Professors look in the mirror - not all like what they see

Jack Grove reports from the SRHE annual conference on efforts to clarify an ‘unclearly defined’ role

December 20, 2012

Source: Science Photo Library

Self-reflection: more than half of pre-1992 professors agree that they ‘are not interested in leadership’


More than a third of professors believe that attaining professorial status is a matter of politics and acquiring large grants rather than academic excellence, a study suggests.

The research led by Linda Evans, professor of leadership and professional learning at the University of Leeds, analysed just over 1,000 responses from professors at UK universities.

It asked them to agree or disagree with some of the more critical statements made about professors by junior staff in a study published in November 2011.

Thirty-three per cent of the 876 professors based at pre-1992 universities who responded to the survey agree to some extent that achieving a professorial chair is down to “politics and financial power (ie, getting large grants) rather than scientific excellence (ie, lots of papers)”. Four per cent definitely agree.

Among the 142 professors polled at post-1992 institutions, 36 per cent agree to some extent with the statement and 4 per cent definitely agree.

Almost half of the pre-1992 respondents disagree either definitely or to some extent with the statement, a figure that falls to 39 per cent at the post-1992s.

Professor Evans co-authored the study, “Professorial academic leadership in turbulent times: the professoriate’s perspective”, with Justine Mercer, associate professor at the University of Warwick’s Institute of Education, and Matt Homer, research fellow at Leeds.

Professors Evans and Mercer presented the preliminary findings of the paper at the Society for Research into Higher Education’s annual conference, held at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, South Wales, on 12-14 December.

The survey shows that many professors take a dim view of the management aspects of the role.

More than half of the pre-1992 professors agree that they “are promoted on the basis of their research and are not interested in leadership” (8 per cent strongly, 44 per cent to some extent).

Twenty per cent agree to some degree that professors should not be required to lead, except through professional example - a figure that rises to 26 per cent among their post-1992 peers. However, 67 per cent of the pre-1992 professors disagree with the statement, as do 63 per cent of the post-1992 respondents.

Professor Evans told the event - for which Times Higher Education was media partner - that the study raised questions about the role of professors which remained unclear both to those with the title and to their more junior colleagues.

“The role, like the term, is unclearly defined: not only is there diversity on a global level about what is understood by the terms ‘professor’ and ‘professorial’ but even within the UK…there are differences - between institutions, disciplines and individuals - in expectations of what a professor should do,” she told the conference.

Poor grade from lower grades

The study is informed by “Leading professors: examining the perspectives of ‘the led’ in relation to professorial leadership”, a paper on the perceptions of professors held by other academic staff, published in November 2011. In it, many scholars criticised professors’ departmental contributions.

Of the 1,200 academic staff from lower grades who responded to a survey commissioned by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education as part of the paper, 53 per cent said they did not receive sufficient help or advice from professorial staff. Only 14 per cent said they received enough support.

Asked if they had received excellent leadership or mentoring from professors in their university, 26 per cent said “never” and 36 per cent said “occasionally”. This compared with 9 and 19 per cent of respondents who replied “very often” and “quite often”, respectively.

In the latest study, professors are asked if their professorial colleagues are selfish and show little interest in their peers’ work unless it helps their own agenda. Twenty-four per cent of the pre-1992 respondents agree to some extent with the question, 2 per cent definitely agree but more than half disagree.

Asked if most professors are a “waste of space…[who] use their positions to avoid the general run of academic work - lecturing, tutoring, etc”, 7 per cent among the pre-1992s agree to some extent and 1 per cent definitely agree, while 65 per cent definitely disagree.

jack.grove@tsleducation.com.

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