From lecturer to professor: Initiative develops academia’s brightest

Universities are “the architects of their own demise” when it comes to developing their academic talent because most do not make it an institutional priority, says Jonathan Jansen, distinguished professor of education at Stellenbosch University (SU) and president of the Academy of Science of South Africa.

He was speaking to University World News in his capacity as project leader of Phase 1 of South Africa’s Future Professors Programme (FPP), a flagship project funded by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET). Phase 1 is being administrated at SU and Phase 2 at the University of Johannesburg, but the programme serves the whole country.

The FPP is a “national, collaborative initiative aimed at developing qualities of academic excellence and leadership among a select pool of academic staff,” according to the programme’s website. It is one of the staff development programmes within the DHET’s University Capacity Development Programme.

The FPP does not accept direct applications but calls for five nominations by designated authorities at South Africa’s 26 public universities every year.

Since the start of the programme in 2020, 86 lecturer and senior lecturer equivalent staff were selected to participate in Phase 1, which enrolled three cohorts of between 20 and 30 academics each on an intense two-year fellowship.

In Phase 2, 28 fellows were enrolled in its first cohort in 2021. That brings the total number of fellows enrolled in the programme so far to 114, with more to come soon.

The purpose of the programme is to build capacity in the South African national science system. It accelerates the readiness of talented early to mid-career academics across various scholarly disciplines to become full professors.

“We take in really smart academics and put them through their paces,” explained Jansen, who said he has been committed to academic staff development since his own start in academic management nearly 30 years ago.

On 13 July 2023, Jansen received a Lifetime Award from the National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF). He was honoured for “a distinguished contribution to the advancement of education scholarship through advanced research and publication, scholarly teaching, innovative university management, especially in times of racial disharmony, science leadership, school improvement, educational innovation, capacity development, public engagement and science advocacy”.

“I have always done this,” Jansen told University World News, referring to academic career development. “As a dean at the University of Durban-Westville and later at the University of Pretoria, and then, as vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State – I made sure people did their PhDs and guided them on their journey from lecturer to senior lecturer to associate professor and then full professor.

“My colleagues and I took the lessons from those experiences and added more material to develop a systematic programme for promising senior lecturers to become a professor fairly quickly.”

Recipe for success

Jansen says there is both an art and a science to academic development, but that there is a basic recipe bound to deliver results.

“The first ingredient is conceptual – what it means to be a scholar. As an academic, you have to think about teaching, not just as instructional didactics but as scholarship, and about research, not only in terms of mincing out publications but as having something to say that is original and ground-breaking. We published a book about it last year, and we start our fellows on that,” Jansen said.

Co-edited by Jansen and Professor Daniel Visser, the publication is titled, On becoming a scholar: What every new academic needs to know. It covers such topics as research, teaching, academic connections, becoming an editor, gauging your performance, academic leadership, and balancing academic work and home life.

The book is open source and can be downloaded free of charge by clicking on the title above. This ties in with the goal of the FPP, which is to develop a programme that can be replicated anywhere.

“Secondly, we make a detailed assessment of each fellow in terms of the framework provided by the National Research Foundation (NRF). We say, look, you stand a good chance of getting a certain rating over the next few years if you do a few things differently. And then we help them do that.

“Thirdly, we provide them with social, psychological and emotional support. We bring in coaches, and we try and get them what they need, whether that is a workspace or an inverter to keep the power on or data for the internet. So, wraparound support.

“Next, we bring them into contact with leading thinkers in the world across a range of disciplines. Our fellows come from many fields, but even if you are in chemistry, you get the chance to engage with a Nobel laureate in Literature, for instance. Because, to be a real intellectual, you must be able to think outside of your discipline.

“Lastly, and probably most importantly, we work on their international engagement – putting them in touch with the leading scholars abroad in their specific area of study. If that person is at Stanford [University in California in the US], for instance, we try to send them there. Because you get ahead only in the right company. And then they come back, and we do an assessment.”

Jansen says many of the FPP’s first cohort from 2020 to 2021 have since been appointed as professors – “not necessarily because of the programme – they were highfliers, to begin with – but I do think their participation accelerated things.”

Lack of institutional support

He is less comfortable, however, with the environment within which academics function in South Africa.

“There is very little programmatic support for able and rising young scholars. Much depends on your university, some of which are better at it than others. You would be surprised at how many universities let their postdocs get lost, not to speak of neglecting their up-and-coming academic stars,” Jansen said.

“For instance, the NRF gives a P-rating to young researchers, usually younger than 35 years, who have the potential to become international leaders in their field, but most universities do not nurture and incentivise them. That is where we lose a lot of our best talent. Of the 136 P-ratings allocated in the past 40 years, only 20 recipients eventually became A-rated scientists (recognised by their peers as leading international scholars in their field). That is less than 15%.

“Sure, some individuals might have dropped out for reasons of their own making, but if your institution does not back you, it becomes very difficult,” he said.

“We wanted to send one of our fellows – a very promising lecturer – to a lab overseas. It was going to change his life. But the debate at his university was about who was going to teach his second-year classes. I do not understand that kind of short-sightedness.

“And, even if your university takes care of its young scholars, it also depends on your discipline, and on the individuals involved. Some professors will take you to conferences and introduce you to the leading lights in the field, others will let you die a slow death. Because professors can be quite selfish, quite inwardly focused,” Jansen said. “So, too much of what happens is merely coincidental, not planned. That is what we are trying to fix with this programme.”

South African universities are not equally endowed in terms of the financial resources at their disposal. About the role money plays in institutional performance, Jansen said: “You can have all the resources in the world, the research chairs, the centres of excellence, but you still need people to drive academic staff development at an institutional level.

“What this programme does is, if you are at a rural university with limited resources, or you are at a university without sufficient intellectual support for your project, we give you a structured way over two or three years of getting to the top of your own game. At the same time, we get you to move away from short-term thinking and rather develop a five- to eight-year intellectual plan.”

Skirmishes about ethnicity

The FPP website says the initiative is “inclusive and open to applications from all permanent academic staff at South African universities who meet the rigorous criteria for selection. However, we do prioritise black and woman scholars”.

Looking back on Phase 1 of the programme, Jansen recalls “ongoing skirmishes” around two issues in particular – nationality and race.

“I have a strong view that, if you are teaching at a public university in South Africa, you should not be excluded from consideration for this programme, regardless of race or country of origin. Not everyone shares this view, but we persevered, so we did have colleagues from elsewhere on our continent,” he said.

The participation of white South Africans was a bone of contention, initially, but although it is a legitimate goal, Jansen does not see “changing the complexion of the professoriate” as the primary goal.

“I just could not stomach the thought of that even being a question nearly three decades into our democracy. It turns out, if you simply pay attention to talent, you do not have to make these calculations because most senior lecturers at our public universities are black, anyway. And research excellence is very evenly distributed among these institutions. So, I said to my team, we are going to take talented white colleagues who meet the criteria.”

More in the pipeline

Phase 1 of the FPP will start wrapping up towards the end of next year when the last of its three cohorts conclude their two-year fellowship.

Meanwhile, Phase 2 at UJ is ramping up. “In May this year, we had the shortlisting process for our second cohort, and we submitted the list of fellows to the DHET for approval. We are envisaging that they will start their activities later this year. The call for our third and last cohort will be published in 2024,” FPP Phase 2 project manager Meagan Strydom told University World News.

In a second article about the initiative to be published next week fellows of the FPP will share their experiences of participating in the programme.