career in the United States. There are clear contracts there and people stick to them. Here, everything was constantly left open and vague, with some words about getting back to the details later. ‘Just sign it and we’ll see what we can do later’. That doesn’t work for me. I don’t know whether this is an exception, of course, or whether this is how things usually go here.”

Another lesson is to have clearly written rules about who performs which tasks before the project starts, especially when someone comes to the Netherlands from abroad. Murata: “I started in the position of guest researcher without pay. Already at that point, there were no clear agreements about what that would entail. If you start expecting things to happen without voicing any kind of appreciation, that reflects poorly on you. I felt as though I wasn’t being taken seriously by UU in that position. I never considered taking legal steps but I did want more respect and appreciation for the work that I did.”

Pieters also thinks transparency is important. “For a position like this, you shouldn’t bring someone over to the Netherlands. And that didn’t happen in this case either. She was already living here at the time. You have to be very clear beforehand about what’s expected of the guest researcher, as well as the boundaries of the possibilities."

Van Joolingen thinks the agreements were clear enough. “She was to focus on the project. She herself had indicated that she wanted to join in teaching. I was always the one responsible for that. Her input in classes was appreciated by the students. It’s a shame that she apparently did not experience this as voluntary participation.”

Since the collaboration ended, Murata returned to the United States, where she’s now working as a research director at the 21st Century California School Leadership Academy, which is connected to the University of California in Berkeley. Her ties with the Lesson Study NL consortium have been broken. Within the group of European universities, there is some work being done on a new proposal. It remains as yet unclear who will lead this time.