1.1.2018 |Annalisa Sannino
A letter of protest against unilateral and non-transparent profiling of research and teaching
This is my last work day at University of Helsinki, where I moved from University of Salerno, Italy in 2008 to work as University Lecturer. Starting on the 1st of January I will serve as Professor of Education at University of Tampere.
Below you find an account of events over the past year that led me to conclude that staying at University of Helsinki would have been detrimental for the pursuit of the research that motivated me to come to Helsinki in the first place. In particular I want to share my concern about the selection of professors in education in the Faculty of Educational Sciences that has shocked me for its lack of transparency and academic ethics. I have decided to speak up to alert the university community to make sure that processes such as this will not occur again in this university.
I trust that University of Helsinki can change its direction and rebuild itself as a democratic institution after the recent years of top-down profiling and neglect of researchers’ and students’ concerns.
In Helsinki, 31st of December, 2017,
with all good wishes for the year 2018,
A year ago a call for hiring two professors in education was announced, shortly after two professors in the field of work-related adult education had retired. As the call did not mention at all this field of internationally recognized research in Helsinki, I turned with an open letter to the Rector of University of Helsinki and to the Dean of the Faculty of Educational Sciences. I was surprised to see that the call did not take into account the void left by the retirement of the two professors in adult education and the need for continuity expressed by colleagues and students. At this point in time all of us were under the impression that this field of study and research was still in place at University of Helsinki. In fact, the term Adult Education continues to be prominently used in the description and curricula of the Degree Programme in Educational Sciences. In my open letter to the Rector and the Dean I expressed my concern about the future of research and teaching in this area at University of Helsinki. The Rector did not reply. The Dean’s response can be found here.
As I nevertheless applied for the two open positions, I experienced first-hand a selection procedure that exemplifies the worst practices of unilateral and non-transparent profiling of research and teaching in universities. I still cannot believe it took place in Finland. A long-term investment in the field of education with two professorships was put in the hands of scholars from the Faculties of Medicine, Theology, and Mathematics and Natural Sciences who formed the appointment committee with only one member belonging to the Faculty of Educational Sciences. The appointment of a committee like this and the recruitment managed by such a committee can hardly represent the needs of a scholarly community within its own discipline.
Two very different focal areas in the domain of education were announced in the call for the two positions (1. Learning and Interaction, 2. Education, Society and Culture). Yet in the selection process these two areas were bundled together without clarifying for which position each shortlisted candidate was actually evaluated. Applicants were not informed which criteria were given to the evaluators to ensure a fair differentiation between the focal areas and the three evaluators were clearly not qualified scholars in both focal areas specified in the call. Two evaluators actually expressed reservations about their own appropriateness to serve in this function.
A foundational requirement of an ethically and professionally adequate selection process is that the evaluators are competent experts in the focal area specified for a given position in the call for applications. In this case, because there were two different focal areas involved, each one should have had its own panel of expert evaluators. Instead, there was a single panel in which neither focal area was appropriately represented. This made the outcomes of the evaluation arbitrary and to a large extent incompetent, opening up possibilities for discriminatory decisions.
Adding to this general atmosphere of unclarity and non-transparency, neuroscience surprisingly emerged throughout the process as an important emphasis, even though it was not mentioned in the call. This was blatantly manifested in the composition of the appointment committee, chaired by a neuroscientist affiliated with the Faculty of Medicine and with no scientific credentials in the field of education. Could we possibly imagine that an educational scientist would be given the responsibility of chairing the appointment committee for hiring two professors in medicine? Unsurprisingly, the shortlisted candidates included two neuroscientists. Also, one of the three selected external evaluators was a neuroscientist whose statements include arguments concerning educational research which are pedestrian, contradictory or blatantly incorrect. As pointed out by one of the evaluators, only one among the shortlisted candidates had a clear connection to the profile of the focal area Education, Society and Culture. In other words, a biased process led to a biased outcome, which discriminated against one of the focal areas that was formally announced in the original call, but de facto not pursued. One cannot but wonder the extent to which this process was an attempt to undermine rather than support scholarship in education at University of Helsinki.
This process was an insult to the integrity of scholarship in education and to the community of educational scientists in the focal areas of research at University of Helsinki. The process put in a seriously problematic light the fairness of the recruitment of professors in education and the reputation of University of Helsinki, when the scars of the massive cuts and dismissals are still fresh in the scholarly community across disciplines. The responsibility for this flawed process lies not only with those who mandated it, but also with the colleagues who accepted to become members of the appointment committee and the evaluation panel handling tasks for which they were not properly qualified.
I am writing this in the interest of the reputation and integrity of the University of Helsinki and the Faculty of Educational Sciences. This selection process as I have experienced it represents clandestine profiling of university research and teaching by elimination of entire internationally prominent areas of scholarship without discussion and without arguments. When I chose to work in Finland, I made a conscious choice to opt for an academic culture which is fair, collegial and transparent. This selection process has taught me that these values are at grave risk at University of Helsinki. As limited as this initiative of mine is, it is meant to be an appeal for closer scrutiny and responsible action on the part of all members of the academic community, to ensure stimulating and fair competitions among applicants in the future.
The applicants for these two jobs included mid-career scholars whom this process has denied the right to a fair competition. The University of Helsinki has the obligation and responsibility to ensure fairness. It is up to all members of the community to make this possible, by denouncing, as I am doing here, procedures which discourage serious applicants and discredit the university.
A comment by yliopistokäänne a.k.a movement for university change
Professor Annalisa Sannino’s letter resonates with our increasing concern over the way positions are being filled at the University of Helsinki as well as in other universities in Finland. Without full knowledge about the details of this particular case, it is clear that a combination of top-down profiling, non-transparent recruitment processes and emphasis on non-academic qualifications & multiple criteria of selection strongly aggravate the risk of arbitrariness, even despotism. Yliopistokäänne will do its utmost to promote (i) the free organic development of areas of research and teaching and (ii) decicion-making processes that follow the principles of transparency, democracy and highest academic standards.