Posted tagged ‘Professors’

Junior professing

January 20, 2012

So here we go, then. Trinity College Dublin is looking for some junior law lecturers. But that’s not what the College is saying: its announcement suggests they are looking for two ‘Assistant Professors’. Anyone studying the further particulars may get a sense that the successful candidate is likely to be nearer the beginning than the end of their career, but then again, there is no explicit statement in there to point out that these ‘professors’ are different from those that might work in other Irish universities.

Of course all this is a consequence of the College’s decision, mentioned here some time ago, that from now on all its lecturing staff will be ‘professors’ of one kind or another. While there are one or two other universities in these islands (Warwick and Nottingham specifically) that have adopted a similar practice, for now most have not. I confess I have no strong views in the matter one way or another, but believe that such changes should be made system-wide, not by individual institutions. No matter how good those institutions think they are. Bless them.

*****

PS. A colleague commenting on this post on Twitter has drawn attention to something even more baffling. Leeds University is converting senior lecturers and Readers to ‘Associate Professors’, but is not allowing holders of these posts to call themselves by that title, internally or externally:

‘As part of this process existing Senior Lecturers or Readers will be allowed to retain their existing title or can choose to switch to the new title.  Grade 9 staff in research focused roles may be able to transfer to the Associate Professor title where they can demonstrate that they have made a sufficient contribution to learning and teaching and teaching focused staff may be able to transfer to the new title where they can demonstrate a sufficient contribution to research or scholarship.

The Associate Professor title is linked to the role and not an individual title.  Individuals will continue to be addressed as ‘Dr X’ or other appropriate title and would not be expected to present themselves as ‘Associate Professor X’ (or ‘Professor X’) internally or externally.’

So what  on earth is the point of that?

An egalitarian culture, or neglect of achievement?

August 22, 2011

It is sometimes said, with good reason, that universities are amongst the most hierarchical organisations of any in society. It may well be that in the general run of academic discourse, and in recognition of academic freedom, one opinion is as valued as another (though in fact that is arguable); but in terms of personal recognition, status, support, facilities and general terms, universities celebrate status and attach benefits to it in a way that many corporate business organisations have long left behind.

Perhaps the key to all this is the professoriate. In the British and Irish framework of university practice, very few academics make it to professorial status. Those that do are thereby recognised as having made exceptional contributions to the academy, particularly (often exclusively) in scholarly output. It is in fact sometimes claimed that professors, like football strikers, sometimes achieve celebrity status because they are selfish players, scoring off the groundwork laid down by others. Lest anyone assume that this is necessarily my view, I should add immediately that I know many professors who work selflessly in the interests of their colleagues. But I also know there are other cases.

Of course in the American tradition it is different, and all those with tenure tend to be styled professor, even those who are quite junior. This doesn’t mean that it is an egalitarian system, but it provides more status for the academic community as a whole, particularly in its dealings with the outside world. Some universities on this side of the Atlantic have been looking at this model, and the latest to do so is Trinity College Dublin, which decided to change to an ‘all-professor’ framework for academic staff at its board meeting of June 29. A lecturer will now be an ‘Assistant Professor’, a senior lecturer will be an ‘Associate Professor’, an existing Associate Professor will be a ‘Professor’, and existing professors will remain what they are.

What will this change bring about? Will it push other institutions, for reasons of comparability and to ensure that they can compete for staff, take the same decision? Should it in fact have been a sector-wide one? And will the new framework make the system less hierarchical? Will it suggest that scholarly achievement is no longer rewarded as clearly? Or will it all make no difference whatsoever?

Will the ‘selfish intellectual’ inherit the academy?

July 18, 2011

As I have mentioned frequently in this blog, this is an age of insecurity in higher education. Faculty are unsure of where the academy is going and are unsettled by today’s odd mixture of public hostility and public indifference; funding is becoming scarcer while its sources are becoming less clear by the day; and nobody much understands how to reconcile the demands for autonomy with the demands for accountability and transparency. Public commentators on higher education are almost all doomsayers now.

It may seem a little unhelpful then to draw attention to another rather downbeat assessment, but here it is anyway. Professor Bruce Macfarlane of the University of Hong Kong has published a rather interesting article on the status and role of a ‘full professor’. As promotion to this rank depends almost entirely on published output and the generation of research income, Professor Macfarlane suggests that this rank now comes the way of only ‘those who pursue an essentially selfish intellectual agenda’, working furiously on their own credentials to the neglect or detriment of the wider academy or indeed the wider external community. Scholarly teaching, the mentoring of colleagues and the protection of professional standards cease to be compelling activities to the professoriate.

Are these fair comments? Really, I’m not convinced they are.There may be some truth in Professor Macfarlane’s analysis when he says that research outputs and income dominate a professor’s advancement criteria. But if he is suggesting that current trends stand in contrast to some professorial golden age, then I’m not so sure. The full professor of my student days and early lectureship was a very remote figure, not much given to mixing with the junior classes. He – and let’s face it, there weren’t many ‘she’s – tended to speak ex cathedra and didn’t much encourage debate. The kindly nurturing figure of Professor Macfarlane’s professorial story wasn’t one I came across much.

It’s not that I would want to encourage the idea that a careerist and money-obsessed professor would be better; but I don’t think that’s where we’ve got to. In fact, I have been able to observe in several universities how established professors of recent years have engaged with their colleagues and supported their efforts. What is true, I think, of the past as much as the present is that professors have tended to achieve their status because they helped secure the reputation and advancement of both their discipline and of their institution. Doing that today requires slightly different outputs compared with 30 years ago. But I don’t believe that today’s professor is any more ‘selfish’ than yesterday’s.

Academic hierarchy

January 29, 2011

About a year ago I was at a dinner in another Irish university and sat next to a very distinguished senior academic from that institution. The conversation was lively and interesting, and amongst other things we talked about the changing circumstances of academic lives and careers. My friend expressed the view that one of the things that distressed him in the modern university was the erosion of what he called ‘the deep-rooted democracy of the academy’. I had to pause to think about that, and on reflection I told him I couldn’t agree that ‘democracy’ had ever been a real feature of university life; or not, as I suggested somewhat mischievously, unless you took the view that pre-liberation South Africa was a democracy.

My own academic career began in 1980, and my early impressions were of an extraordinarily hierarchical setting. Most departments had one professor, and this professor was God. His (invariably ‘his’) word was the law. Departmental meetings involved discussion, but rarely decisions taken by a majority of those present. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t unhappy, and as it happens my Professor and Head was actually an extremely civilised man whom I owe a lot. But it sure as hell wasn’t a democracy; nor was any other department of which I had any knowledge. In fact, having experienced life as a bank employee a few years earlier, I can say with some emphasis that it was far less hierarchical than life in the academy; which is saying something, as banks were notoriously old-fashioned back then.

I mention this because, in the latest issue of Times Higher Education, there is an article by John Warren, a lecturer in Aberystwyth University, in which he muses nostalgically about an bygone era when fewer people were professors and when this title was reserved for those somewhat older academics who had experienced ‘many years of scholarly endeavour’. The tendency to give the title now to ‘youthful high-flyers’ appears to be something he finds regrettable. I can’t say I agree.

In this blog I have on previous occasions drawn attention to the proliferation of professorial titles, and the decision by some universities to award them to all academics, whatever their precise grade. It still seems to me that, if this were done everywhere and across the board, it would not be such a bad thing. It would help overcome the sense of hierarchy that has been part of university life. It would still be possible to recognise exceptional academic achievement by having different grades of professors (such as Assistant, Associate and so forth), but it might bring to an end the kind of personal deference that was a traditional feature of the academy.

Dear Professor: What kind of a person are you anyway?

October 1, 2010

The American magazine US News and World Report, which compiles the best known university league table in the United States, publishes something called the Professors’ Guide. Most recently this has a piece entitled ’18 Etiquette Tips for E-mailing Your Professor’. What interests me about this is not the advice the authors dispense, but rather what kind of person they think an American university professor is, based on the nature of that advice.

So for example, our professor appears to be a very formal kind of man or woman. They should be addressed with their title and surname, and the email should end with a ‘relatively formal but friendly closing’. The email should only ever come from a respectable domain name.

Our professor has had a humour bypass, and will not appreciate any kind of informality, jokey tone or even a nickname for the sender. Emoticons and smileys are absolutely out, the prof hates them.

The professor isn’t particularly over-worked and won’t appreciate something complex in the email that might require a bit of thinking. Remember, ‘your prof might get 25 or 30 E-mails a day’. God be with the days when I got as few as that…

The professor really doesn’t want to know anything about anyone else. He or she hits the roof if a student tells them their life story or beliefes and views in an email.

Some of the advice dispensed in the piece is sensible enough: make the email look reasonably good, proof read it, keep it to the point. But I hope that the professors in receipt of these notes or questions from students are less pompous, intolerant, unhelpful and work-shy than the authors of this piece seem to suggest. And I hope that students reading such advice are not driven to the conclusion that really they shouldn’t think of their professor as someone who can empathise with them and show kindness and tolerance.

Over the past few years I have, as a university president, received hundreds or more emails from students. Many of these did not abide by the rules suggested here. But often these emails gave me some insight into what students felt or what kind of reassurance or help they needed; or what was good and bad about their experience of the university. So in the end I would much rather suggest that a students should be themselves, perhaps remembering that the partnership between students and teachers should be one of mutual consideration and respect. But they needn’t worry too much about exactly how they have expressed themselves.

Professors everywhere!

May 26, 2010

Those who have been reading this blog for a while and and who are still persevering may recall that, just over a year ago, we discussed the question of whether the title ‘professor’ should be reserved for very senior academics with a world class research record only, or whether it should be the title given to all academics. In the American system, for example, pretty well all academics are ‘professors’, but the more junior ones are ‘assistant’ or ‘associate’ professors.

However, in Australia this appears to have been taken even further. According to a recent report, some Australian universities are now conferring the title of professor on senior university administrators. One university representative is quoted as saying that the title is being given to senior university officers ‘to denote management seniority and authority’. As readers of this blog know, I do have considerable respect for university administrators, who often have a very thankless job and who get very little recognition. But the whole point of the title of professor is to recognise scholarly achievement.

On the other hand, perhaps I’m wrong. In fact, maybe we need to go further. As we continue to cut resources for higher education and thus call into question quality and standards – and so the idea of the knowledge society – perhaps we can overcome the visible effects simply by giving everyone in the country the rank of professor. It would show a pleasing level of national status consciousness and erudition, and would allow us at the same time to increase civility and courteousness as people get used to addressing each other in this way. And the ultimate penalty for wrongdoing could be the withdrawal of the title, which would be much more effective than a prison sentence. I think this idea has great potential.

The life of a Professor

April 11, 2009

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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