UK: Role of professors mired in confusion

An online survey of full professors has revealed that they see their role very differently from the universities that employ them. The 200-strong survey, conducted as part of a project for the UK Leadership Foundation, reveals significant 'expectation gaps' with respect to the importance of income generation, mentoring and the leadership of teaching.

Professors regard income generation as their least important role but acknowledge that their own institutions see this task as one of their top priorities. Just 50% of professors rated income generation as either important or very important to them personally. But, when asked how universities regard this part of their role, the figure became 82%. As one respondent commented, "My university seems obsessed by external income generation rather than the quality of outputs from researchers like me."

While professors regard helping other colleagues to develop as their most important task, this was ranked only fourth as an institutional expectation. A similar disparity was apparent with regard to the leadership of teaching, demonstrating that professors feel this role is undervalued by universities.

Roles that related mainly to contributions professors make within their universities, including 'representing the department' and 'leadership of teaching', were less highly ranked as institutional expectations.

As the author of the survey, my own view is that universities tend to see professors as research-oriented cosmopolitans rather than committed locals. As a result, many professors feel under-valued and excluded from the leadership of the university. From an organisational perspective, this is a short-sighted waste of a valuable resource.
Feedback from the survey confirms that professors feel their universities make insufficient use of their expertise. More than half said their expertise was used either 'a little' or 'not at all'.

Fewer than two in five respondents indicated that they played any role advising senior managers, with use of their expertise more typically confined to serving on university committees. One professor commented that "middle-level administrators seem more worried about possible 'competition' than making full use of professorial expertise and contacts within and beyond the university".

Opinions in the survey were divided regarding the role of professors as managers. Some see their role as research-focused intellectual leaders with minimal responsibilities as managers. According to this view, professors are often poorly equipped to be leaders anyway as their acquisition of the title resulted from the sometimes selfish pursuit of individual research and publication objectives.

But others take a very different position arguing that leadership, at least at the departmental level, should be the preserve of the professor. Here, there is a widely held belief that professors are able to command the respect of colleagues on the basis of their 'academic credibility' compared with career managers without a similar level of scholarly achievements.

The lack of clarity about the role of a professor is partly a symptom of the way that appointment criteria at professorial title have broadened in recent years. Universities now make appointments at full professorial level for reasons other than research excellence.

This can include significant achievement in practice-based professions, entrepreneurship, excellence in teaching, and service to the institution. The more diverse criteria have resulted in an expansion in the proportion of 'professors' with almost 10% of UK academics now holding this once exclusive title.

While there is no consensus as to whether a professor can be seen as a 'manager' it is clear they are 'intellectual leaders' with responsibilities such as being a role model and mentor to less experienced colleagues, an advocate for their discipline or profession, and a guardian of standards of scholarship.

It is important that universities look at ways of developing a clearer role description for professors which could draw on a broader range of their qualities. In the words of one respondent to the survey, "professors are not fully utilised in a strategic sense; they are given management duties which are operational rather than strategic, which I believe loses the opportunity to gain maximum benefit from their involvement with, and contribution to, the university".

As part of a wider Leadership Foundation project, we have established a local network of professors at the University of Portsmouth who act as advisors to institutional colleagues. Called ProfsNet, it provides a virtual advice shop on a range of research, teaching, management and service issues that traverse disciplinary boundaries. Examples include advice on developing a book proposal or making a research funding application.

ProfsNet is a model of how universities can make better strategic use of the trans-disciplinary expertise of the professoriate. This needs to be inward-facing as well as outward-facing.

To participate in the survey described above go to: www.surveymonkey.com

* Bruce Macfarlane is head of academic development and professor of higher education in the department for curriculum and quality enhancement at the University of Portsmouth


A former UNESCO Director General said that a university cannot exist without the teachers (professors). Professors are indeed the heart of academic institutions without whom there could be no productive output and the instituions could not evolve. The survey should be a good reference for institutional changes in the way professors are treated such that whatever gaps exist in the univesities, in as far as perceptions or actual differences, are narrowed down to the minimum.

Leodegardo M. Pruna