So, humanities experts, what about vision?

There is going to be a vacancy for a dean at the Faculty of Humanities. Is this the cause for Vice-dean Ted Sanders and Director of Operations Miranda Jansen to sound the alarm? After all, Humanities experts have been sounding this alarm for decennia, without much effect. "The financial situation is dire," "holding on by a thread," "a very painful measure," were some of the expressions used by Sanders and Jansen. How many times have the colleagues of this faculty already heard such managerial alarms go off in the last thirty or forty years?

Now that a job opening is around the corner, there’s an opportunity to appoint someone who has the guts to sound a different alarm. Let me start by saying that I don’t doubt for a second that the "situation" is "dire." Due to the intense education, which is inextricably linked with the practice of Humanities, the pandemic year has hit this faculty particularly hard. Teachers who already almost succumbed to the work pressure, are now about to collapse. Subsequently, the research time is reduced across all fields, while scientific excellence trajectories like NWO continue to rumble on. This stings. Humanities, in Utrecht and elsewhere, isn’t the happiest place to be right now.

Vision and strategy
As a committed colleague, what you long for is a guiding vision. Now, Sanders and Jansen presumably have a vision, plus an idea of the course of action that’s needed to realise this vision. So what is their vision? They support the idea of a "broad Faculty of Humanities with a wide range of studies". Okay, duly noted, but how do we achieve that goal?

According to the interview, their strategy boils down to the request to make a sound financial investment in Humanities, apparently on grounds of the assumption or the expectation that (a) there’s enough ability and decisiveness in politics to dig deep into the pockets; (b) the Executive Board is willing to adapt the University Business Model; and (c) action groups like WOinAction are sufficiently capable of influencing public opinion, the media and with that the Chamber of Deputies. Meanwhile, investments are made in nice interdisciplinary studies that fit the window frame, but don’t solve the problem.

Well yes, this is a vision, and you could call it some sort of strategy. It’s a very conservative vision, which preserves everything that has forever been here, based on the 19th century ideal of a classic university. Moreover, it’s a strategy based on a large dose of wishful thinking and thus without much sense of reality. Plan B (should expectations not be met) is a visionless use of the drip-feed method: ‘reorganisation,’ radical measures,’ and so on. In short: a weak - because outdated - vision, which in addition is based on a lousy strategy.

It might be that in this era, not a single vision is realistic, because as Sanders & Jansen explain: ‘there’s a lot of competition between the institutions.’ So politicians must intervene. In this day and age however, having a vision isn’t politician’s strong suit. All the more reason to suggest less conservative visions from the university itself, hoping that the Faculty of Humanities manages to attract a dean who is able to look beyond the preservation of what Sanders and Jansen prefer.

The drain effect
There are roughly three models and each of which lets itself be accounted for by a vision. According to the first model – one that has been discussed by the deans for as long as they have been sounding the alarm – you divide the various study programmes between the institutions. French goes to university X, Medieval History to university Y, Gender Studies to university Z. This model implies a thorough adjustment of the all comprising faculty. But if you want to intervene in the classic model anyway, then think of the raison d'être of some study programmes while you’re at it. Or wipe off the ancient dust by turning over a completely new leaf. Aim on digitalisation for example, as I have (to no avail) pleated in an op-ed (in Dutch) some time ago.

First things first though, before I introduce the second model. Humanities, just like Psychology and Biology for example, suffer from what a fellow professor once called the 'drain effect'. In every study programme there are students who are part of the top layer. And in every study programme, there are students who belong to the lower layer. In some study programmes however, like science (astrophysics and theoretical physics etc.), the lower layer is much higher than that of Humanities. Very briefly put: if you can't do statistics, mathematics, or logic, go and study history.

This burdens teachers of Humanities with an enormous workload. Because what do you do when you’re teaching a discipline that is geared to writing and don't want to detract from your own academic quality standards, but meanwhile are confronted with students who not only don't master the basic rules of grammar, but who also can't put together a logical argument? You spend hours correcting papers and theses, much more than at any other faculty. In that case you would be better off with psychologists, where you can occasionally set a multiple-choice test and have it marked by a computer.

Elite Education
Subsequently the question rises: how can we avoid becoming the study programme that’s the last resource for questionable students? You can apply a second model. This would maintain the highest (and for any self-respecting university normal) academic quality requirements across the board and make the university an elite education. In addition to numerus fixus and binding study advice, this means introducing solid threshold subjects, like algorithmic thinking, logic, statistics, mathematics, you name it.

This second model evokes all sorts of vision-related questions, like: how many humanities experts does society actually need? Don’t get me wrong, humanities are indispensable. But how many cultural historians or media scientists must we breed to enhance social prosperity and wellbeing. Far fewer than are now being delivered to the academic gates, I suspect.

There is a third model. Making higher education a broad education by combining the university and the higher HBO segment in a bachelor's programme. In this model you would maintain the highest scientific quality standards in the master's, which would become an elite education. But then you have to considerably reduce the number of master's programmes. This model is sympathetic because it offers much better opportunities to students with a socio-economic or cultural ‘disadvantage’ and, moreover, it allows the late bloomers to flourish.

None of these models and visions are new. But as visionless as politics often are, the faculty plans and leaders are often equally visionless. Of course, the lack of vision and guts is not entirely the fault of managers, because participation councils are conservative by nature and can put up considerable obstacles. But it wouldn't hurt to ask for a visionary view in deanery vacancies, and not leave visions exclusively to opticians.