How to choose (and evaluate) a good professor

Vincenzo Barone, Director of Scuola Normale Superiore.

In Italy, we don’t pursue merit. Otherwise, within the academic world, deserving universities might afford, for example, to offer competitive salaries in order to attract the best lecturers on international scale. But we carefully refrain from making it possible. Or they could choose their personnel based on goals and results, rather than titles. Instead, institutions have no choice but to all undergo the same process. However, the whole concept of merit intends to value diversity, other than the implied possession of equal basic skills; and therein lies the problem.

Leaving aside any ethical judgment on the criminal aspects involved, the inquiry opened by Florence’s public prosecutor’s office into the National Scientific Qualification for professors highlighted the incontrovertible flaws of a system formally ensuring merit, but effectively mortifying it. A theoretically fair law, introduced to enact a pre-selection before the ultimate choice of the right candidate, has only produced an excess of bureaucracy – inevitably accompanied by systematic delays and a plethora of inextricable regulations – and actually fostered the thriving of favouritism.

Granting that magistrates have the right and duty to persecute any illegal conduct, this whole incident reveals, in my opinion, the failure of a certain conceptual approach. An approach that promotes an ex-ante evaluation, and generally strives to constrain the academic world within a rigid set of rules and criteria expunging diversity, in the desperate attempt to find the numeric parameters apt to define merit and bring to an aseptic definition of who is the “best” candidate. Perhaps, we should find the courage to overturn this kind of perspective, and accept that a university career might not be meant for everybody, but only for those with the right talent, vocation, and will. As is the case for any competition, championship, or tournament, we establish who is the best in a certain role only after said competition, championship, or tournament is concluded, and not before. When recruiting staff, we should also find the courage to introduce new evaluation criteria to follow the selection phase.

Universities should not hire new lecturers just to “fill a vacant chair” – or because a new chair was appositely created for someone –, they should do it because they developed an independent vision shared by the vast majority of their professors and aiming to invest in determined didactic and scientific projects, possibly of international interest, that need adequate personnel and infrastructures. When an academic institution chooses a new lecturer, it shouldn’t just fill a vacancy, but it should make a coherent choice accordingly with the path it has decided to follow in the years to come. When a marriage works, it keeps going on. When it doesn’t, living together is pointless.

This approach requires great flexibility and a selection based on a strategic, meritocratic vision. Which is the exact opposite of what is currently being done and what has been proposed following the latest piece of news. For instance, I frankly find rather questionable the need to enact a further pre-emptive check performed by a board member who is “external to the academic world”, as if anything “external” was a synonym for “pure” and “spotless”, and anything “internal” was actually sick and perverse. Isn’t an external member as corruptible as an internal one? On the basis of which competencies should a “writer” judge a critical essay about the sources of Dante’s Commedia or Petrarch’s prosody? And if the world outside universities is so good, why do we need to monitor external consultancies, and try to limit them, or avoid them altogether?
A change in perspective – choosing our goals before choosing the professors we need to achieve them, i.e. the exact opposite of the current procedure – would represent a real revolution within recruitment’s logics. Universities have every interest to select the best candidate for their growth, and merit can be evaluated at every step of the working relationship, from the hiring day through the whole career path. Not just at the beginning, but until the end.

How do we select our lecturers at Scuola Normale? A committee, most times completely external to our Scuola, assesses and chooses the unequivocally best candidate, whenever possible. In case there are multiple equally good candidates, the committee presents a shortlist, and the final choice will be the Scuola’s governing bodies’ responsibility. They will have to talk to the candidates and carefully evaluate them based on the institution’s scientific and didactic goals, keeping in mind gender equality. In the end, it can happen that a position is not filled. Anyway, we strongly discourage “internal careers”, and all our lecturers, Director included (i.e. the Dean), have worked in other institutions.

We borrowed our modus operandi, for as much as possible, from the way we select our pupils, whose curriculum we do not take into consideration (since there are no bureaucratic restrictions in this case), preferring to evaluate them based on the results of the written – and completely anonymous – and oral tests organised by our Scuola. Successful candidates have then to keep up with their outcome, and they can lose their right to study in our institution if the results obtained during their study and research career are not good enough.
The underlying principle is completely meritocratic, and it also removes, in compliance with article 3 of our Constitution, “any economic or social obstacle” which might, in fact, limit “citizens’ freedom and equality”.
The students’ evaluation procedure and later selection are therefore based on purely democratic criteria: when candidates can prove, during the tests and in their later career, that they have the right skills, they stay (completely free of charge), otherwise they have to leave. This procedure has been showing good results for more than two centuries. Is it perfect? Of course not. There have been some cases when unselected candidates bettered their selected colleagues.

Nevertheless, we can learn from failures, if we recognise the validity of the system in act, and we do not self-acquit by accusing everyone else of incorrect behaviour. Why can’t we use a similar procedure for selecting lecturers?

Published by Corriere della Sera (Saturday 30 September 2017)
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