Wolfgang A. Herrmann: “Vital to the future of the European science system”

TUM President: Europe needs a “real” tenure track model

TUM-Präsident Prof. Wolfgang A. Herrmann hat erneut die Notwendigkeit eines akademischen Karrieresystems mit Aufstiegsperspektiven für junge Wissenschaftler betont. (Bild: A. Heddergott / TUM)
TUM-Präsident Prof. Wolfgang A. Herrmann hat erneut die Notwendigkeit eines akademischen Karrieresystems mit Aufstiegsperspektiven für junge Wissenschaftler betont. (Bild: A. Heddergott / TUM)

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Professor Wolfgang A. Herrmann, President of the Technische Universität München (TUM), has once again highlighted the need for a career system with clear advancement prospects for young scientists. This is the only way that the European Research Area will improve its competitiveness. To this effect, Professor Herrmann endorsed a position paper recently published by the League of European Research Universities (LERU). The École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and TUM, both of which are members of the EuroTech University Alliance, have thoroughly implemented the tenure track model. This alliance of leading universities of technology agrees with the EU Commission that Europe needs attractive performance-based appointment systems. The German Council of Science and Humanities also recommended recently that “a significant proportion of all professorial positions” should be advertised with a guaranteed tenure track.

“Only in the rarest cases will you find a real tenure track system behind the 'tenure track' label,” said Herrmann. “It’s not enough simply to extend entry-level professorships for an indefinite period. We need to guarantee young talented scientists – right from the start of their academic career – that they will rise through the ranks if they fulfill the specified performance criteria. Only by offering career prospects like these will Europe be able to survive the tough global competition it is facing. Given the reputational advantage that many Anglo-American universities have over us and the massive scale of investment pouring into Asian universities, this is vital to the future of the European science system.”

EU representatives and the EuroTech Universities were united in their views, which they aired at their European policy launch event on tenure track in Brussels in 2013. Robert-Jan Smits, Director General of Research and Innovation of the European Commission said: “If we want to complete the European Research Area, European universities need open, transparent and merit-based recruitment systems that provide stable careers for talented scientists.”

Two months ago, the German Council of Science and Humanities also recommended that a significant proportion of all professorial appointments be coupled with tenure-track processes. Its Chairman, Professor Manfred Prenzel, said: “We recommend true tenure track, and not non-binding options. This enables scientists to better evaluate their own prospects of attaining a professorship. And it will help the universities to recruit talented and ambitious individuals for higher education teaching positions.”

100 new tenure track professorships

TUM fundamentally altered its recruiting and career system in 2012 and is already implementing these recommendations. By 2020, it not only will advertise a portion of vacant positions in accordance with the tenure-track process, but it will also create 100 new tenure track professorships – it currently has a total of around 500 professorial positions. The financing of these processes has been made possible by a broadened budgetary basis (German Excellence Initiative, foundations, the Bavarian special program “Increasing Student Numbers,” reclassification of positions within the university). 

Outstanding junior scientists with international experience start as assistant professors (W2) on the TUM Faculty Tenure Track. At this stage they already work independently, enjoy all professorial rights, and receive special support from the university. Subject to excellent performance, after six years they are guaranteed a permanent associate professor W3 position with the option of progressing to the position of full professor (also at W3 level but with a bigger budget at their disposal). If they fail to meet the performance criteria specified at the outset, their career at TUM comes to an end, as is standard international practice.

Top young scientists recruited from MIT, Cambridge and Harvard

Within a very short period of time, this model has proven extremely attractive to top young scientists. Since 2012, TUM has appointed 31 assistant professors of 13 nationalities with an average age of 35. The majority of them come directly from abroad, from renowned institutions such as the Universities of Cambridge, Harvard and Berkeley, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and ETH Zurich. The newly appointed professors include numerous award-winners who bring, for example, an ERC Starting Grant (EU) or a Heisenberg Fellowship (DFG) with them to TUM as a university where they can rely on future career advancement from the outset.

TUM’s appointment system is now viewed as a best-practice model that has inspired a cultural transformation in the German higher education sector. “A new dynamism can already be observed within the professorial ranks,” says President Herrmann.

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