Norway’s academic hiring processes are already remarkably open

A few years ago, Kate and Gregor Maxwell, a British academic couple now working at Norwegian universities, started applying for academic jobs in Scandinavia. The openness of the system surprised them, as Kate blogged earlier this week:

It was a great surprise to receive the first acknowledgment [of the job application] some weeks later. It was clearly a standard letter, but its contents caused considerable eyebrow-raising in our small Parisian flat. Not at the appointment of a specialist, independent committee (from multiple institutions) to objectively assess all of the applications, but at the list of names, addresses and dates of birth of all the applicants. All of them.

The same day as the anonymous recent recruit to Norwegian academia blogged this, professors Kristian Gundersen (UiO) and Ingar Kaldal (NTNU) were featured in Dagens Næringsliv criticising the Norwegian academic hiring system for not being open enough. They think too much weight is given to “personal qualities”, teaching skills and administrative experience, and that this means that we wouldn’t hire a genius or a Nobel prize winner in the Norwegian system today. I disagree: I think a lot of weight is in fact given to research quality and that teaching and administration are key in a university environment, and I see Janne Haaland Matlary argues the same thing in a response to Gundersen and Kaldal. But I was intrigued by Professor Kaldal’s claim (only on page 14 of the paper version for 19.02.2013 unfortunately, which you can read through Atekst if you have a library connection) that the external committee report (sakkyndiges rapport) for hiring academics in Norway used to be public, and not exempt from public disclosure as it is today (Is this true? I haven’t found confirmation but don’t really know where to look?) Kaldal argues that we should make the committee reports public again for full openness.

As the Maxwells discovered, Norwegian academic job reports already are sent out in full to all the applicants for the jobs. Norwegians may be surprised to realise that this is a remarkable level of openness, internationally, as Kate Maxwell noted in a blog post on The Professor is Inan international academic career advising blog earlier this week. When she and her husband first applied for jobs in Scandinavia, they were particularly impressed by the openness of the hiring process:

As more of these letters arrived, we realised that this was the norm. And then the committee reports began to appear. These included a detailed description of each candidate’s research and education to date, their proposed research, an evaluation of their work samples, and the committee’s judgment on whether or not they were fit for the stipendiat post. Finally, the committee ranked the candidates in order, signalling which they recommended for interview. As the months passed by, these reports gave a great insight for us outsiders – and presumably to all the candidates – as to what committees were looking for. A careful scanning of the merits of the top-ranked candidates (with the help of google translate if the assessment was not presented in English) meant that Gregor was able to become his own careers advisor. Soon he was moving up the ranks, from the middle to towards the top.

In her next post, describing their job hunt after their PhDs, and this time writing about jobs in Norway rather than Sweden where the first jobs were, the “absolute clarity of the system” is again what stands out:

There are several points of interest here, and not just the low applicant numbers (low, that is, by the standards we were used to from the UK, and from what we have heard about North America). First is the absolute clarity of the system: at all points the candidates are fully informed of each other and of the process. Secondly, the process is designed to be as fair as possible. That is the reason for the full disclosure of information. Naturally, the same names appeared on some of the lists – I got to know who else in my field was looking for jobs, and of course, in a small research community, we often came across each other at conferences. Such meetings were always, in my experience, amicable and open.

I’m definitely for increased transparency in academic processes, but perhaps we already have sufficient transparency and openness in the hiring process. If it’s true that committee reports were once completely public, I would be interested in learning more about how that worked and why the system was changed. Perhaps even more openness would be valuable, but certainly absolutely open evaluation reports as in published on the web would potentially be crushing for candidates who were unfavourably reviewed, and had that judgement on their permanent online record.

And one reason I love international colleagues is seeing these reminders both of what is good and what could be improved in our own system and culture.

21. February 2013 by Jill
Categories: Blogging, University politics | 9 comments

Sorry, but comments from before December 2010 are lost in the database and I've not yet figured out how to display them properly.

Comments (9)

  1. I was also surprised, perhaps even shocked, at the transparency of the hiring process when I received first the list of names, addresses, current workplace and genders of people competing with me for the same position, and later, the committee’s review. I think this kind of transparency is excellent.

    At the same time, I am always surprised by what seems to me to be a very high percentage of faculty members at UiB who were doctoral students at the same institution, and often masters and bachelors sa well. I don’t know whether there are statistics kept that show what percentage of profs have PhDs from UiB. At first blush it seems to me that applicants from within the institution have a huge advantage — which suggests that despite the transparency, there may be forces that work against openness in hiring. One would need to know what percentage of *applicants* for faculty positions come from UiB in order to assess if this is actually an issue.

  2. Hi Jill and thanks for the comments on my blog post! I had no idea that there was debate in Norway that the system isn’t open enough so thank you for bringing that to my attention. I have been on both sides of the recruitment process in other countries in Europe, and have not seen the openness that we witnessed in Scandinavia (or at least Norway and Sweden; we didn’t actually end up applying for anything in Denmark). In the UK, which is where we come from, it is not unusual to never find out who the other candidates are, and, even when the candidates do meet, it is almost always only during the interview process and the documents are never disclosed. As far as I understand it, the UK’s Data Protection Act means that applicants are allowed to request a copy of every document pertaining to their own assessment (including those which would otherwise only be kept on file at the university), but have no rights to see anything about anyone else. Indeed, paper correspondence regarding hiring is usually marked ‘private and confidential’. I believe that it is even possible to request that referees are not informed (let alone consulted) until after interview, though how often this happens in practice I do not know.

    I just wanted to add that the blog post is not confidential: mine and Gregor’s details are given at the end of the first post (‘part 1′), along with links to my website and blog. I don’t know why Karen did not include them in the second, but I’ll ask her to put them there, since I agree that it’s not very helpful that they should only be at the mid-way point of the tale.

  3. I appreciate this interesting response to the guest posts on The Professor Is In. I did want to mention, though, that the posts (there were two of them, part 1 and 2) were not anonymous; I just neglected to include the names of the writers in the part 2. The writers are Kate and Gregor Maxwell. I’ve corrected the second post to include that.

  4. Sorry for the long delay in approving your comments, Yael, Kate and Karen, and thanks so much for responding!! I’ll fix the bit about anonymous – I guess I didn’t read the first post carefully enough, oops!

    It’s interesting to see the limits of openness in these different systems. In Norway it’s clearly very open to the applicants, but not to anyone else. I don’t see any reason (though perhaps someone will point one out?) why the committee reports shouldn’t be available to the rest of the department, for example: at the moment, they are only available to the interview and hiring committees. This sometimes leads to questions (and nasty media debates) about why a particular person was hired which might be resolved if people could just read the committee report.

    On the other hand, the reports should probably NOT be online – there should be limits to the openness, I think.

  5. Hi Jill,

    Thanks for an interesting blog post. And compared to the claims of Kristian Gundersen it is based on facts rather than feelings, and with the interesting outside perspective on the processes in Norway.

    As for Kaldal’s claim, I have also not been able to find this out. But if it is true it must be way, way back in the history of Norwegian academic life, long before my university life.

    I am on the appointments committee at the Faculty of Humanities at UiO, and know it has a more open practice now than just a decade or two ago. I also believe it is more open than some of the other faculties at UiO. But the *minimum* requirements are the same for the whole of UiO (cf. link below):

    http://www.uio.no/english/about/regulations/personnel/academic/rules-appointment-professor.html

    Ҥ 10 Comments from applicants and others
    A copy of the whole evaluation from the assessors is to be sent to the applicants in person before the matter is dealt with by the body with the power of recommendation. Evaluations from any special assessors shall also be sent to the applicants. At this stage of the process the applicants have the possibility of commenting on the assessment, with a time limit of fourteen days. Any comments from the applicants will accompany the case documents.”

    Today academic hiring processes put a stronger weight on interviews and follow-up of references (always several) for all the applicants that are seeded at the top after the external review committee has handed in its report (which focuses mainly on the research). I strongly believe this is necessary to avoid appointing researchers who cannot work together with others, academics with no interest or talent for teaching etc. Understandably these reports are not made public, as they sometimes contain pretty blunt characterizations of applicants.

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