Professing integrity

November 19, 1999

A chair is a site of academic auth-ority, not a reward for committee work, says David Robertson

Woeful events at my university recently ended with the public humiliation of a long-serving colleague.

A frank admission that publications leading to the professorial conferment of Derek Gadsdon in 1994 were false was enough for the university to revoke the title, prompting his resignation last week. University management claims to have "acted decisively" - decisively slamming stable doors perhaps. Now questions are being asked.

What happened, for example, to the refereeing and external scrutiny normally observed in conferments of this kind? If adequate procedures had been in place at the time, or less carelessly applied, our colleague would have been censured of course, but probably would have retained his job. And the university would have escaped public embarrassment.

The incident also sheds light on another aspect of the awarding of this most coveted title, particularly in the post-1992 universities. Did our colleague really need to cheat? After all, a sizeable number of professorships have been conferred by the new universities, particularly on senior administrators with very limited publication records. Some have become professors with no research or publication worthy of the name. At least this candidate had published something and was trying to meet more exalted criteria.

The emergence of the ex officio professor has been defended as a harmless conceit, or as a compensation for differences in mission and history between the pre-1992 and post-1992 universities. But I believe something fundamental is lost to the integrity of the title, and to university authority itself, if we dilute the criteria for its award.

A chair is a site of trusted academic authority; it cannot be earned by committee work or via management action. Professors profess - that is, they make knowledge claims. Those claims must be well-founded, justified and placed for interrogation in the public domain. Hence research and publication are pre-conditions of the authoritative qualities that define a capacity to profess.

Professors must also demonstrate a respect for the scholarly process, based on sharing knowledge, care in acknowledging the work of others and critical independence. In short, professors must be trusted by their peer community.

Above all, professors must be steadfast in their defence of academic freedom. This is not optional. The professoriate acts as the guardian of the ethical core of the university. An ethically united professoriate protects society's capacity to call down reliable knowledge for the common good.

For this reason, a chair is usually seen as the property of the academic community, not as an object of management patronage. Therefore, where a university is casual in the award of chairs, reducing conferments to little more than an executive perk or a marketing exercise, it diminishes the authority invested in the title and creates an enfeebled, dumbed down professoriate.

Weak professoriates find themselves split between the research, sterile members of the permanent bureaucracy and an attenuated research community. Because only the latter are bound to the core values of scholarship, weak professoriates are always poorly placed to repair the consequences of management negligence and may be ill-equipped to defend academic freedom when it is needed. This in turn damages a university.

What must be done? First, the new universities might do well to follow the older sector and insist that the title is conferred only on those who can demonstrate a sound record of publication, delegitimising "administrative" professors in the process. Some do so already and a few vice-chancellors have stood aside from the personal title for this reason. Research assessment exercise participation could be the minimum benchmark.

Second, external peer assessment should always be used to ensure the integrity of the appointments. Conferment of a chair is never a place for executive patronage, no matter what rivalries intrude from time to time.

Finally, those of us fortunate to enjoy the honour the title bestows would do well to remember the countless colleagues in other universities, many great scholars past and present, who have not been similarly honoured. If the title is worth preserving, it should be as a mark of respect to those who struggle to uphold the same principles that are given to the professoriate everywhere to protect.

David Robertson is professor of

public policy and education at Liverpool John Moores University.

Are some new universities too profligate with their professorships?

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