From where I sit: Professor Dolittle's tyranny

April 8, 2010

I recently came across an astounding German book, Professor Untat (2007), by Uwe Kamenz, a professor at the Dortmund University of Applied Sciences and Arts, and Martin Werle, a management consultant and journalist.

The title is a pun on Heinrich Mann's 1904 classic Professor Unrat: "Professor Dolittle" would be a good English equivalent.

The book highlights, in no uncertain terms, the indolence and often appalling abuses of the university system by German professors in many fields.

The authors point out that professors have an extreme form of tenure, so that for them, unemployment simply does not exist. There are also no real controls within the system, so they are left very much to their own devices.

The result, the authors argue, is that only a third of the large body of German professors work hard and with integrity, while about a fifth abuse the system to the limit.

This has led to allegations in the German press that professors "can do nothing for 30 years" and get away with it.

In summary, the Dolittles get their doctoral students to do a large proportion of their teaching and administration, and most or even all of their research, while still passing themselves off as the authors. In short, they treat their poor senior students like slaves.

These beleaguered doctoral students work incredibly long hours on all manner of activities and projects. They often have little time during the week to work on their own doctorates, and receive little in the way of supervision.

All of this is possible because professors in German academia are in a position of total power over their doctoral students - and because the latter desperately want to earn their degrees.

Some of the activities described in Professor Untat take some beating. On the teaching front, professors block their courses so that they need to be on campus only two or three days a week - during semesters, that is.

Furthermore, "lectures" often comprise little more than PowerPoint presentations prepared by doctoral students. In such cases, the latter inevitably are more in command of the material than the academics who present it.

In the worst cases, sabbaticals are used either for extended holidays or to engage in lucrative consultancy work.

The result of all this is a low level of academic productivity and effectiveness.

After all, mature professors, who could and should be using their skills, experience and sophistication to extend the frontiers of knowledge, merely "delegate" this task to inexperienced and overworked doctoral candidates.

Yet, despite the book having sold well, the subject remains taboo in Germany, and the authorities in various forms and forums have so far refused to confront the issue.

It must be stressed that not all professors should be tarred with the same brush, and such sharp practices are not unique to Germany, either.

But there are, beyond doubt, far too many Professor Dolittles in the country.

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