The life of a Professor

Exactly 19 years ago this month, at the age of 35, I was appointed to the post of Professor of Law at the University of Hull, England. At the time I believe I was the youngest professor of law in the United Kingdom. It probably won’t be very far into the future before anyone appointed to a professorship in a UK university at the age of 35 would be seen as rather old; in fact, it is likely that there will be academics calling themselves ‘Professor’ in their mid-20s very soon.

The reason for this is that, for the past little while, some British universities have considered calling all permanent academics ‘Professor’. The first university to go down this road was the University of Warwick: since 2007 the entry-level permanent academic appointment there is ‘Assistant Professor’, from which you can be promoted to ‘Associate Professor’ and then ‘Professor’. And over recent months Oxford University has been contemplating something similar; and if that happens, there will probably be a stampede as all British universities adopt this model.

The academic profession is perhaps the most hierarchical and status conscious of any. The rank of professor has long been seen as the ultimate accolade, and as such one that is granted to only very few academics. It is possible that lecturers have been looking enviously at American higher education (where the Warwick framework has been the norm for a long time), or perhaps some continental European systems.

So what are we to make of this possible British trend, and should it catch on in Ireland? On the whole, I don’t have a big problem with it. For many in the general public, the term ‘professor’ is a generic one describing someone working as an academic in a university; so why not let reality follow suit? Also, allowing everyone to be a professor may help to soften up the excessively hierarchical system a little. We would still have a framework to reward excellence – a full professor would be in the same group as exists now – but the rank would be less visible. But if it happened, it should happen in all universities at once;, to avoid the appearance or reality of discrimination between institutions.

Maybe I’ll start taking soundings.

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6 Comments on “The life of a Professor”

  1. Jilly Says:

    Nah. I see no reason to change the system of professional titles we have now.

    As an aside, a friend of mine in a university in the UK has a much older colleague who has never been promoted to the rank of professor, and never will be, because he’s not good enough. But his colleagues noticed a few months ago that a guest talk he was giving in another university was flagged as being by ‘Professor X’. When asked about this, he airily explained that when visiting other universities, he preferred to use his ‘American title’. So, if we all get to invent our own titles now, I think I’ll be Archbishop…

  2. Mark Dowling Says:

    “Also, allowing everyone to be a professor may help to soften up the excessively hierarchical system a little.”

    Everyone gets a prize for competing. This will be a comfort to those students who previously thought that a specific QCA/GPA was required for graduation, and now we can entertain the concept of “time served”.

    More seriously, the title of Professor allowed a designation of distinction for those academics who excelled and contributed significantly to their discipline without choosing the bureaucratic-political track of Dean/Head of Department. Certainly I would think no designation of Professor should be awarded to anyone lacking a doctorate.

  3. Donal_C Says:

    I’m not sure whether the American system is less hierarchical than the dominant systems in the UK, Ireland, and continental Europe.
    Assistant professors in the US almost always have to have PhDs. Further, earning a PhD in the US system often requires considerably more work than in Europe. From here, the road to associate professorship is rocky. At the leading universities typically the vast majority of assistant professors do not make it to associate professorship. The tenure approval system is rigorous.
    The advantage of the US system then is not the lack of hierarchy, but the clarity. When I see a title in the US (affiliate, assistant, associate, full professor), I have a rough idea of the person’s accomplishments and standing. The systems in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe seem much more confusing to me. Maybe that’s just my lack of familiarity.

  4. cormac Says:

    One big snag to this proposal. I think the elite rank of Professor (or equivalent), awarded to those truly active/successful in research acts as a serious incentive for outstanding work – peer recognition is important!
    Once you remove this sort of academic carrot, it may be very difficult to keep researchers motivated i.e.there is a danger that tenured staff who choose not to go the administrative route may feel their work is undervalued, and reduce research.
    Did you know professorships are being introduced to both DIT and WIT? I have mixed feelings on this. If it is done right and it goes to the tiny number “who would be Professors in a university”, fine. If it is done badly, every IoT will have Professors in months and it will become a farcical title.

    • Good points, Cormac. On the whole however we should be able to recognise really excellent academic achievements (particularly research) through a distinction between Associate Professors and (full) Professors, as is the case in the United States. The advantage would still be that nobody has a different title by which they are addressed.
      I didn’t know about the moves at WIT and DIT. As you say, it will depend on how it is handled. If the holder of the professorship could have achieved that in any university, then there isn’t a problem.

  5. cormac Says:

    As a matter of fact I and other researchers suggested the title of Associate Professor would be more appropriate for the IoT sector – unfortunately we got voted down.
    Another example is the Reid Professorship in Law at Trinity – as you know, this Professorship is aimed at outstanding young academics in law who may also be seeking to establish themselves at the bar. Thus it is slightly different to a physics professorship (typically aimed at very senior staff with several well-regarded books and hundreds of paperss). This is no reflection on the excellent Reid professors, but a good example of a title that is slightly misleading…

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