Ersatz professors should be booed off the stage

Senior managers with no scholarly record who claim academic titles are charlatans who harm the sector, argues David Wilson

March 17, 2016
Eleanor Shakespeare illustration (17 March 2016)
Source: Eleanor Shakespeare

My research into controversy about the welfare of performing animals in the late 19th century has introduced me to “professors” of the music hall, circus and fairground. These include Professor Woodward, trainer of equilibrist sea lions; Professor Lockhart with his “acting pachyderms”; the animal trainer Professor Chard, supporting Poole’s Myriorama picture show at Hengler’s Circus in Hull; and Professor Devereaux (the son of Professor Peterson, “for fifty years a dog trainer”) at Reynolds’ Exhibition of freaks, waxworks and live acts in Liverpool.

These picturesque characters assumed their spurious titles for commercial effect and perhaps also for reasons of vanity (circus proprietors such as “Lord” George Sanger and “Sir” Robert Fossett took similar liberties). But at least they were experts in their fields, and their audiences were not duped: they accepted such flamboyance as a legitimate device.

Contrast this with some of the UK’s present-day “manager-professors”. Their acquisition of the title has also resulted from vanity and is equally spurious, but in their case it is harmful and reprehensible, and the public is indeed deceived.

A professorial title should be an academic one. And since the definition of an academic must be restricted to someone who is or has been active in research and related teaching, professors should have a strong record in publishing exceptionally high-level, peer-reviewed research, in addition to any contingent management responsibilities or “external partnership” work. Yet a strong research record has not been a prerequisite for becoming a professor in the past 25 years in the UK. Universities’ published criteria for professorial appointments have increasingly allowed promotion on management-role grounds, regardless of genuine academic credibility, and I wonder how many modern professors offered nothing to their institutions for consideration in the last research excellence framework.

The manager-professor who does not meet strict academic criteria is a dangerous impostor who threatens the reputation of our higher education institutions among the public. And it is not acceptable that when a new vice-chancellor or principal without a professorship is appointed – hey presto! – one appears from nowhere. The adoption by some UK universities of US-style professorial titles in place of traditional designations such as lecturer and reader only adds to the confusion, but at least many of those newly dubbed assistant or associate professors are proper academics (the phoneys grab only “full” professorships).

The problem has worsened in another way. There have been notorious instances of manager-professors blocking the route to a professorship for more worthy candidates. In one case I know of, a college principal (a “professor” with no record in research, and who had not taught for at least 16 years) refused until his retirement to countenance the idea of professorships or even readerships for his staff; now he enjoys an “emeritus” title. One would have thought that for such senior managers, power and remuneration – not to mention the titillating attractions of bureaucracy itself – would have been enough. But he was also apparently determined to maintain an impression of unique academic status.

In another recent case, for the first three years since its creation from “legacy” institutions, a new university (one already replete with manager-professors) denied any accomplished internal academic staff the opportunity to apply for readerships or professorships – while renewing its “Investor in People” status, whatever that actually means in higher education.

What happened to academic leadership? How can we have “academic” line managers – “professors” or otherwise, but often sporting inappropriate titles such as “dean” – who know little about the subjects for which they have overall responsibility, and who are inactive in research and teaching? These are the people against whom the recurring criticism of bureaucratic burdens should be directed, not professional administrative staff. How many millions of pounds have been wasted on managerial bureaucracy and the staffing of it by “academic leaders”? What has been the cost in the time available to devote to disciplines, research and students? How do real professors and real readers, who have earned their titles by hard graft and genuine, continuing academic achievement, feel about the quacks who have undermined their well-deserved status?

To those aware of these trends, encountering a professorial title today invites immediate suspicion rather than respect. The only recourse now is to ask of a UK professorship: “What was it for and where was it awarded?” “Quality assurance” as a management device has not applied to this area, and it is easy to see why. We have allowed the integrity and special meaning of British academic titles to be destroyed. Our audience has become increasingly misled and confused, and the charlatans deserve to be booed off the stage.

David Wilson is an academic. He lives in Dalston, Cumbria.


Print headline: We are degraded by the managers who don the professorial cloak

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Reader's comments (18)

The same, of course, is true of honorary degrees for those who are not academics, as Oxford rightly asserted in the case of Lady Thatcher. But cronyism is the hallmark of the establishment. Whether the Strand Palace Hotel is wise to hand out unadvertised chairs to politicians I leave to wiser heads than mine. At the medieval university of Bologna students elected the faculty, and the dropout rate was over 50%, but that is now taught as Western Civilisation.
It is about time somebody brought this into the open. It is particularly galling for those such as me chasing the grant that will get them promoted via the "traditional" method.
The best example of this was the self-appointed "professor of karate" - also an expert in alternative medicine - who was given an OBE back in 2014
In my experience this is the norm not the exception. I could name dozens of these fake professors, charlatans who have moved up the food chain in HE who have contributed little or nothing to research or scholarship. They are there because they support the institutional values which now permeate HE i.e. those which are degrading it and turning it into a corporate circus and intellectual free zone. I might add I've tried for years to get THE interested in publishing something substantial on this. It ought to be on the front page and people going to university to study ought to know how many of these fakes there ar in their midst.
Right at the top of the list is Sir Peter Scott, followed by such winning figures as Carol Gartrell, Frank Whately, and the list goes on and on....
Suggested titles: Professors of skiving, of nepotism, or of deceit?
There should be stricter guidelines for who can and cannot become a professor or the title risks losing merit. A 'professor' who does not lead as well as undertake research cannot inspire junior academics and cannot set an example. The spiralling down of institutional standards in the quest for individual career aspirations is the price that may be paid.
It is rumoured that Oxford allows any teaching staff to apply for the title of Professor because otherwise US and Chinese universities may assume that they are not as distinguished as they must be. While it may be that, in the age of Trump, there is little mileage in assuming that US citizens are intelligent enough to make distinctions, and even to study the customs of foreign countries, the remorseless drive to standardize and to rebaptize eveything in the tedious jargon of 3rd rate 1980's HR is not the most glorious feature of UK Higher education. Can someone reveal if being called 'Professor' increases one's REF rating? And what about the bulk buy of failed Tory ministers at King's College London, is that shrewdness in the face of the next funding cut, or more gaming of the REF?
The sentiments posted entirely capture my views on this issue. I would, however, offer my support to r.roberts who appeals to THE to use their significant resources to investigate, and then to publish, something more substantial on the existence of ersatz Professors across the UK's 'HE' sector.
In ‘A plum role, yet few have a clue what a professor is supposed to do’ (Matthew Reisz THE July 14, 2011), it was stated: ‘Strong scholarship is needed to acquire the title’, and ‘It is clear that becoming a professor requires a strong record as a researcher’. Unfortunately, this has not been true in Britain for a long time. Then James Derounian (‘What exactly is a professor these days?’ THE November 13, 2015) reported that he was told: ‘You’ll know a real professor when you see one’. So what are we to do about those who are clearly not ‘real’? And why do surveys of the professoriate continue to focus unrepresentatively on professors as they were rather than as they are? (Of course, a readership is unattractive to managers because it provides no handle to one’s name.) In relation to the ‘me, too and me, only’ problem, a failure to reward eligible academics also saves money, and academic achievement by others may even be resented by some self-conscious ‘academic leaders’ as a status threat. Another problem is the frequent award of professorships and readerships in subjects and activities that many rightly feel are ‘not really academic’; but that deserves separate attention. In this environment of unwarranted academic titles, two areas that have thrived are the weaker forms of ‘educational research’ and the ‘development of teaching and learning’ because of their close relationship to bureaucracy (witness the interminable study of assessment mechanisms): prospects here for ‘academic’ advancement to a ‘full’ professorship in Britain remain good, based often on the flimsiest of published work (perhaps a single textbook about teaching or learning) and as revealed by the disproportionate number of related posts advertised in THE, alongside those for ‘quality’. (In relation to ‘quality’, it is ironic that over the past 25 years or so the frequent reference to evidence of ‘dumbing down’ has been paralleled by the growth of ‘quality assurance’: a self-serving, paradoxical arrangement if ever I saw one.) Many of our professors in Britain today have published little or nothing. Some have even self-published to pitch for their title. This is not acceptable. As others have said, it is indeed time that energetic investigative journalism by THE was directed at this problem; it could also be the basis of a research topic for a PhD student in (real) educational research.
Mowcher wrote 'it is ironic that over the past 25 years or so the frequent reference to evidence of ‘dumbing down’ has been paralleled by the growth of ‘quality assurance’ Indeed ... the past 25 years has also been associated with the growth in the pedagogic 'expert'; represented, in part, by the bloated ranks of non discipline PhD's who (on our own turf for heavens sake!!) are keen to inform us of where we are going wrong and how we can improve. Often they are endorsed/eulogised by those 'academic related' staff (I'm still wrestling with the concept) who seem to be nice people in the main, but often surplus to requirement for any discipline expert. Both cohorts can gravitate to Professor and it's from these positions that they just get in the way of what we, as subject experts, are trying to achieve. The raising of these obstacles is one of the reasons why a THE inquiry is such a long overdue exercise.
Phil O'Keefe, now emeritus at Northumbria University, was promoted to a professorship in the 1990s on the basis of considerable and genuine scholarship. On the podium where his and other awards were announced, he refused to accept his promotion (apparently ripping up the document, if I remember correctly) because so many senior management figures at his university were in receipt of fake professorships and he said the institution was devalued. The news made the dailies, but it is so long ago that I cannot find a trace on the internet. He finally accepted the chair of environmental management much later.
It was at his own inaugural lecture in 1994.
This is refreshing reading. I am happy to see that David Wilson has written what many of us have been thinking about for years: the emperor does not have a single inch of textile on himself! While agreeing in full with the analysis, I would like to add the following three observations, based on many years of teaching and research experience in the British academia. (1) There are significant numbers of managerial professors who are at the grey zone. They usually have a couple of academic publications, which they advertise shamelessly, using all means, including social media. These publications, which would never land anyone on a professorship 25 years ago, are boosted with a combination of publications in non-referred journals and/or journals with no impact factor and/or (in my field at least) a large number of non-academic policy papers. References to "non-academic impact" and other bureaucratic jargon are made promiscuously, especially in the REF context. The move to professorship is usually on managerial or other merits (or no merits at all) while it has a thick veneer of "scientific" output. (2) More devastatingly, the first thing that these "ersatz professors" or "managerial professors" often do after reaching positions of power is to bully academics who happen to have genuine academic and intellectual merits. Unfortunately, I have seen many careers blocked and destroyed during my years at the British academia. (3) Finally, we have to ask what kind of impact the rise of ersatz professors has on the ethics of our profession as a whole. Do they follow ethical guidelines, which has informed the academe for centuries? Do they have, for instance, a sense of conflict of interests? To give just one example, I know off one ersatz professor who has published an article in a moderately ranking refereed journal. However, there was one “ethical detail”. The ersatz professor in question was the line manager of three of the four editors (including the Editor in Chief) of this refereed journal!
The article is spot on. I was on the receiving end of abuse of power of by ersatz professors while working at a British university. I was bullied by several members of staff, particularly by my line manager (HoS). I came in the last REF higher than all of them - and many of them were border line inclusions. My official complaint of bullying was never investigated and, out of short-term options, I was forced to resign. I left academia despite a very strong CV, outstanding teaching evaluations, and no record of any shortcoming in terms of my administrative service. Having been a professor at several universities in two different countries, what I experienced and have heard from others, is that this is unique to the UK and has become the new norm. What will happen to HE with academics-in-name-only running academic institutions? They will accelerate toward the black hole of administratively designed and run, student-pleasing, summer camps that they have been inching towards for the last 10 years.
I insist piano-based Professor Longhair retains our respect!
“If electors vote for a foul-mouthed slut like M Black, it says a lot about them and none of it is good.” Mhairi Black: Derided by Twitter's "History Woman". Mhairi Black: Derided by Twitter’s “History Woman”. That’s what “top female academic” and “Emeritus Professor” Jill Stephenson of Edinburgh University tweeted about SNP candidate Ms Mhairi Black before the general election. Note she was in the event offending the voters of Paisley too. A wee Twitter storm developed, ending up with the good professor herself tweeting that she didn’t “give a flying fuck” and a respondent suggesting that as unionist she supported paedophiles! You might like Martin William’s piece in the Sunday Herald today for more of nasty exchanges. Now, Professor Stephenson has “previous”. In a letter published by the Financial Times on January 13 2014, she wrote of Alex Salmond: “Certainly, he has his admirers, but in large areas of Scottish society he is regarded as a divisive figure who will make any promise and (mis)interpret any set of figures as part of the imperative of winning the prize of ‘independence’. He brushes potential problems off as being of no account, and he claims that the UK and the EU will roll over and give an ‘independent’ Scotland what it wants. He and his deputy specialise in shouting opponents down. Charisma is not an unmitigated good: history shows that it can bring disaster as well as nirvana.” Professor Stephenson’s expertise is Nazi Germany so you can see where’s she’s going with the ‘charisma’ comment. She has written on ‘German Christians in the Thuringian Protestant Church (1927-1945)’ so that must have been useful in looking at Scottish 21st Century politics. What about her, ‘Hitler’s priests, Catholic clergy and National Socialism?’Oh come on, we’ve got Catholic clergy. She’s a professor. They know about all sorts of stuff, don’t they? No, they don’t. I’m a professor of “media politics”. I know a lot about how media, globally, relate to the political power play they inhabit. I’ve done research and published it in peer-reviewed journals. That’s it. When I became a professor only last year, I noticed that more people wanted to interview me, that they were often unduly respectful and that sometimes they would ask me questions beyond my research. It is seductive and I found myself giving opinions (with no evidence) to Russia Today and China TV. Professor Stephenson highlights a real and wider problem, the abuse of the title “professor”. A professor should know a lot about something because they have, through hard graft, found evidence to back up or to discredit popular ideas. In the past, all professors were researchers and knew about research methods. Commonly, they taught research methods and supervised PhD students. These days, the professoriate has grown with the title being awarded to a wide range of apparent worthies. So now, educational managers award each other professorships because they like the sound of it. Also, with the increasing penetration of higher education by businessmen and the commercial arts, we get ‘visiting professors’ who know less of research methods than undergraduates. The man from the BBC (Ian Little or Small? I forget) who reported me to my principal for offending the BBC was a “visiting professor” at Glasgow University. Now, he has a background in PR yet he felt able to say my methods were flawed. Professor Stephenson is an emerita (female of emeritus) professor at Edinburgh University. She’s 71 and retired. Now I’m 64 and near-retired so no ageism here, but at 71 I don’t expect to be at the leading-edge of anything and certainly not of something I didn’t research. She clearly has researched German history but has published nothing at all on Scottish politics and so is less authoritative on that than a researcher currently working on it. Now they’re not all bad, these “sort-of professors”. I’ve met and talked with the highly intelligent and very likeable David Hutchison who’s a Visiting Professor in Media Policy at Glasgow Caledonian University. In a study of Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland show, caught David expressing strongly, views on the likely cost of an independent Scotland buying-in BBC programmes (April 12 2014). He said: “It seems to me that you could do a deal but you would not be paying a licence fee of just under £150. It might be nearer £200 or £250. We’ve just heard about the Irish situation, where 50% of the revenue comes from advertising. Their licence fee is slightly less than the UK licence fee so, if you do the sums, we can have a deaI. I don’t doubt that the BBC would want a deal but it’s gonna cost us a lot more.” Now, David’s guess might be correct but it’s worryingly evidence-free from someone presented as a professor. He should have given us evidence or have been much less certain in his prediction which can only be read as an attempt to influence against the Yes campaign. Visiting Professor David Hutchison Visiting Professor David Hutchison Professor Hutchison’s published output is impressive but I can find no evidence there of research into comparable events anywhere. The same show featured Kevin Backhurst, Director General of the Irish broadcaster RTE and a former controller of BBC news. After telling us that all that RTE take from the BBC is Eastenders, He added: “To be honest, with due respect the BBC’s a pretty marginal player here, so you’d find during peak-time, for example, RTE would be getting around 60% of the share of the total number of viewers and the BBC might be getting five to 10 per cent if they’re lucky, so RTE still holds a very high share of the audience across the day.” Professor Hutchison was asked about this and discounted Ireland as having any lessons for Scotland. I’d agree it’s different but is there a better comparison? I don’t think so. So, dear readers, don’t listen to professors unless you’re sure they really are experts in something. This is especially the case if they don’t refer to an actual study they did, if they’re “visiting” or “emeritus” and if they are also evidently just managers with titles like principal, vice-principal, director or head of whatever.
“That this is happening in the birthplace of the Enlightenment, home to several of the world’s best universities, and in a country famed for commitment to education is, to me, a Scot, a source of shame.” ( – Professor Jim Naismith, Fellow of the Royal Society and Director of the Biomedical Research Complex, University of St Andrews). Professor John Robertson Professor John Robertson Oh no, not another professorial prophet of doom! Jim is unhappy with the Scottish Government’s plans to democratise university courts by including staff, union and student representatives and by making the Chair post elected. He’s been all over the media bemoaning these crazy lefty ideas which will hand control to politicians. The proposals give no role to elected politicians interfering at all. Perhaps it Is really his argumentative PhD student, his competitive senior lecturer and union rep, and the chief science technician,who is always going on about safety concerns that he doesn’t want on University Court? Jim’s a real professor. He’s not like a visiting professor of PR (Small) from the BBC reporting another real professor who found bias in BBC’s coverage of the Referendum to his employers with a view to getting him sacked. He’s not like an emerita professor of German History (Stephenson) calling the lovely Mhairi Black MP, nasty names. He’s not like an honorary professor, former depute chief constable and Labour MSP (Pearson), trying to blame the Scottish Government for any mistake made by the police. I’ve written before about these unreliable experts (When is a Professor an Expert? and Labour Police Report Lacks Clarity , but Professor Naismith is yet another kind – Geeky Science Professor! Science professors research mainly physical sciences and are often very popular with corporations and the arms industries. Professor Naismith does biomedicine. I love biomedicine. I know next to nothing of it but I’ve heard it might be useful in keeping me alive, so keep going Jim please… Here’s one of Jim’s publications: Polymeric chains of SUMO-2 and SUMO-3 are conjugated to protein substrates by SAE1/SAE2 and Ubc9 (Michael H Tatham, Ellis Jaffray, Owen A Vaughan, Joana MP Desterro, Catherine H Botting, James H Naismith, Ronald T Hay in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, 2001). Not having even O-Grade Chemistry, I’ll have to guess but it looks quite easy. It’s about how lower-grade (2 and 3) Sumo wrestlers are abusing drug regulations by licking stamped and addressed envelope (SAE) gum, sizes 1 and 2 to get protein supplements? Like a lot of science research, you’ll see the research teams can be quite big. I can never get anyone to work with me. Is it me? The one in the middle of this picture studied chemistry. The one in the middle of this picture studied chemistry. So, you know to be wary of visiting, honorary and emerita/emeritus professors pontificating on matters they have never researched and exploiting the common public respect for professors of any kind. Now add geeks or science professors thinking they know a lot about society, politics or culture. Remember, Margaret Thatcher did Chemistry. Of course, knowing a lot about chemistry doesn’t stop you knowing a lot about politics. Professor Naismith has a history in political campaigning. See this from the Times Higher Education in September 2014: ‘James Naismith, Bishop Wardlaw professor of chemical biology at the University of St Andrews and a member of the pro-union Academics Together, said he believed that opinion on campus against independence had actually hardened, despite growing support for it elsewhere. “The majority of academics discern that, even under the most optimistic scenarios, independence will harm universities,” he said. Now just because Professor Naismith was part of the Academics Together group surely doesn’t mean he’s going to disagree with anything the SNP do, does it? Well, actually specialising in a science did make academics more likely to vote ‘No’, according to the Times Higher’s research. Science professors tend to be paid more too, and Edinburgh University found that those on higher pay were more likely to vote ‘No’. If you’re paid more and tend to benefit from large grants from the UK government and from global corporations you’re unlikely to vote for changes that will mostly benefit the less well-paid. Is anyone curious about the Bishop Wardlaw Professor of Chemical Biology? Medieval bishops and chemistry seems an unlikely pairing. From Wikipedia: ‘He appears to have been an excellent bishop, although he tried to suppress the teaching of John Wyclif by burning its advocates.’ There’s a curious sentence if ever I saw one. I suppose Bunsen burners, had they been around at the time, would have been excellent firelighters. St Andrews University’s own website credits Bishop Wardlaw thus: ‘the account of the contemporary chronicler Walter Bower tells us that Wardlaw was kind and liberal, slight of build but pleasant in personality.’ I suppose everybody was burning protestant heretics in those days. Don’t judge him by today’s standards eh? So, altogether, a highly paid professor of science, royally recognised and lazily content and with a professorial title associated with a bishop who burned medieval religious protestors at the stake and, later, a church torturing and killing the early fathers of modern science, thinks changes to university regulations are a source of shame? Give the man copies of Professor Tom Devine’s histories of Scotland and take away that bloody microscope!