In fact, endowed professors are nothing special. Just less than half of the number of professors at the Erasmus University have an endowed chair: usually as part of a career plan, and surprisingly few are paid by the business sector. How does it actually work?
1: What is an endowed professor?
It is not really a substantive issue. Endowed professors undertake the same work as ‘ordinary’ professors; they lecture and carry out research, supervise doctoral candidates and conduct examinations. The difference is that the appointment and, in some cases, the financing of endowed professors is undertaken by an external party. This could be foundations or funds, but could also be the business sector.
Every now and then the discussion surrounding endowed professors whose chairs are funded by business flares up: they allegedly blindly listen to their money lender. In 2008 there was an incident surrounding endowed professor Toon van Hooijdonk (Wageningen University). He stated that milk was healthy whilst his chair was financed by the Dutch Dairy Organisation. This raised questions about his independence.
At EUR, 213 of the 475 professors can be qualified as endowed. These can be divided into four types of chair: a chair is the field of expertise of the endowed professor. By far the greatest number of endowed professors (141) have a career chair. The university is sparing with its appointment of ordinary professors as this is an appointment for life. That is why the university often opts for a construction using the Erasmus Trust Fund; these endowed professors have a temporary appointment.
Sometimes there is no place for a new professor but the university still wants to retain a talented researcher. The university will then choose to appoint the researcher as an endowed professor. This is a temporary appointment which acts as a step towards a ‘real’ professorship.
There are also endowed professors who are involved in the development of a small or new field of study. This field of study is (still) insufficiently explored to acquire a fixed position at the university for example, or is focused on a very specialised subject matter. This is often seen in medicine.
The ‘idealistic’ category includes professors where the financiers of the chair represent an ideology. This includes the Thomas More foundation. This is a foundation with a catholic basis which, through the appointment of endowed professors at a university, wishes to ‘convey the catholic tradition by means of courses, lectures and speeches which are freely accessible for students of all faculties’, according to its own website.
In order to acquire practical knowledge, there are also part-time endowed professors associated with EUR who also work in the business sector. When it comes to doubts about independence, this group forms part of the discussion. The Erasmus University refers to them as endowed professors with a networking function.
2: How large is this group?
Rather large. With 213 endowed professors out of a total of 475, this group forms 45 per cent of the total professor group.
141 endowed professors have a chair via the Erasmus Trust Fund. This fund has been in existence since 1913 and founded the Erasmus University (which was then still called the Nederlandsche Handelshoogeschool). The Trust Fund does not pay the chair nor does it determine who may be endowed professor; that is a matter for the university. The only thing the Trust Fund does is establish the chair. In practice, this is a formality in order to comply with the rule that an external legal entity must appoint an endowed professor.
The number of network professors at EUR – those who are paid directly by an organisation or business – is not exactly known but there are not many, according to a spokesperson. This was also shown by the research carried out by EM into the backgrounds of the endowed professors.
Of the 213 endowed professors, 117 are connected with the Erasmus MC. That is more than the 87 ‘ordinary’ professors working for the Erasmus MC. The reason for this is that much of the research carried out at the medical faculty is very specialised and often too small to construct a whole area of expertise around it but which nevertheless needs to be researched.
Name: Jos Blank
Chair: Productivity in the public sector.
Financed by: Foundation of Professorships of the CAOP [Centre for Public Sector Labour Relations]
“I have previously carried out research in the commercial sector. You might think that people here might want me to make some concessions. But no, no way. After all, commercial interests would not be served by this would it? People come to us because they want something researched, not to be sweet talked. I also don’t fancy being a mouthpiece for someone with political intentions. For that they will have to go to a consultancy firm.
The same applies to the foundation that pays me, the Foundation of Professorships of the CAOP. It advises public bodies on labour issues. One day a week I work at EUR and the rest of the week I carry out research at TU Delft in the same area but with a more technical angle. I am also chairman of the IPSE Studies foundation which aims to encourage research in this field.
With the seven chairs financed by the CAOP it keeps well up to date with the latest scientific and technical knowledge in its field. And via the CAOP and IPSE Studies I have a strong connection with practice. This means I get research ideas that would otherwise never have occurred to me.
In addition, they can create a lot of attention for my research. This is important as my research deals with major social issues. Increased scale in healthcare, for example, or the reorganisation of the police and judiciary. With my econometrics background I look at how you can measure the productivity and efficiency of these projects.”
3: So it is only businesses that pay for endowed professors?
At EUR this is quite a minor issue. The majority of the endowed professors receive a salary from the university and are only an endowed professor because of personnel policy. Twenty-five chairs are financed by foundations or funds from the medical world wishing to promote research into a specific condition or a mental or physical disease. They often finance the chair from their collections and fundraising. In this way they contribute directly to scientific research.
According to Leen Dorsman, University History Professor at University Utrecht, this group must be critically looked at. Flows of funds behind large foundations in the medical world can be shadowy. It is very beneficial for the pharmaceutical industry if a scientist confirms the effect of its drugs. “Money from a pharmaceutical company could well end up with an endowed professor via a foundation. If this endowed professor subsequently carries out research into a drug of that same pharmaceutical company, there will be a conflict of interest. In 2003, an endowed professor at University Utrecht was compromised as he was to have received financial rewards from a commercial partner in his research.”
Only very few foundations affiliated with the Erasmus University raise questions about possible conflicts of interest. The Pierson Fund receives funds from De Nederlandsche Bank (DNB) and ABN Amro. The fund finances professors carrying out research into macroeconomics.
The secretary of the fund responds laconically: “We are a foundation that has been in existence for nearly a century. The ties with the DNB and ABN are also decades old. The only thing they and we want is to stimulate research into macroeconomics. Our professor is independent from the banks.”
Endowed professor Marcel Thaens is the only one at EUR who is directly financed by a commercial company, the PBLQ. This is a consultancy firm involved in government and ICT. One day per week he works as a professor, the remainder of the week he works for PBLQ. He guarantees that his scientific work is not directed by his employer. (see box interview).
Name: Gert-Jan Kleinrensink
Financed by: Erasmus MC
Faculty: Erasmus MC
Category: Personnel policy
“Next October I will have been employed at Erasmus MC for 25 years. I still enjoy every day. In the distant past I was a physiotherapist, I then moved via a study of human movement sciences at the VU Amsterdam towards the anatomical field. In the dissection room, I teach medical students everything about the human body.
My endowed professorship came after the Education Prize I won in 2008. This prize is awarded to the ‘best’ lecturer of EUR; I am proud of that prize. It then took quite a long time before I actually became an endowed professor. I was appointed in 2010 and held my inaugural lecture in 2011.
My field is never boring. I often think: wow, this is so well put together. Sometimes you discover something new. Just recently: during a groin rupture operations it sometimes happens that they ‘lose their way’ with the small camera. Nobody knew how that could happen. What did it turn out to be? They had arrived at an as yet unknown (surgically) anatomical area: between two abdominal wall layers. It was not known that one of those layers of the abdominal wall itself consisted of a further two layers, which you could just enter with your camera. This is a great thing to discover, is it not?”
4: Where would EUR be without endowed professors?
Nowhere. The construction of EUR with a Trust Fund is of great importance to bind talented researchers to the University. It enables Erasmus University to offer temporary appointments as a step towards professorship and create space for talented people who would otherwise leave to become a professor somewhere else.
Thanks to the endowed professorship there is also room at the university for research for which the university is unable to make money available but which foundations and funds are willing to finance. The research by Jos Blank (see box interview) cannot be carried out without funds from the foundation that finances him.
The connections of some endowed professors with practice are also important for the university. “Society, government and the business sector ask universities to collaborate so that scientific research can be made relevant,” says a spokesperson. “We therefore don’t share the assumption that independence is automatically jeopardised by the increased collaboration with the business sector. It is of course a discussion that we must continue to have as a certain tension does exit.”
Name: Marcel Thaens
Chair: ICT, innovation and public sector
Financed by: PBLQ
“I have never had problems with any conflict of interest; I just can’t see how that would occur here. I don’t work in laboratories and don’t carry out clinical trials, I don’t carry out drug research with which a profit can be made. I carry out research into the latest ICT developments and how the public sector can anticipate this. What can the policy world do with Big Data, for example?
Since 2006, I work one day a week for the university and the remaining four days for PBLQ, the consultancy firm that also pays my chair. PBLQ helps management and the executive of public organisations to function in the best possible way. The collaboration with EUR is a win-win situation. Together with Erasmus, PBLQ has set up a master programme. The trainees of PBLQ all do this master. For Erasmus University this results in a master degree where theoretical and practical knowledge are attuned. As a professor and consultant of PBLQ I am responsible for this master.
Consultancy and science are two different worlds. For the university it is very important that I publish in highbrow international journals whilst PBLQ wants to raise its public profile and get state-of-the-art insights. In such a situation sometimes I do have to jump through two hoops.”
5: Was this different before?
No, there have always been occasional incidents. Abraham Kuyper – Dutch theologian, statesman and founder of the VU University Amsterdam – devised the position of endowed professor in 1905, in the first instance so that the movement of his religion could be taught at his university.
In 1925 there was an incident relating to the Indology faculty of Leiden University, so explains University History Professor Leen Dorsman. This faculty trained civil servants for jobs in Dutch East Indies, in accordance with the ethics that they would work towards independence and decolonisation. The business sector, in the form of the Billiton Maatschappij and Koninklijke Olie (later Shell) were not too happy with this philosophy and wished to continue to make money in the Dutch East Indies and so created its own faculty at University Utrecht via a foundation that did satisfy their requirements.
Frans van Steijn, former secretary of the Council of Rectors who has studied the archives on this, explains that rectors sometimes find the appointment of endowed professors difficult. Until the ‘70s, once a foundation had a chair at a university, they were allowed to decide themselves who would occupy that chair. “There have been incidents with chairs that made the rectors feel very uncomfortable indeed.”
However, in the ‘70s, government tightened up the rules with the Wet op de Universitaire Bestuurshervorming [Administrative Reform (Universities) Act]. “The Executive Board must now grant express permission before someone can become a professor, even if the foundation already has a chair at the university,” says Van Steijn. The criteria are not soft. A candidate must preferably have a doctorate and have publications to his/her name. In addition, the Executive Board will then test the independence of the endowed professor.
The influence of the business sector on science via endowed professors at EUR seems less serious than may have been originally thought. By far the greatest portion of the group of endowed professors have their position for policy and career reasons. Erasmus Magazine discovered one endowed professor who is directly financed by a company. EUR finances the endowed professors partly itself or this is done by foundation and funds wishing to make a contribution to science.