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Job-hunting researchers at severe disadvantage in hiring process at Japan universities

(Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Even as universities worldwide compete fiercely for the most talented researchers and instructors, the antiquated hiring system at Japan's institutions of higher education that puts prospective hires in very weak positions may be keeping top academic talent away -- and hobbling Japanese schools globally.

A nearly two-year lawsuit between a researcher and the University of Tokyo -- Japan's most elite institution -- ended in a settlement in February this year that included an apology from the school. According to legal filings, 48-year-old Tsuyoshi Miyakawa, a neuroscience professor at Fujita Health University in Toyoake in the central Japan prefecture of Aichi, applied for a professorship at the University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, his alma mater, in December 2016.

Miyakawa was interviewed by the personnel committee of the graduate school in early January 2017. On the same day, he received a phone call from the professor chairing the committee, who told him he had been accepted for the position, and that he would likely be starting in early June of that year. Asked by the chair, "You'll come, won't you?" Miyakawa's immediate response was, "Of course. It would be my pleasure." Miyakawa received similar communications via email.

In late January 2017, Miyakawa visited the University of Tokyo. He saw what would become his lab and took measurements of the room, and was introduced by the personnel committee chair to multiple researchers and other staff as the "successor" to a professor who had reached mandatory retirement. Miyakawa was also given a timetable of the lectures he would be in charge of, was sent textbooks, and received an email asking that he begin working at the university on June 1.

But in mid-February, Miyakawa was suddenly informed through an email from the personnel committee chair that "it's been decided that the selection process will return to the drawing board." The reason for the about-face? Miyakawa's proposal to arrange a cross-appointment, in which he would be employed as a professor by both Fujita Health University and the University of Tokyo. Under a cross-appointment, researchers sign employment contracts with multiple universities, research institutions and corporations where they carry out research or teach. Wages are determined based on what percentage of their work is conducted at each institution. The system is common in the West and had been adopted by the University of Tokyo in April 2013. It was promoted by the Japanese government in the 5th Science and Technology Basic Plan that was endorsed by the Cabinet in January 2016.

The personnel committee chair explained to Miyakawa in an email that the committee had reconvened to discuss the matter. It had then determined that considering how busy working at the University of Tokyo would be, with teaching obligations, entrance exams and other duties, "The majority opinion was that (a cross-appointment) would lead to an unfortunate result for both parties."

For Miyakawa, who was already preparing for his new job, and had already told his family, his superiors at Fujita Health University and members of his lab that he was going to take a different position, this came as a complete surprise. He let the University of Tokyo committee chair know that the cross-appointment proposal was just that -- a proposal -- and that he was fine with working full-time at the University of Tokyo and becoming a part-time visiting professor at Fujita Health University, as was originally agreed upon. But the University of Tokyo did not overturn its decision, and Miyakawa was not even granted a meeting with the committee chair or others from the university.

In his lawsuit filed with the Tokyo District Court, Miyakawa claimed that his University of Tokyo position had been confirmed and then yanked away. The school argued that Miyakawa had merely been one of the final candidates, and that its contract with Miyakawa would not have gone into force until the university president appointed him on or after the day he assumed duties, following a faculty meeting to green-light his employment. It also claimed that the personnel committee reserved the right to revoke a decision if a situation became unfavorable. The "start date" that had been communicated to Miyakawa was just the day he would have taken up his duties had he been selected, and telling his family and others he was going to the University of Tokyo had been an egregious error on his part, the university contended.

The settlement reached between the two parties this past February, however, included the following: the acknowledgement that the non-hiring of Miyakawa was due to the University of Tokyo's circumstances, not Miyakawa's; an apology from the University of Tokyo to Miyakawa for causing considerable trouble and suffering due to the "inappropriate behavior" of hiring staff; and the University of Tokyo's adoption of measures to alleviate the disadvantages that could arise for prospective hires when their positions become unstable, by securing ample time between the approval of a prospective hire at a faculty meeting and the official announcement of hiring. However, Miyakawa's request that he be given a professorship at the University of Tokyo was not granted.

The University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences refused to respond to any questions from the Mainichi Shimbun, saying, "In the settlement, we mutually vowed to refrain from words and deeds that could be detrimental to the other party." The institution, furthermore, did not respond to a question about whether there had been payment for damages.

"At many colleges and universities in Japan, the employees are in an overwhelmingly weak position," Miyakawa said. "Researchers have families and lives, too, and when a job change involves moving, it requires a proportional level of preparation. I want the system of university hiring to be improved so that we're treated like human beings made of flesh, by requiring institutions to issue informal job offer documentation and allow for contract negotiations."

Attorney Ryo Sasaki, an expert in labor law, points out, "In general, it's at the point when wages, work content, and a start date have been presented with the assumption that the person will be hired that a labor contract comes into effect. The notion that a contract doesn't go into force until after a job begins is outrageous, and if that were to be true, the worker's status would be too unstable."

According to multiple Japanese nationals who work at colleges and universities in the United States, it is a given that wage negotiations take place during the hiring process. Candidates that make it to the final stages of the selection process are presented with wages, benefits, and other labor conditions by the hiring institution, and that becomes the start point for negotiations. Those who have pending offers from numerous institutions can use these numbers to extract better packages from their first choice.

As with Miyakawa's case, things are different in Japan. One fortysomething professor at a private university in Japan looks back at how the hiring process at Japanese colleges and universities hindered their job hunt. While doing a postdoc overseas, they had applied for a job at a private university in Japan. Because they were on vacation, they were late in noticing that they had been sent an email advising that they return to Japan within a week for an interview, and any chances of them advancing in the application process ended there. Plus, they would have had to pay for their flight to and from Japan.

"Overseas, usually you can apply for jobs online, and if you want to do a postdoc, you can do interviews via Skype most of the time. For full-time teaching positions, you'll get invited to a seminar lasting some days that doubles as an interview, but all costs are shouldered by the university," they said.

Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology is aware that the practices of Japanese universities are keeping valuable talent away. The ministry is poised to advise and promote internet applications and interviews for researchers who are abroad.

(Japanese original by Momoko Suda, Science & Environment News Department)

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