N. Petkov

University Council elections 2015, May 18-25

   Nicolai Petkov:

I kindly ask you for your support and vote in these elections.

I am professor of computer science at the University of Groningen (RuG)  since 1991. During this time I was also guest professor at a UK university. Before 1991 I was with five other universities abroad. For ten years I was scientific director of the Institute for Mathematics and Computer Science of the RuG. Since 2011 I am also member of the University Council.

My experiences as professor, institute director, and member of the University Council, as well as my international contacts taught me what makes universities attractive as employers and what is needed to attract and keep talented people. I also know very well what the rights of the personnel are and how I can defend these rights. 

While I am devoted educator and active researcher (currently teaching several courses and supervising 8 PhD students), I would also like to make my experience available for forming the university policy - to ensure that this policy is aligned with the rights and interests of the personnel. Therefore, I am member of the current University Council and candidate for the next one (2015-2017).

Explanation of my theses:


I became scientific director of a large research institute in 1998 when a new law became effective (MUB - Modernisering Universiteitsbestuur). The goal of this law was to enable fast decision taking at universities. It created a hierarchical structure of university management. While in the first years the hierarchical character was mitigated by the existing tradition of discussions and decisions taken in agreement with all participating parties (overlegcultuur), in recent years this tradition faded away and almost completely disappeared as a consequence of a generation change. As a result, we now have a strictly hierarchical management system in which decisions of higher levels are imposed on the lower levels, with little or no feedback from the lower to the higher levels. Executive decisions and policies are, however, effective when the people who are supposed to implement them are involved in their preparation. We need effective mechanisms to facilitate such feedback and increase management accountability. You can read more about my views on this topic in the following articles in the media:
What should we do? (UK, 11-05-2015)
Culture of distrust (UK, 08-05-2015)
We need more democracy (UK 2015-02-17)
Universiteit wordt topdown bestuurd, en dat smoort discussie (Interview in NRC Handelsblad, 2014-05-24)
The silence of the rabbits (UK 2014-04-15)


You can read more about my views on this topic in the following article:
Culture of distrust (UK, 08-05-2015)


During the whole current mandate period, we upheld systematically and consistently our point of view on the importance of job security.

Several excellent professors at our institute left us for a position elsewhere because they felt insecure about their future at the RuG. In one of these cases, a former colleague talked to the dean, after receiving an offer from another university. Specifically, he wanted a guarantee that he would not be affected by any future reorganisations and would have a secure job until his retirement (which was due in 15 years): that would enable him to bring up his young children. The dean helplessly told him that even he, the dean himself, did not have this kind of guarantee for his own professor position. Consequently that colleague left our university. This was a considerable loss for us and it took us eight years to find a good successor.

Regarding support personnel, internationally there is a current trend to outsource services. I am sceptical on this trend. We need good ICT, library, human resources, secretarial and facility services. This can best be achieved with loyal personnel that is on the RuG payroll. During the whole current mandate period, we upheld systematically and consistently this point of view in the discussions with the Board of the University. For instance, we were the only University Council faction that did not consent with outsourcing of logistic, post and archive, and grafimedia.

The recurring threat of reorganisations and forced lay-offs, due to sudden big financial deficits of faculties and the university, is a major source of anxiety and unrest. If we do not succeed in restoring trust in the security of a position at the university, we will not be able to attract and keep talented people. People are our main asset and this must be the leading principle in financial allocation decisions.


Fifteen years ago I was member of the committee that wrote the first document describing the requirements of the tenure track system at our faculty. The goal was to attract excellent personnel and offer them the possibility to become full professors. Over time the system evolved too far, becoming very elaborate and including requirements ever harder to fulfil, especially those concerning research grants (read more about this Russian roulette). It became a kind of Procrustes bed. (In a Greek myth, Procrustes invited every passer-by to spend the night in an iron bed, and then he set to work on them, stretching or cutting them to fit.)

People differ in their qualities: one is extrovert and able to build a wide network, attract research grants and manage a large group; another one is introvert but comes up with that excellent new theory that will stay. We need them both. We do not need clones of the same type of manager-scientist that optimally fit in a system of rules that tends to favour quantity over quality. We need a diversity of qualities in people who excel in different dimensions. We need a system that facilitates and supports talent development instead of personnel management and control.


Elite US universities will start offering on-line educational programs and degrees worldwide to a large number of remote students. This may lead to a considerable drop in the number of students at other universities and may have devastating consequences for these other universities. Think of the disastrous effect internet had on the number of jobs for travel agents, journalists and accountants! We have to do with a disruptive educational technology change and a tsunami in higher education may be on its way. I already warned about this in a university council speech in 2012 and in the following press article:
Harvard's online tsunami is coming (UK 2013-05-14)

To those who say we have always had an ever-growing number of students and this will remain so, I will retell the story of Bertrand Russell's inductivist turkey: the turkey observed that it was duly fed every single day by its master, hence it happily concluded by induction that this would continue in the future. And it did ... until Christmas. Do we want to have a Christmas turkey on the (university canteen) table, or to become a Christmas turkey ourselves?


About the current system of selecting university managers

The silence of the rabbits

by Nicolai Petkov

(Published in Universiteitskrant Groningen, April 15, 2014)

In his article Kies die rector magnificus (UK of April 10), Peter Keizer opened an urgently needed discussion - for many of us hope for a change, for some a Pandora box. It is about the alleged (im)possibility to elect the rector of the university.

My first observation is that - surprisingly - this timely and important discussion is initiated by a journalist and not by a professor. I am afraid that this is a symptom of an academic disease long feared and anxiously awaited. Some ten years ago I warned a former dean of our faculty and a former rector that, if they treat the professors like rabbits, with time they will get rabbits as professors.

By which I mean that currently professors are defined (in various administrative documents) as employees (Dutch: werknemer, functionaris) that supervise large numbers of PhD students, publish many Nature and Science papers that receive numerous citations, and - most importantly - bring in gazillions of Euros from research grants. In the same system - in force since the introduction of the Law for Modernisation of University Management in 1998 - professors are not expected to have an opinion about science policy at large and the organisation of the university. If they had one, the current system offers no forum where it can be expressed.

This must be an error!

My second observation is a quote of our rector naming 'the deans as representatives of the professors' ('de decanen als vertegenwoordigers van de hoogleraren'). This must be an error or a misunderstanding! I cannot imagine that Elmer Sterken whom I value highly for his political and communication skills has said that, impossible!

In the Netherlands, we have the representatives of the people (Dutch: volksvertegenwoordigers) who are members of the national or a local parliament. They are called so because they are authorised in democratic elections by the people (Dutch: het volk) to represent them. Our deans are not elected by the professors and may not be called representatives of the professors, they are appointed by the board of the university.

On their turn, the deans appoint the directors of the research institutes who are the managers of the professors. In this strictly hierarchical top-down system, the people who are being managed do not determine who manages them, they have no saying in this at all, it is none of their business.

Hilarious myth

My third observation is the hilarious myth of a search committee (Dutch: zoekcommissie). This is supposed to be a committee that is appointed to search candidates suitable for a certain management position.

My interpretation of the term 'zoekcommissie' is that the committee has been lost (Dutch: is zoek): it is a non-existing, imaginary concept, a myth. I may say this after 23 years of experience as a full professor at this university, ten of which as scientific director of one of the largest research institutes: never ever during this time I have been approached by any zoekcommissie to ask me for my opinion on who should be the next director of the research institute, dean of the faculty or rector of the university.

I am curious how many of the 500 professors of this university had any encounter with a zoekcommissie. The fraction is certainly not larger than the fraction of people who have seen Nessie (the cryptozoological Loch Ness monster), Yeti (the abominable snowman) or an UFO (unidentified extraterrestrial flying object).

There is an urgent need to discuss over the mechanisms by which we come to decisions on who may steer (Dutch: besturen) the university or a part of it, be they directors of research institutes, deans or a rector.

We may not be degraded to and behave like silent rabbits.

Nicolai Petkov is professor of computer science and is proud to be a democratically elected member of the University Council

About the consequences of a disruptive technology change for universities


by Nicolai Petkov

(text of a speech in a meeting of the university council and the board of the university on August 30, 2012)

I would like to ask two questions. One of them is directed to the students, the other addresses the governing board of the university.

Question to the students: Imagine that you are enrolled in Harvard University. It is number one in all respected rankings. You follow their courses, make their examinations and, finally, you receive a degree from Harvard University. You do all this while you stay in Groningen, live in the same student house, have the same friends, go to the same pubs, and are member of the same student association and sport club.

You may ask: 'But how is it possible to follow courses at Harvard University while staying in Groningen?' My answer is: 'In the same way in which you can watch life a Richard Wagner opera in a cinema in Oldenburg while the opera is performed in Bayreuth, 700 km to the South.'

Some explanations may be due. Traditionally, the operas of Richard Wagner are played during the month of August in Bayreuth in Bavaria. Fans come from the whole world. Tickets are expensive - 400 Euro - and difficult to get. It helps if you have an aristocratic title, are high-level politician or a captain of industry. Dressing code is a smoking for men and a gala dress for women.

Last summer (2012), the Bayreuther-Festspeile, the company that organises these events, extended their business model. On August 11, the performance of the opera 'Parcifal' was transmitted to several hundred cinemas in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. There, the spectators could enjoy the performance in better quality of sound and vision, see more details and take a look behind the scene and in the dressing rooms of the star-singers. All this not for 400 but just for 26 Euro, including champagne. I tell you this story to point to the business model.

Elite universities, such as Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, Princeton, MIT, Caltech, etc. are determined to introduce this business model in education. The president of Stanford University speaks of a 'tsunami' that is coming. By which he means that they will cause the tsunami and the other universities will suffer it.

My question to you, the students, is: 'Can you imagine that some of your colleagues, now with the University of Groningen, may find appealing the idea of getting a degree from Harvard, Stanford or Princeton in the described way?'

Now I address the Board. I have a PhD student who comes from Malta. He got his bachelor degree from the University of London. But he was not attending courses in London - he got his degree in Malta, while staying with his parents and enjoying the good weather. Similarly, I regularly get applicants for a PhD position from India with a degree form Carnegie-Mellon University. But they have not been in Pittsburg. They got their CMU degree in India.

Imagine that elite universities such as Harvard, Stanford, MIT and CalTech, start marketing their programs in Groningen. Imagine, that as a consequence, the number of students that enrol in the University of Groningen drops by, say 30%. The consequences for our university will be devastating. My question to you, the Board, is: 'How are we going to prepare ourselves for this tsunami?'

Nicolai Petkov is professor of computer science and member of the university council.

About the current system of research financing

Russian roulette training

by Nicolai Petkov

(Published in Universiteitskrant Groningen, nr.7, October 6, 2011)

Imagine a Russian roulette game with six participants. There is a revolver with six chambers: one loaded with a bullet, the others empty. The players use the revolver in turn, each pressing the trigger once. We consider a player-friendly version of the game in which they point the revolver in the air; the original version has a less happy end and is not recommended here. The player who happens to release a shot is declared to be the winner and receives a prize of one million in a safe haven currency. Subsequently, the winner gets wide recognition in appreciation of his/her performance. As the game gains popularity, consultants start offering trainings and the winners are welcome speakers at various success-in-life and carrier-development events.

Let us now make the following Gedankenexperiment (a powerful tool for those who like to think): six participants reach the last phase of a research proposal evaluation round. We assume that all six participants are equally excellent. The outcome is not that each candidate carries home one sixth of the available money according to the uniform distribution of excellence. No, the winner takes it all; there is one winner, and five losers. The winner is declared a "top scientist", cozily abbreviated to "topper", by his administration, a qualification enthusiastically and frequently used by that administration as a proof of its own excellence and wisdom. In hindsight, explanations are found why he/she won. He/She is in the spot light and is invited to give talks on winning strategies and patronize future candidates. In short, he/she becomes 'A Hero of Our Time' -- by coincidence, this is Lermontov's novel where we find the only mention of the Russian roulette game in classic literature.

A whole industry arises where expensive consultants offer trainings in which you may be advised to study the hobbies of committee members - if you, for instance, drop the expression 'hole in one' during your presentation, this may win you the sympathy of a committee member who plays golf. No joke: such advice is given to Dutch barristers in their professional magazine. Now remember that we postulated our six candidates to be equally brilliant. The outcome was purely random and arbitrary. It was, maybe, just the aftershave/perfume smell of the winning candidate or his/her shirt tugged out at the back that pushed the bets in his/her favor. Of course, this explanation will be ironically dismissed as 'loser frustration' by the granting organisation, it will be experienced as ultimately offending by the winner, and it will be ferociously rejected by his/her administration as egalitarian disrespect for a genius. Similar behaviour is observed in business, arts and politics.

The accounts on the scientists-losers are much shorter: their prize is the Damocles sword above their heads, while waiting for tenure or promotion. According to Taleb, the art-losers are destined to serve you a cappuccino at Starbucks or a burger at McDonald's.

Before making the moral, let me re-tell you a story, the origin of which I forgot, maybe Taleb? Moshe prayed to God to help him win the lottery. He prayed every day, day after day. One day, just after saying his prayer and looking at heaven with a mixture of tired hope and threatening reproach, Moshe was stunned as heaven opened and God spoke to him: 'Moshe, do your part: do finally buy yourself a lottery ticket.'

Roles differ, so do morals. One for scientists: the current Zeitgeist requires you to to play the research grant lottery, unless you prefer to work at Starbucks or McDonald's. Another for administrators: you may be fooled by randomness when judging the quality of your scientists in terms of acquired money. Finally, a moral for policy makers: hazardous games should be abolished or at least radically restricted.

Recommended literature: N.N. Taleb: Fooled by randomness. Penguin, 2007.

Nicolai Petkov is professor of computer science and member of the university council.

About student enterpreneurship

400 million dollars

by Nicolai Petkov

(Published under a different title "Will wants to buy a company", given by the editor, in Universiteitskrant Groningen, nr.24, March 1, 2012)

400 million dollars is the venture capital Will West raised. He is founder and chairman of Control4, a worldwide market leader in home automation. This concerns devices that take care that the heating goes down when you leave home and up when you come back, or that your favorite music follows you through the house. Control4 want to grow, as fast as possible. And this is why Will was in Groningen on invitation of my well-connected colleague Marco Aiello. Will spoke with president Sibrand Poppema and dean Jasper Knoester. Will may decide to invest in our research, but the main reason he was here is to buy companies.
        Imagine we had started a program in home automation ten years ago. Imagine it had produced 200 graduates and that some of them had started companies that were still out there, looking for ways to break through to a bigger, international market. Will would be keen to buy them. Does it sound unrealistic, like a dream? Let me then tell you another story.
        Ten years ago, a young lecturer in the computer science (informatica) department of the University of Groningen, two PhD students and one master student founded a wannabe-high-tech company. They did not have much money to spend, so they decided to rent just one room in Beilen (30 km south of Groningen). With the knowledge they got in image processing, computer vision and neural networks, they developed a system for automatic license plate recognition. This is a tough market with fierce competition. A few years ago they finally broke through and their company Dacolian became a market leader. Worldwide. Subsequently, Dacolian merged with stock exchange-noted Norwegian Q-free. Personally, this means that the founders no longer need to work. Well, they still work, as a challenge and for fun. And they employ 70 people, 30 of which graduates of the RuG, half of them with a PhD degree. Yes, in Beilen, a small place near Groningen. You do not always have to be in Silicon Valley for high-tech success stories.
        How different this sounds from what I experienced first when I came to Groningen 21 years ago. I was preparing a European research proposal, and an elderly experienced colleague advised me to specify that Groningen is an economically underdeveloped region: this would increase the chances of getting a European grant. "Pleeease, help meee, I am working in an underdeveloped region." Hmm, I never felt comfortable with that argument.
        Recently the University of Groningen made a choice for a profile in Energy and Healthy Aging. We will start programs in these areas. In 5 years from now, we may produce 100 graduates per year. Some of them will start up companies and some of them - I am sure - will become very successful. And Will West, or another guy of his caliber, would come to Groningen eager to buy them. And our local guys may sell, or maybe not, maybe they will go themselves out to buy other companies in order to grow fast and remain leaders in their markets, worldwide, not just in Groningen.
        Finally, a message to these future high-tech Energy and Healthy-Aging students: 'Come on guys, I do no longer want to read these stories of CalTech professors that became super-rich because they invested in the start-ups of their students. You do not always have to be in Silicon Valley for success stories.'

Nicolai Petkov is professor of computer science, member of the university council, and wannabe high-tech investor.

Last changed: 2015-05-13.