28 febrero, 2007

Somos mundiales. Hasta en el extranjero nos conocen

The Chronicle of Higher Education
Section: International
Volume 53, Issue 22, Page A31

In Spain, Inbreeding Threatens Academe

Getting hired to teach at universities depends less on what you know than on whom you know

With 25 years of teaching experience at Spain's top-ranked veterinary school, 58 articles in prestigious international journals, and numerous patents to her name, Victoria López Rodas would be a strong candidate for any academic job in her field. So when she took a national qualifying examination for a full professorship in animal science last spring, it was hardly surprising that several members of the panel at the public interview cited her merits as both teacher and scholar.

Yet according to a published account by two witnesses, both of them colleagues and friends of Ms. López, the same panelists tempered their praise with captious and nit-picking criticisms of her presentation, including what one examiner called the "unpardonable" error of a mislabeled slide.

When the panel released its decision, Ms. López was the seventh out of seven qualified candidates, ranked too low to win the position she sought — even though the "impact factor" of her published research, a critical measure of her standing as a scientist, was more than four times as high as that of the candidate who came in first.

While disappointed by the decision, Ms. López was prepared for it because her three previous attempts to gain qualification had ended in outright rejection. Though she says she does not know precisely why she was passed over, she pointedly observes that she had never invited any of the panelists — senior academics in her field — to share credit for her research, a common strategy with which junior faculty members in Spain curry favor with those who might eventually decide on their promotion. On one point, however, she is unequivocal: "My case is only a small example within the whole system."

Despite attempts to reform the faculty-hiring process in Spain, Ms. López's case illustrates the obstacles still faced by those who would make the country's tenure system fairer and more transparent.

Now the Parliament is preparing to pass a law that critics say will undo whatever progress has been made, further encouraging cronyism and nepotism in Spanish academe. The government and its supporters insist that the new measures will ensure quality while guaranteeing universities the institutional autonomy that academic freedom requires. At stake, the two sides agree, is the ability of Spain's higher-education system to meet international standards commensurate with the nation's role as the world's eighth-largest economic power.

Academic Immobility

The qualifying examination that Ms. López has taken four times was instituted in 2001 as a remedy for a widespread practice informally known as endogamia, or inbreeding — hiring from within the ranks of a university or research institute.

A study published last year by the government-financed Spanish National Research Council showed that from 1997 through 2001, 95 percent of the people who obtained professorships at Spanish universities — permanent civil-service jobs akin to tenure at American colleges — were already employed at those institutions, and that 64 percent had earned their doctorates on those same campuses.

The council's report did not offer international comparisons, but a study published in the journal Nature in 2001 showed that "only 5 percent of lectureships in Spain were given to individuals who had published their first paper while working in another institution," compared with 93 percent in the United States, 83 percent in Britain, and 50 percent in France.

While inbreeding reflects certain charac-

teristics of Spanish society as a whole, including a typical attachment to family and place that discourages frequent moving, the nearly total absence of academic mobility stems from the particular nature of university governance as it has developed since the death of Francisco Franco, Spain's longtime ruler, in 1975.

In contrast with the hierarchical, centralized, ideologically guided control that the Franco regime imposed on higher education, the Spanish Constitution of 1978 guaranteed the autonomy of universities as a way to ensure academic freedom. A university-reform law passed by a new Socialist government in 1983 codified that autonomy in faculty hiring, among other areas, and established the universities as self-governing institutions that democratically elect their own rectors and other administrators.

This system gives administrators a strong interest in catering to internal constituencies, especially permanent faculty members, while largely insulating them from competition with other institutions. Financing for public universities (which account for 92 percent of the national system in terms of staff and enrollments) is pegged primarily to the numbers of students — who, for reasons of tradition and economics, rarely leave their home regions to attend college, and have therefore served as a virtually captive market.

"The Spanish university is extremely democratic on the inside, so people spend lots of time developing political coalitions, but it's absolutely irresponsible to the external world," says Luis Sanz-Menéndez, a sociologist at the research council, who was one of the authors of the hiring study. "There's practically no social control, so the university can do whatever it wants according to internal pressures."

Beginning in the late 1980s, the transfer of power and money from the national government to Spain's 17 regional governments enhanced the fragmentation of the national university system. Research grants from one of the "autonomous communities," as the regions are officially known, are typically available only to scholars from that region.

Culture of Connections

All this has contributed to a hospitable atmosphere for the traditional Spanish culture of enchufe, or connections, in which personal networks of friends and family are the primary vehicle for advancement. In university hiring, local favoritism is sometimes barely disguised, with job descriptions clearly tailored for residents of the region or even for specific candidates.

The anointed are sometimes relatives by blood or marriage of decision makers on the faculty, giving added meaning to the term "inbreeding." In other cases, they are linked by mentor-disciple relationships, political-party affiliation, or common financial interests, such as consulting projects for private industry.

For Ms. López, who remains an associate professor at the Complutense University of Madrid, the lack of mobility is not the essential indicator of corruption in academic hiring. "It doesn't depend on the place," she says. "It doesn't matter where you are but who you are, the power group to which you belong."

Reports of favored candidates' being selected over more-qualified competitors had become so common by the late 1990s that, more often than not, no one else bothered to apply. According to the research council's report, 65 percent of jobs granted from 1997 through 2001 at universities and at the council itself were assigned through competitions in which only one candidate participated.

The impact of such hiring patterns on the quality of research and teaching is hard to demonstrate. Mr. Sanz and his colleagues are working on a study of the scholarly production of Spanish academics and its relationship to career mobility. Others do not hesitate to draw a connection.

"Inbreeding is causing scientific and academic quality in Spain to decline at a gigantic pace," says Luis F. Rull, a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Seville. "Starting in the 1980s, we climbed the ladder and began to converge with other countries. But now we are descending because there is no competition within universities or among universities."

Representatives of the Spanish academic establishment downplay the significance of the research council's report.

Carlos Berzosa, an economist who serves as rector of the Complutense, the largest university in Spain, says that in all the decisions about permanent professorships in which he has taken part, "the quality of the people has been acceptable. I don't say phenomenal. I don't say that there might not have been better people who didn't apply, maybe for reasons of inbreeding. But apart from one case about which I have a bad conscience, I would say that all the associate professors and full professors we appointed met acceptable standards."

Faculty evaluations that emphasize the impact of a professor's scholarship are misleading in the Spanish context, Mr. Berzosa says, since the most urgent task for the first post-Franco generation of university professors, amid swelling enrollments in the 1980s and 90s, was teaching.

"Some professors ignore their students and hide in their offices because the only thing they care about is writing good articles," he says. "I know various professors on my faculty who do little research but are great teachers, highly esteemed by their students."

Critics of the status quo dismiss such explanations as excuses for mediocrity. "[Santiago] Ramón y Cajal said that he who does no research cannot teach," declares Ms. López, invoking the pioneering Spanish neuroscientist who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 1906.

Feudal Arrangement

For some, inbreeding is just one aspect of a larger problem in a university system that rewards political skill and connections over academic merit. Miguel Camblor, who studies materials science at the research council in Madrid, participated in a recent conference on "Harassment and Corruption in the Spanish Public University." He likens his nation's higher-education system to preindustrial southern Spain, with academic potentates dominating their departments the way feudal lords once did their landed estates. Mr. Camblor says he left another research-council institute, in Valencia, after suffering systematic harassment because he had refused to share credit for his own research with a superior.

In 2001, responding to longtime complaints by a small but vocal minority within Spanish academe, the center-right government at the time sought to limit the autonomy of individual university departments in hiring decisions. After that, a randomly chosen national panel of professors in a given academic field would select and rank acceptable candidates for permanent positions vacant in that field, in a qualifying examination called a habilitación. Institutions are not obliged to accept the successful candidates but must hire from among that group or leave a position vacant until the next qualifying exam.

From the start, the new system has been unpopular with university administrators, as represented by the Conference of Spanish University Rectors, which has lobbied strongly for the examination's abolition.

Among the rectors' complaints is that the habilitación is costly and time-consuming for both candidates and universities, requiring full professors on the panels to set aside their teaching duties for weeks at a time. More important, they argue, the qualifying examination violates the autonomy that universities need in order to select the people best suited to their particular needs.

Mercedes Cabrera Calvo-Sotelo, Spain's minister of education and science, calls the habilitación a "perverse" form of competition that pits colleagues against each other unnecessarily and unfairly stigmatizes those who do not pass. By qualifying only a limited number of candidates at a time, she says, the exam creates the impression that those who do not pass are not qualified in their field. "It's like saying that there can be only five good biochemists in this country," she says. "But maybe there are 15. A numerical limit is an injustice from the point of view of academic merit."

Even critics of the old system acknowledge that the habilitación has not been a panacea. Universities often leave a job slot vacant, passing over strong candidates until a local prospect manages to get qualified, Mr. Sanz says. Moreover, professors need not work at the same institution to engage in collusion and horse-trading.

"The members of the panel decide beforehand whom they are going to qualify, on an arbitrary basis and without regard to merit," Ms. López says of the randomly selected examiners. Nevertheless she believes that the habilitación has made it more difficult to rig the hiring process in favor of in-house applicants, and that its requirements have served to filter out the weakest candidates.

A bill being debated in the Parliament, which the current Socialist government expects to become law in the spring, would abolish the qualifying exam. As an alternative, the law would provide for national committees of university professors who would accredit all qualified applicants, without a quantitative limit, based on analysis of their curriculum vitae. Universities would be free to use their discretion to fill vacant professorships with any accredited candidate.

Critics of the proposal say that, for all the limitations of the current system, such a law would be a step backward because, among other reasons, the accreditation committees would not meet publicly or interview applicants. Nor would anything prevent a hiring committee from choosing the least academically qualified candidate among those accredited.

Temptations to continue academic inbreeding will remain once the bill passes, Ms. Cabrera concedes. But universities cannot be forced to take a more competitive approach to hiring, she argues; they must be given incentives to adopt it voluntarily. These incentives, she suggests, could include extra funds and publicity for institutions that perform well in comparative national evaluations.

But Spanish rectors are, to say the least, leery of publishing comparative evaluations, let alone making them the basis of financial support. No one expects such ideas to develop beyond the hypothetical anytime soon.

Only a few scattered examples exist of voluntary and systematic resistance to inbreeding within the university system. They include the economics departments at Pompeu Fabra University, in Barcelona, and Carlos III University of Madrid, two public institutions that are less than 20 years old. Both departments recruit faculty members internationally as well as in Spain and avoid hiring their own recent graduates. Both are also among the top-ranked economics departments in Europe. Yet there are no signs that they are inspiring a trend at home.

Possible Solutions

One solution involves enriching the pool of potential professors. Since 2001 the Spanish government's Ramón y Cajal Program has underwritten 2,300 five-year postdoctoral research fellowships at Spanish universities. Selected by an independent, international committee of scholars in each field, fellows are eligible for permanent employment at the end of their grants.

Participation costs the universities nothing, yet some have declined. "They didn't want people with better CV's than their own; they didn't want the competition," says Mr. Rull, the Seville physicist.

When the first group of fellows reached the end of their contracts, last November, more than a third had not received permanent offers. Not only do the fellows often inspire a "bad conscience" in less productive colleagues, Mr. Rull explains, but departments also have a financial incentive to promote those already on the payroll rather than grant professorships to outsiders.

Still more-ambitious remedies are recent attempts to set up entirely independent systems of faculty hiring. The government of Catalonia, one of the wealthiest and most entrepreneurial Spanish regions, has established a foundation that finances permanent university positions for researchers who are chosen by independent committees. The autonomous community of Madrid is developing a network of research centers with their own staff members, to work in coordination with local universities and businesses.

The regional governments "want the most competitive centers of science and technology, but they know that the universities won't spend the money optimally, so they set up para-university institutions," says Antonio Rodríguez Artalejo, a professor of pharmacology at Madrid's Complutense. "This is a positive development, but it means giving up on changing the universities."

Critics of endogamia say Spain cannot afford to give up. They note that not a single Spanish institution ranks among top 100 world universities, and that only three rank even among the 100 best in Europe, in sharp contrast with more dynamic sectors of Spanish society.

"Universities are an anomaly in Spain," says Eduardo Costas Costas, a professor of genetics and animal science at the Complutense. "Business has changed, the military has changed. ... Our banks compete with the United States. And our scientists are talented. But the structures they work in are not competitive."

4 comentarios:

Anónimo dijo...

Pues se confunden. Eso no pasa aquí. Y si pasara nos daría igual. Somos potencia mundial en nominaciones a los Oscar, en baloncesto, en tenis, en fórmula uno, en motociclismo, en fúbol, en desarrollo urbanístico y económico, en incultura popular, etc.

IuRiSPRuDeNT dijo...

PD: an arduous work of investigation has discovered the RH - of the university Spanish teacher

IuRiSPRuDeNT dijo...

Kit Kat: ministra Salgado recomienda comer chocolate con moderación por su alto valor nutritivo

Anónimo dijo...

Toño, tradúcelo al "españó", que si no muchos de nuestros colegas no van a entender nada de lo que dice el articulista. Pero miente, que lo sepas.