Faces of 2022: who shaped higher education headlines this year

Times Higher Education journalists name the academics and administrators at the heart of the sector’s biggest debates over the past 12 months

December 19, 2022
Montage of the faces of 2022

Fedir Shandor

Within the first few months of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, it is believed that almost 1,000 academics signed up to fight and protect their homeland.

Many of them, including Fedir Shandor, a professor of tourism and hospitality at Uzhhorod National University, joined the war effort on 24 February – the very day Vladimir Putin started his attack.

But having worked at the university for almost 30 years, Professor Shandor was not going to let his new role stand in the way of his teaching commitments.

He has been continuing to conduct his classes online, from the front line, with an image of him working remotely from the trenches used by media outlets around the world.

Professor Shandor, who is also an author and head of the Transcarpathian Regional Tourism Organisation, represents the resilience of all the academics in Ukraine who have faced an unimaginably difficult year.

Patrick Jack

Professor Fedir Shandor, giving a lecture to students whilst fighting for Ukraine
Defence of Ukraine

Claudine Gay

The battle for universities to be more representative of the communities that they serve is long and arduous – with the highest ranks of the most elite institutions often particularly slow to change.

The year ended with a powerful statement, however, when Harvard University appointed its first black president.

Claudine Gay, the daughter of Haitian immigrants and currently dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, will also become the second woman to lead the US’ oldest university.

In 2022, for the first time more than one-fifth of the institutions in the top 200 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings were led by women.

But race remains a major dividing line within academia, and Professor Gay steps into the Harvard presidency as the conservative-dominated US Supreme Court prepares to rule on affirmative action at the institution, in a case that could end US universities’ ability to consider race as a factor in admissions decisions.

Pola Lem


Jan Slapeta

Nothing captured the contradictions of 2022 better than Jan Slapeta’s tweeted photograph of an empty lecture hall. The molecular parasitologist had arrived for the 9am class keen to meet a new cohort of students, in a University of Sydney campus only recently liberated from coronavirus lockdown. He was eager for human contact and assumed that his students would feel likewise.

Students grieved for personal connection during the darkest days of the pandemic. But faced with an expensive, time-consuming Monday-morning commute after a late night with friends, the convenience of online can trump the conviviality of face-to-face interactions.

Professor Slapeta’s musings about deserted lecture theatres – it happened again four months later – sparked thoughtful debate about the pros and cons of virtual delivery. The academy must come to grips with new learning technologies: the benefits they bring; the challenges they overcome. Equally, universities must not lose the magic of traditional delivery.

John Ross

Jan Slapeta

Jo Grady

Cost-of-living concerns spiralled in 2022, leading to a summer and then a winter of discontent as workers went on strike in pursuit of a pay rise in line with rapidly increasing inflation. Australian, US and Canadian universities were all affected, with unrest spreading across the world. In the UK, no stranger to industrial strife in recent years, Jo Grady, the general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), was never far from the action.

Beginning the year presiding over small-scale strikes with limited impact, Dr Grady faced a motion of censure at her own union’s congress as cuts to pensions were implemented and employers offered a pay rise of only 3 per cent while the UCU appeared powerless.

But just a few months later, the union’s leader led members out on the first sector-wide strike in recent years after a successful mass mobilisation campaign. There are now hopes that the stand-off may finally be resolved in the new year.

Tom Williams

30th November 2022. UCU general secretary Jo Grady gives a speech. Thousands of people gathered outside King's Cross Station for a rally in support of university strikes.

Daniel Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Wright Austin

With Donald Trump out of office, the leading face of partisan interference in US higher education is almost certainly another Florida-based politician, Governor Ron DeSantis.

In one of his now-signature moves, Mr DeSantis pressured the University of Florida to forbid three faculty members from offering their expert courtroom testimony in a legal challenge to the state’s position in a voting rights case.

Rather than walk away, the three political science professors – Daniel Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Wright Austin – sued, fighting the suggestion that they could not argue against what could be seen as the university’s political interests.

The trio won, forcing the state and the university to backtrack, in what a federal judge dramatically compared to a human rights violation in communist China. That opened a year in which Mr DeSantis kept up his political theatre but was substantially restrained in his rhetorical promises to stop university scholars from freely pursuing research, teaching and community activism.

Paul Basken


David Sweeney

The biggest and most important day in UK academia took place on 12 May this year, when the results of the 2021 Research Excellence Framework were finally announced, almost a year late because of the pandemic.

At stake were the reputations of university departments and their academics, and, more importantly, some £2 billion in annual research funding (a 4* impact case study was worth about £333,000 to a university over a seven-year period). Those departments that excelled can expect a degree of protection – even some new hires – in coming years, while trouble could loom for those seen to underperform.

Overseeing the enormous operation was David Sweeney in his final months as Research England’s executive chair, having led the 2014 REF, when he successfully pushed for research impact to become a major part of assessments. That methodological tweak has arguably changed what types of research are carried out, and rewarded, at UK universities more than any other innovation in recent times, and ensured that generous quality-related research funds – to be spent at institutions’ discretion – continue to flow, his supporters claim.

Jack Grove

David Sweeney
Research England

Chuck Christian and Jonathan Vaughn

In one of the largest examples of a horrific trend in US higher education, the University of Michigan this year agreed to a $490 million (£400 million) settlement with more than 1,000 victims of a sports doctor who sexually abused them during routine medical examinations over his four-decade career at the university.

The campaign for justice required huge sacrifices and imposed major costs on many, and Chuck Christian and Jonathan Vaughn, two former members of Michigan’s illustrious American football team, paid especially dearly.

Both were victims of the abusive doctor, and both have now been diagnosed with cancers – at least one case terminal – related to a fear of seeing doctors that stemmed from their experiences. Despite this, the two men spent months camped outside the university president’s house, making sure the case did not fall out of public attention while the victims’ group waged their years-long campaign for some measure of accountability.

Paul Basken

Chuck Christian (L) and former University of Michigan football player Jonathon Vaughn, who says he was sexually assaulted by former UM sports doctor Robert Anderson, take part in a vigil outside the home of outgoing University of Michigan President Mark S

Maria Toft

Stories of stolen work and exploitation will be grimly familiar to many early career academics, but a Twitter campaign by Maria Toft, a PhD fellow in the University of Copenhagen, seemed to resonate more broadly.

Her collection of more than 100 anonymised accounts of unfair authorship requests, plagiarism by supervisors and stolen first author credits sparked a national debate in Denmark, focused on the #pleasedontstealmywork hashtag.

Her campaign won the support of some of the country’s most eminent scholars, who have called for a major reshaping of Danish research management.

By focusing attention on systemic causes, rather than the moral failings of senior colleagues, she built a broader movement of academics struggling against the pressure to publish, overly hierarchical governance and funding structures that critics say encourage research theft.

Ben Upton

Michael Eisen

For many life scientists, eLife is more than just a well-regarded journal. Established in 2012, it was perhaps the only credible alternative to the “big three” of Cell, Nature and Science – the highly selective but costly publications where scientists want to showcase their best work. Papers published in eLife led to faculty appointments or independent laboratories. In short, they mattered.

So the decision by the prestigious open access title, announced in October, to end accept or reject decisions and, from the end of January, to publish every paper it reviews as a “reviewed preprint” (work will instead be graded as “important”, “solid” or “inadequate”) caused shock waves.

Michael Eisen, eLife’s editor-in-chief, said the change would focus reviewers’ attention on the content of research rather than a yes-no decision and would encourage the “evaluation of scientists based on what, rather than where, they publish”.

His detractors, however, argue that removing the invaluable filtering of research is a mistake and threatens eLife’s very future as its reputation for selectivity is purposefully canned.

Jack Grove

Michael Eisen

ARC Tracker

Recent years have been hard for Australian researchers. The Covid chill on financially vital international enrolments was exacerbated by turmoil at the Australian Research Council (ARC). Its ban on mentions of preprint publications saw many worthy funding applications spiked. Others fell foul of a “national interest test” widely considered unnecessary. Some applicants survived peer review only to have grants snatched away because of political intervention. Successful and unsuccessful applicants alike endured sometimes seriously detrimental delays as government operatives awaited politically opportune moments to announce funding decisions.

Into this information vacuum stepped Twitter user ARC Tracker, whose bot scoured data from official sources, social media and fellow researchers to provide as much intelligence as possible about funding machinations. ARC Tracker’s increasingly activist stance marshalled a groundswell that saw the preprint ban overturned, grant vetoes challenged, funding time frames tightened and the national interest test overhauled.

While ARC Tracker’s identity remains a mystery to most, the research community’s esteem and gratitude is almost universal.

John Ross


Print headline: The people who shaped the headlines in higher education

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