Leader: Absence-minded, ill defined

For all the confusion surrounding the role of professors, one thing's certain: junior staff expect them to do a lot more to help

November 17, 2011

"Personal glory seekers" and "backstabbing assholes who take credit for other people's work" may not be conventional definitions of professors, but they are two of the most colourful (and honest) responses to a survey commissioned by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education to discover what the rank and file think of professorial academic leadership.

It seems that more than half of junior staff are disappointed, complaining that they do not receive enough help and advice from their eminent colleagues. Professors, one respondent says, should exemplify "the pinnacle of what academics aspire to" and be able "to inspire and encourage others". That's a high pedestal to put them on.

But isn't it enough to be a leader in one's field, to research and to teach and to publish? Should professors be expected to guide those below them in the career structure as well as offering more general intellectual leadership?

What it means to be a professor - and more importantly what others think it means - is magnificently opaque. There's plenty of advice on how to get there, but little once you've reached your destination. There's no global job description, no template, no handbook, only the example of those who have gone before. There is no consensus: definitions vary by country, institution and mission, and it is unclear whether professors are there to improve research or teaching.

"One has to pick up a great deal on the fly," says Dame Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge, in her blog. Trying to explain what professors do is an impossible task, she adds: it's diverse, rewarding and "some days odder than others". But perhaps the most vital requirement, she argues, is the ability to multitask and to have the confidence to "face up to whatever and whoever comes your way".

The expectations are great. Some 87 per cent of respondents to the Leadership Foundation survey want professors to have better publication records than their junior colleagues and 82 per cent want them to be excellent teachers - a tall order when research and teaching require contrasting personality traits. And when most academics are promoted to professor because of their research, is it even fair to demand that they be great leaders too?

What is the role of institutions in all this? Too often they incentivise professors to generate income rather than encouraging them to mentor junior staff, who are unimpressed by funding records and want to see scholarship, intellectualism and, above all, helping hands.

The professor shouldn't be seen as a "knowledge entrepreneur", says Bruce Macfarlane, associate professor for higher education at the University of Hong Kong and author of our cover story: the role should be about "balancing the privileges of academic freedom with the responsibilities of academic duty". If that duty is to those waiting in the wings, then for many it is not being discharged well.

As it becomes harder for young scholars to progress, it is not surprising if they feel resentful towards an older generation seemingly rewarded for less effort. It is true that for many scholars, winning a chair represents an escape from non-research activity - and often from being at work at all. Perhaps that's why one respondent suggests that the collective noun for professors should be "an absence".


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