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New blood for Nanjing University?
( 2003-09-12 17:15) (China.org.cn)

In May 2003, Peking University threw out a series of reforms on faculty appointments and promotions in order to realize its goal of constructing a world-level university.

The core of the reform was to scrap the "iron rice bowl" system of existing lecturers, where tenure meant for life. Peking University will not renew contracts of lecturers and associate professors who fail to be promoted as associate professors and professors during a period of tenure.

The reform news not only caused an "earthquake" in this top university in China, but also erupted into a row across Chinese academia. Some media called it "a reform introducing competition and eliminating rules into academic ivory tower" and "an attempt of searching new roads for China's universities."

Almost at the same time as the reform of Peking University aroused debate, Nanjing University, which has the same goal as Peking University, also issued a reform of great impact -- by publicly seeking 149 professors and 149 associate professors around the world. In addition, Nanjing University also intends to abolish life tenure for lecturers in the university, which means lecturers in Nanjing University will have to say goodbye to their "iron rice bowl" career.

What was the real purpose behind the actions of Nanjing University? Was it defiance towards current faculty appointment systems or only a pretentious show?

Public attention

At the end of May, Nanjing University issued a notice on the overseas version of the People's Daily and Guangming Daily that this year's newly increased posts of 149 professors and 149 associate professors were all open to domestic and overseas talent. Application began shortly after the notice. Currently, the first-run recruitment has come to an end and entered into a period of appraisal and selection.

According to people in charge at Nanjing University, the news of looking for 300 professors from around the world has caused shock among domestic and overseas scholars.

Within only one month, nearly 100 talented applicants had applied for the posts. Besides lecturers and scholars in other domestically famous universities and scientific research institutes, overseas scholars also accounted for a comparatively large ratio of the numbers applying. Among those applicants, there was no lack of famous overseas scholars. According to the media report, some even have gained PhDs and post-doctoral degrees from world first-class universities including Harvard, Stanford and Yale universities. Besides overseas scholars, there were also more than 100 applicants who were lecturers and associate professors in Nanjing University.

Actually, what caught the greatest attention was the abolishing of life tenure of university lecturers. That is to say, "professor" and "associate professor" will no longer be the lifetime title of senior lecturers in Nanjing University. It is seen as a bold move in China's institutions of higher education.

Strong impacts

Some media have called the "radical reforms" of Peking University in May an "earthquake". The practice of Nanjing University also brings about similarly strong impacts.

According to a signed article on the overseas version of People's Daily, the practice of Nanjing University has broadened the channel of inviting professors, enabling universities to find increasingly satisfying staff.

Applicants have to first provide the relevant material according to the requirements of the university, then take part in interviews and pass relevant discipline appraisal tests, by internal and external qualified personnel. Subsequently, the successful candidate will get a letter of appointment issued by the president of the university.

Furthermore, since it is no longer a lifetime tenure appointment, greater pressure is placed on those employed who must continue their studies and research in their discipline. It is also conducive to breaking down the practice of promotion by seniority during the appraisal of professional titles and weeding out incompetent staff.

However, the move has also brought doubts and questions from some members of the media and university insiders. The first is that the practice of Nanjing University may achieve few results. Public recruitment by Nanjing University focuses on first-class talent. However, due to problems such as personal treatment of existing staff, Nanjing University may not much of an influence on famous overseas scholars or in Beijing and Shanghai where many of China's top universities are. The second is if Nanjing University really has the intention to widely seek new blood? Do these posts really exist? Was it only propaganda and a pretentious show in order to enhance its status?

The move also caused "earthquake" within the university. "During previous appraisals, as long as we did better than other colleagues, we could be promoted to professorship. Now, the rules have changed. We have to compete with domestic and overseas applicants. We all feel great pressure," said several associate professors from Nanjing University.

Competition to improve professors' level

According to Mu Ronghua, director of the Personnel Department of Nanjing University, all posts of professor and associate professor that they are now seeking do exist. Some are posts which will be available in two years after retirement of some existing lecturers, accounted for 50 percent of the posts. Others are newly created posts according to the development needs of the university. What is more important is that the posts cover all disciplines. "The move is a necessary reform rather than just a pretentious show. We have to do it," said Mu Ronghua.

Zhou Yi'an, deputy director of the Personnel Department explained why it is necessary for Nanjing University. "Just like many other universities, the appraisal of lecturers' professional titles has developed into a vicious circle. When a person with a PhD was assigned to the university, he or she would be promoted to associate professor in two or three years time and then promoted to professor in four or five years. You would have to promote him or her as long as there is no special reason. Therefore, we do have many professors, but it is not been in accordance with the developing requirements of the university."

Academic development needs talent

Since Nanjing University has abolished lifetime professional titles, the traditional appraisal of professional titles is no longer as important as it used to be. The system of recruitment has been enhanced. That is to say, in the future, professors and associated professors in Nanjing University will be appointed by the university with a certain time limit, usually three years.

"You are professor within three years and after three years, if the university considers you are not suitable for the post of professor, the school will not re-appoint you," said Director Mu.

As to the question whether Nanjing University has enough courage to dismiss unqualified professors or associate professors, Mu said, "One thing is sure and that is that most professors and associated professors in Nanjing University are qualified. Even if there is a competition, they can win in the competition. We are carrying out an improved faculty appointment system. If currently some professors or associate professors are not competent for their posts, the university will no longer appoint them after their first period of tenure. They will face several choices. They will be asked to compete for other posts with previous professors competing for the post of associate professor and previous associate professors competing for the post of lecturers. Or, they can choose to leave Nanjing University. The reason we are seeking talent from around the world is to encourage a flow of talent. In fact the flow of talent in institutions of higher education is conducive to academic development for an institution."

Sticking to practice of seeking professors publicly around the world

At present, the global recruitment of Nanjing University is at a talent appraisal phase. Mu disclosed that this time there will be a large number of excellent domestic and overseas talent being selected for Nanjing University. The 298 posts will not be fully filled this time. "We will adhere to the principle of placing quality above quantity and continue our recruitment." After the 298 posts are all filled, will Nanjing University still publicly seek professors from around the world? "As long as there are vacant posts available, we will continue the practice. This is the main developing trend of modern universities," said Mu.

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