Open letter: 'Do we value critical feedback?'

The document below has been written by a number of people 'who feel committed to making TU/e the free academic environment it should be.' The signatories of this open letter can be found below the letter. 'It is a reflection on how our culture is currently perceived by some and a call to action to the board to change the way the university deals with critical feedback from the community', they explain their action.

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'The moment a young PhD student sends their first article to a journal, a workshop, or a conference, they are exposed to it. Peer-review: strongly worded feedback on the content of the article by (often anonymous) colleagues. Every scientist remembers their first ‘reject’. Sometimes the feedback is constructive, sometimes condescending, and sometimes the reviewers are completely missing the point. To shake it off, edit the article, and submit it again is not easy, although it gets easier with the years.

Researchers are used to receiving critical feedback. And since all of them also serve as reviewers, they are also used to giving critical feedback. This feedback is an essential part of scientific discourse. Feedback is not rooted in resentment or disinterest and is not meant to damage people, instead it supports high scientific quality and pointed discussions. Together scientists are serving a higher purpose: that of science itself.

In former times, feedback was given in the form of articles and letters which scientists publicly wrote to each other. Nowadays, reviews are mostly anonymous (the authors generally do not know the names of the reviewers and sometimes the reviewers also do not know who the authors of a paper are). Anonymous reviewing was introduced not too long ago, to manage power relations.

Things are quite different in boardrooms. Behind closed doors other rules apply. Here feedback is hardly ever anonymous and there is always a power imbalance. A board might be advised by a supervisory board, by shareholders, or by representative advisory councils. And every so often there is a whistleblower who is promptly getting lost in the jungle of integrity committees, only to eventually be mostly ignored. Finally, in utter frustration, they make their way to the newspapers, and subsequently need new employment, since their work relation with the university is considered damaged beyond repair. Same old story, over and over again.

However, a university is not a company. From a financial point of view, a university could be considered a large company, but from a societal point of view, it fulfills a quite different role. Universities serve society. They have the mandate to educate the next generation and to perform research. A university hence should not be managed in the same way as a company, but based on the values of the community, as they were put in writing in 2021.

Unfortunately, this has not been the case at TU/e for a long time. Many people from the TU/e community experience significant hierarchical pressure to conform to the decisions that are made “above”. The rationale behind decisions is rarely communicated, and there is hardly any opportunity to challenge a decision based on facts or scientific arguments. There is always somebody whose ego is hurt by critical feedback and this fact alone is sometimes used to avoid any in-depth discussion.

If somebody raises substantive critical points in a public manner, then the reaction is not always pretty. If you are too critical, then you are belittled as a ‘whiner’ or, even worse, your career is blocked. “Representing TU/e appropriately” is a job performance criterion for higher academic functions. Promotions have been blocked based on the argument that the person in question was too critical, be it in public or private.

Cursor plays an important role when big questions are publicly discussed. As an independent journalistic medium, they ensure that both sides of a story are heard, without fear of retribution. They carry the significant responsibility to check all their facts and protect their sources. The whole editorial staff feels this responsibility keenly.

Nonetheless, every written piece is colored by the opinion of the journalist that wrote it. Facts can, after all, be presented in various ways and the things that are not mentioned, but implied between the lines, can send the wrong message. It is the task of the editorial board to alleviate such problems. They, on one hand, guarantee the journalistic quality of critical reporting and, on the other hand, protect the editorial staff against the target of critical feedback, even if this is their direct manager. Unfortunately, at TU/e this editorial board does not fulfil its function as intended.

The recent discussion around the performance of Cursor exposed a fundamental problem at TU/e. To be clear: we are not concerned here with the position of the rector; she did, after all, discuss her past when she applied for the position, and we assume that agreements were made to ensure that such issues do not arise again. In this letter we are also not concerned with the removal (or not) of the editor-in-chief, for whatever reason (for privacy no details are publicly available). Our present discussion instead concerns the following two questions: is there room for substantive critical feedback within the management culture at TU/e and are there mechanisms in place to collect such feedback from the community?

According to the many, often private, reactions which we and our colleagues at Cursor received,  the answer to this question is “no, not at the moment.”

It requires special leadership skills to create a healthy discussion culture, based on the core values of TU/e, which enables people to give content-based critical feedback. Leadership at a university must always be value-based leadership. The opinion of the manager does not matter; the staff must trust a manager to represent them well based on shared core values. But this trust is hard to earn and easy to lose.

So where do we go from here? Can the management culture at TU/e change and if so, what will it take and how long will it take? Are these really the core values of the TU/e community? Are we all following these values? Is an editorial board independent if one of the members is a dean and none of the members is a journalist? What is the mandate of an ombudsman? Which roles do our representative councils and our supervisory board play? What do we make of the fact that the secretary of the board and the secretary of the supervisory board are currently the same person? Or of the fact that the largest employer for our graduates is also the chair of the supervisory board? Or that TU/e, now that the maximal number of terms for the chair is reached, intends to change the rules to make one more term possible? Who controls the supervisory board? Should that not be the scientists, or even the entire community? And how about the relation between the deans of faculties and the deans of the Bachelor College and the Graduate School, specifically in the current situation where the latter have assumed the majority of the legal duties of the former?

The purpose of this letter is to pose these questions, and not to answer them. To make the TU/e community think about the core values of the university and to challenge managers on all levels to engage in a dialogue with the TU/e community, with the goal to create a learning university. In short: to welcome critical feedback and to actively follow up on it, certainly if this feedback is supported by journalistic or scientific facts.'

Boudewijn van Dongen
Diego Quan
Tim de Jong
Remco Tuinier
Pim van der Hoorn
Bettina Speckmann
Laurens Bliek

'P.S. Our names appear as the authors of this letter, but several colleagues and students helped to create it. We would like to thank them for their support and for their feedback on draft versions, which made this piece significantly stronger. We also received negative feedback. Both from people who did not agree at all with the content and from people who did agree but preferred to not do so in a public way. All the more reasons for an open discussion culture.'

Editorial note

The amount of journalistic freedom at Cursor is very unclear at the moment. In collaboration with the unions, the editorial staff has submitted a proposal letter with suggestions regarding press freedom to the Executive Board, and a first discussion has taken place. This article was published in anticipation of the outcome of the negotiation process.

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