A plum role, yet few have a clue what a professor is supposed to do

Strong scholarship is needed to acquire the title, but what then? Matthew Reisz writes

July 14, 2011



Credit: Kobal
Finding a solution: Inductions could help new professors settle into their job


The role of the professor has changed from that of the traditional all-rounder engaged in teaching, research and management to a more specialised position in which many are expected to provide forms of "intellectual leadership" for which they are not trained.

Speaking last week at a seminar organised by the Society for Research into Higher Education, Steve Rayner, professor of education at Oxford Brookes University, described moving from a job as a head teacher into higher education.

He soon began to hear about "the professoriate, a shadowy group who meet from time to time and wield untold power. But I never really discovered where they were and what they did.

"Even when I was promoted and started to think, 'Now I'm a professor, what am I supposed to do?' I could find few answers."

While many aspects of professors' lives, not to mention salary scales, remain mysterious, Professor Rayner said that a particularly notable gap was "the subject of the professor as leader".

This argument was developed by Bruce Macfarlane, associate professor for higher education at the University of Hong Kong.

The title of "professor", he argued, was seen "not just as a career grade but as requiring a leadership role. Yet far more has been written about leadership for deans, heads of department and vice-chancellors than for professors."

While it is clear that becoming a professor requires a strong record as a researcher, it is far less obvious what being a professor involves.

Professor Macfarlane said that the role of the classic, all-round professor who combines teaching and research with service as head of department, is being "unbundled".

Instead, the new "default model" is "the research professor" with limited teaching and administrative responsibilities.

There is also evidence of the growth of the "star professor", who is often headhunted by ambitious institutions internationally; the "part-time practice professor" in fields such as medicine, architecture and business; and the "managerial professor", who is no longer research-active and acts mainly as a "senior academic leader".

From another point of view, said Professor Macfarlane, promotion to a professorship marks a transition from individual achievement to a more social role.

Early career academics require the freedom to act as advocates or critics of "ideas, concepts, theories and paradigms". Professors are more constrained by the need to "give something back", whether as mentors, enablers, ambassadors for their institutions or guardians of academic standards.

They also need to move beyond mere knowledge production to intellectual leadership, he suggested.

While some will focus on their duty to society by becoming "academic citizens" or public intellectuals, keen to promote wider understanding of their subject, others cross disciplinary frontiers and forge new connections as "boundary transgressors".

It is the variety of possible paths for today's professors that make the job so challenging, Professor Macfarlane suggested.

He argued that courses specifically designed to "induct professors" could be useful in making clear the expectations of the role, but warned that it was also vital to "resist pressures that define the role too narrowly".

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Assistant Recruitment - Human Resources Office

University Of Nottingham Ningbo China

Outreach Officer

Gsm London

Professorship in Geomatics

Norwegian University Of Science & Technology -ntnu

Professor of European History

Newcastle University

Head of Department

University Of Chichester
See all jobs

Most Commented

men in office with feet on desk. Vintage

Three-quarters of respondents are dissatisfied with the people running their institutions

A face made of numbers looks over a university campus

From personalising tuition to performance management, the use of data is increasingly driving how institutions operate

students use laptops

Researchers say students who use computers score half a grade lower than those who write notes

Canal houses, Amsterdam, Netherlands

All three of England’s for-profit universities owned in Netherlands

As the country succeeds in attracting even more students from overseas, a mixture of demographics, ‘soft power’ concerns and local politics help explain its policy