Top academic in ambitious bid to groom future scholars

The former vice-chancellor of South Africa’s University of the Free State, Professor Jonathan Jansen, has launched the Future Professors Group, an ambitious fortnightly seminar for postdoctoral fellows and young academics that aims to accelerate their paths to professorship.

“The basic reason for the programme is that no university teaches young academics how to become professors, which means that a lot of time, resources and opportunities are lost, leading to great frustration and struggles to transform the professoriate in former white universities.

“This structured and intensive intervention accelerates the path to professorship for mainly young black and women academics without compromising on the rigour and results required to reach the pinnacle of a scholarly career,” Jansen told University World News.

Rated scientist

Jansen is an A-rated scientist (2017) with the National Research Foundation (NRF) as well as a respected social commentator and author. He is currently a distinguished professor in the faculty of education at Stellenbosch University, where he teaches and conducts research on school governance, management, leadership and policy. He also serves as a mentor to postgraduate students.

Announcing Jansen’s appointment at Stellenbosch University, effective from 1 November 2017, Stellenbosch University Vice-Chancellor Professor Wim de Villiers said the institution would benefit from Jansen's expertise: “Professor Jansen is arguably one of the leading pedagogues of our time, but also the proverbial voice in the wilderness, addressing not only the state of the nation, but – equally important – the state of education in our beloved country."

Through the Future Professors Group, Jansen seeks to encourage his protégés not only to be good academics – with respect to the functions of teaching, publishing, administration and community service – but to become top scholars.

The Future Professors Group follows an earlier initiative by the university’s Professor Lesley le Grange and will focus on building competence and confidence in productive areas of inquiry that lead to strong publications (scholarly books, international journals), the supervision of doctoral students, competition for awards and presentations at the appropriate conferences.

In terms of the National Research Foundation’s rating system, A-rated researchers are recognised by their peers as leading international scholars in their respective fields, for the high quality and impact of recent research outputs, while B-rated academics enjoy considerable international recognition by their peers for the high quality and impact of their recent research outputs.

Ambitious goals

Jansen admits the goal is ambitious but said he will work “very hard with students individually and collectively [via the seminar] to propel them along their academic and career paths. In return, I would expect a complete dedication to the bi-weekly tasks each student will receive and commit to. This would ensure that they reach their goals of becoming A- or B- rated scholars over time. I believe this is possible for each participant,” Jansen said.

Jansen began his career as a biology teacher after he had completed a science degree at the University of the Western Cape. He went on to obtain an MS degree from Cornell University and a PhD from Stanford University. Jansen also holds honorary doctorates from the University of Edinburgh, the University of Vermont and Cleveland State University.

According to Jansen, one of his most important roles is to negotiate his postgraduate scholars’ release from heavy teaching loads, on the one hand, and to place them with the right international mentors, on the other hand. “This also means raising the funding to enable you to do both,” he said.

The bi-weekly campus seminars will require active participation, including regular presentation, preparation and response, individual mentorship sessions, specification of individual multi-year research programmes, international placement for extended periods of time with leading experts in the field, mock NRF ratings based on one’s curriculum vitae (gap analysis) and quarterly individualised milestone reports.

Key skills

Participants on the programme are expected to boast four key skill-sets, including competence, confidence, articulateness and creative insight. In addition, Jansen said, they must articulate scholarly disposition, displaying the humility of the reflective scholar that enables self-criticism and the capacity for taking on criticism.

Asked what he believed were the seven habits of highly effective professors, Jansen said: time management; maintaining a focus; knowing how to say ‘no’; finding your rhythm; making the right choices about conferences, where to publish and when; building academic networks; and identifying the right question.

At the time of his appointment at Stellenbosch University, Jansen said he was excited about the opportunity to work at one of the best universities on the continent with some of the leading educational researchers in the field. “I do hope to make a small contribution with my colleagues to making research count in the transformation of schools and in preparing the next generation of scholars."

His work has only just begun.