GLOBAL: Professors: Cash cows or intellectual leaders?

There are lots of books and articles about university leadership and management. But the role of 'full' or 'chair' professors rarely, if ever, gets a mention. This seems a curious omission. The reason for it is that universities have gradually converted the role of professors into narrowly defined knowledge entrepreneurs. My own research shows that professors often feel excluded or marginalised within their own institutions as a result. Why has this happened?

There was a time when a 'full' or 'chair' professor would be an all-rounder. They would teach, conduct research and probably also be the head of department. This latter role was essential in the days before the rise of managerialism, when university senates were still powerful. Professors were influential members of such bodies as of right. Without a professor as head an academic department would be effectively unrepresented.

But the expansion of higher education has withered the power of senates and the relative influence of professors. Academic self-governance is in retreat and professors are increasingly seen as cosmopolitans rather than organisational 'locals'.

As higher education has globalised and massified, the role of professors has unbundled. The 'research' professor has replaced the all-rounder as the default model.

These are individuals with tough targets to generate income, publish in top-ranked journals and boost the profile of the institution. Universities see professors as knowledge entrepreneurs, expecting them to use their talents to leverage income from research expertise. This is why the emphasis is on things like getting patents, doing consultancy and winning research grants.

The metrics associated with research performance and impact favour more than ever those who pursue an essentially selfish intellectual agenda. This has encouraged professors to withdraw from service and teaching. It has negative implications for the extent to which professors engage in university leadership and public service work. The rewards and incentives simply lie elsewhere.

How can the role of a professor be reconnected to university leadership?

Professors rarely wish to become 'managers' or be burdened with a lot of administrative tasks. But they can and do exercise 'intellectual leadership' in a variety of ways both within and beyond their university. This can involve being a transgressor of academic boundaries, challenging old paradigms and establishing new fields.

Some play the role of public intellectuals, prepared to speak out on controversial issues beyond their immediate specialism. This role is particularly important in countries where human rights and political freedoms are fragile or barely established. Professors can also offer a lot as academic citizens, being innovative leaders with a service or teaching role in the university or public arena. These roles, beyond knowledge creation and entrepreneurship, need to be more explicitly recognised and encouraged.

Part of the problem is that too much attention focuses on the criteria for becoming a professor while little thought is given to what it means to actually be a professor. Here there is an almost deafening silence.

This ought to involve balancing the privileges of academic freedom with the responsibilities of academic duty. What this means is that to be a 'good' professor it is not enough to be a critic of other people's ideas or an advocate of your own theories.

While a professor has to be capable of 'professing' something, the role further demands a commitment to mentoring and enabling the careers of the next generation of academics, protecting academic standards in the discipline and working as an ambassador on behalf of institutions and scholarly societies.

These duties are vital to sustaining the infrastructure of academic life, but are rarely if ever expressed as an expectation. They are not recognised or rewarded by universities who only effectively evaluate the performance of professors based on research productivity and entrepreneurship. While 'service' and 'teaching' contributions might appear in formal appraisal criteria they count for little in practice.

Everyone in modern academia knows this despite a myriad of tokenistic schemes to reward 'teaching excellence' in particular. This means that professors are under countervailing pressures: to fulfill collegial duties without reward or recognition, or to bend to the demands of career-enhancing knowledge entrepreneurship. Performance pressures mean that only exceptional individuals still commit substantially to service.

Universities need to re-think what they want from their professors beyond the narrow confines of income generation. This is an impoverished view of what a professor is or can do. It downgrades the importance of academic duty and risks undermining the basis for inter-generational scholarly renewal and progress.

More pragmatically, institutions can get better value from a professor who is engaged both within as well as beyond the university. Buying in a star professor, for example, might generate attention and leverage grants, but will this person commit to institutional goals and help nurture junior academics?

Professors should be more than knowledge entrepreneurs. They should also represent the critical conscience of the profession and play a role in reminding their own institutions that this is the job of universities too.

* Bruce Macfarlane is associate professor for higher education at the University of Hong Kong. He will be speaking about the role of professors at the Society for Research into Higher Education Academic Practice network meeting in London on 6 July 2011. His new book, Intellectual Leadership in Higher Education, will be published by Routledge later this year.