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Conflicting Opinions on the Success of the "Junior Professorship" (July 13, 2006)

In this newspaper article, a journalist sums up the controversial debate sparked by a study conducted by the Center for Higher Education Development [Centrum für Hochschulentwicklung or CHE] on the new junior professorship. Whereas conservative universities rejected the junior professorship, progressive institutions of higher learning embraced it. So far, however, it hasn’t been able to completely replace the second dissertation [Habilitation] as a qualification for a professorship in the humanities.

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A Final Farewell

It was supposed to change the antiquated procedure for making professorial appointments to universities. Now the Junior Professorship appears doomed.

The young academic immediately knew what it was about. “Oh,” she said, “You want to write an obituary.” More precisely: an obituary for the Junior Professorship. And then it came pouring out of her: that most junior professors feel desperately insecure. That most of them are also working on their second dissertations [Habilitationen].* That most of them would never recommend that anyone become a junior professor. “Junior professorships,” she concluded, “are over and done with.”

This young researcher didn’t want her name to appear in the newspaper – because she is expressing a truth that is painful for many young academics and devastating for higher education. The junior professorship threatens to die an early death. Only a good four years after its inception, on February 23, 2002, one of the best ideas in recent higher education policy is on the verge of failure.

The junior professorship was supposed to revolutionize academic career paths in Germany. According to the plans of former education minister Edelgard Bulmahn, young researchers were supposed to be able to pursue independent teaching and research when they were still in their early thirties, rather than work underneath a full professor and not become independent until their early forties. Junior professors were supposed to have responsibilities previously reserved for professors: they were to give lectures, conduct exams, secure their own research funding, and have assistants work for them. Dorothea Nolde, a junior professor for early modern history at the University of Bremen, for example, said, “I have considerably more leeway in this position than I would as an assistant.”

The Number of Positions has Hardly Increased in Two Years

The idea is impressive but has been thwarted by reality: Dorothea Nolde has remained a major exception. According to a (still) unpublished study conducted by the Center for Higher Education Development [Centrum für Hochschulentwicklung or CHE], which is funded by the Bertelsmann Foundation and the German Rectors’ Conference [Hochschulrektorenkonferenz or HRK], barely 1,000 junior professorships have been announced since 2002. Particularly dramatic is the fact that the number of junior professorships has hardly increased in the last two years; there were already between 800 and 930 (depending on the count) back in 2004. New positions were supported with special federal subsidies until the end of 2004. After this funding source dried up, an average of only ten new positions have been announced per month. The German Federal Ministry of Education originally aimed for a total of 6,000 junior professors.” In its response to a Minor Interpellation [Kleine Anfrage] introduced in the Bundestag by the Left party, it declared that goal to be “obsolete.” The junior professorship – discontinued due to lack of demand.

“One certainly cannot speak of a successful model,” said Bernhard Kempen, president of the German Association of University Professors and Lecturers [Deutscher Hochschulverband or DHV]. “The junior professorship did not catch on,” regretted Katharina Landfester, former spokeswoman of the Young Academy, an association of scientists and scholars, and a consistent advocate of the new title. “Junior professors are caught between a rock and a hard place,” reported Peter Hommelhoff, vice chancellor of the University of Heidelberg. And Reinhardt Lutz, chancellor of the University of Bonn and one of the harshest critics of the new model, even said: “If junior professorships weren’t a stillborn venture from the very outset, they could end up becoming one now.”

The reality of many institutions of higher education does not include any junior professors at all. Bonn, for example, does not have a single young professor in its ranks, because the university – as its chancellor said – did not allow itself to “become infected by the junior professor virus.” In Heidelberg, the new model met with such “pronounced reservations in the various departments,” as Vice Chancellor Hommelhoff explained, that the university first had to create “clarity with a new model.” There, the junior professorship is only one of three ways to become a full professor – in addition to becoming the leader of a group of young researchers or writing a Habilitation. The situation is similar at other universities.

There are, of course, exceptions: the universities in Oldenburg, Göttingen, Bochum, and Frankfurt am Main, for example, and, first and foremost, Berlin’s Humboldt University (HU). It aims to hire junior professors in a one-to-four ratio to professors. Presently there are fifty young professors teaching at the HU. “It is a sensible and necessary model,” said Vice-president Hans Jürgen Prömel, “even if interest has flagged a bit.” The HU introduced an exemplary tenure track in May. Whoever achieves a great deal and gets positive evaluations can be placed on a tenure track by the university. If a professorship opens up within five years after a young academic’s junior professorship runs out, then the university can give the position to him or her without posting it first. No other German university has made such an effort on behalf of young professors. The effort has paid off; nine former Humboldt junior professors have been appointed to full professorships. An outstanding ratio.

* The traditional route to a professorship in Germany is to write a second dissertation, called a Habilitation. The Habilitation is an additional postdoctoral qualification required of university professors – eds.

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