Titles given for 'wrong reasons'

October 29, 2004

Anna Fazackerley reports on fears over the changing role of the professor.

The coveted title of professor is being devalued as universities compete to woo the best new research staff, a conference heard this week.

Two leading academics - winners of an essay competition on the changing role of the professor - warned that the honour was increasingly given to candidates for the wrong reasons.

The concerns were discussed among members of the National Conference of University Professors at a meeting this week.

Michael Hyland, professor of health psychology at Plymouth University, who was awarded third prize for his essay, argued that new universities often used the offer of a title to lure good researchers away from more traditional universities, regardless of whether they deserved the title.

He told The Times Higher before the meeting: "To be perfectly honest, universities seem to be recruiting people to be professors who in the old days wouldn't have got the job. What's happening is a sort of grade inflation."

In his essay, he points out that academics used to have about 50 published journal articles under their belt before they were promoted to professor level, but today appointments are made to researchers with fewer than half that number.

Professor Hyland blamed this dumbing down on the scramble in universities to recruit new blood to improve research ratings in the RAE, scheduled for 2008 He urged universities to think beyond research performance and appoint professors who also lead in teaching and inspire students and junior colleagues.

"Professors can be good researchers but dead from the cortex down," he said. "If the title accords respect, perhaps they should deserve that title as people rather than just for research."

Susan Bassnett, professor at the Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies at Warwick University, was awarded second prize for an essay arguing that professors are often more interested in securing the prestigious title than in performing the duties associated with the role.

In particular, she criticises the practice of wooing academics from competitor universities with research-only professorships, leaving embittered junior colleagues to do all the teaching and "donkey work".

She described negative perceptions of professors voiced at a workshop for young, short-term contract staff: "Idle, unwilling to support younger colleagues, content to let the burden of undergraduate teaching fall on other shoulders, distant, authoritarian."

She added that the new so-called research professors are the "most despised" of all.

Bur Professor Bassnett argued that it was not always a person's research record that dictated poor recruitment decisions at this level.

She said that in many cases academics were promoted to professor simply because they were good at being in charge.

She recalled: "I have sat on appointing boards in institutions where it has been made clear that Dr X, whose management skills are considerably better than his scholarship, will not accept the post without a professorial title."

Professor Bassnett told The Times Higher that professors must make an effort to surface from their own research and use their power to influence events within the university - and, more important, to resist bad management decisions.

"This is a time of rapid change in higher education and not all the changes have been thought through with sufficient care," she writes in her essay.

Like Professor Hyland she also told the conference that professors must work harder to nurture colleagues and act as role models.

She said: "Sooner or later you will retire or fall under a bus and if you haven't left a legacy, you will be forgotten in a fortnight."


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