Leader: Professor: more than just a title

October 29, 2004

What's in a name? Quite a lot in higher education, as regular spats over university titles have demonstrated down the years. And in a walk of life where prestige often has to compensate for better remuneration, the professorial title is just as sensitive for individuals. It is no surprise then that the Conference of University Professors should guard the title jealously, or that it should feel it is easier to come by than it once was. The number of professorships is growing all the time, and some are obviously being awarded as an aid to recruitment or retention, rather than as a reflection of academic merit alone.

This is hardly a new phenomenon - rows over the use of the professorial titles by vice-chancellors who no longer held a chair were taking place 30 years ago. But, like other forms of grade inflation, the trend has accelerated in recent years. As usual, the research assessment exercise is getting the blame, but in reality more general market forces are at work.

Cash-strapped universities (and more prosperous ones) have had to acknowledge that a professorship is not only an offer they can afford to make but one that they may have to make if an up-and-coming academic is not to go elsewhere.

Other occupations (including journalism) have seen the same phenomenon, although the title in question seldom carries the same kudos as professor.

So is the professorial glut an example of dumbing down that should concern other academics, or should it be accepted as a fact of life that has little impact on teaching or research? After all, other countries, including the US, have always distributed the title more liberally, without apparent damage to their universities.

More serious than the issues surrounding the title itself is the CUP's concern that professorships are being used as a means of escaping the duties that other academics take for granted. Research professors, in particular, are said to be a source of resentment among colleagues whose workload rises with every appointment. The conference is right to worry that such practices are getting its members a bad name at a time when they need the help and support of more junior members of staff. There may be no turning back the clock to an era when a professorship represented the culmination of a career, rather than a step on a more prosaic ladder, but universities must ensure that the old values of collegiality do not go the same way.

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