The Role of the Professoriate

The Role of the Professoriate

Published May 1991


This paper reviews the general responsibilities of University professors and the capabilities that professors need in order to fulfil them. With reference both to traditional duties of scholarly leadership and to new duties of management, the aim is to affirm the professoriate’s distinctive role in assuring academic standards and in influencing progress of the university system.

Commentary on the three types of Chair is presented in §2, and on the external activities of professors in §3. The situation of professors in relation to the Headship of Department is discussed in §4, and their entitlement to membership of Senate and comparably authoritative bodies is reviewed in §5; in both these contexts definite but carefully qualified general recommendations are made. A few existing statements by universities about the requirements of professors are noted in §5, evincing that the present fuller account is timely. In §7 required characteristics of the professoriate are summarised in eight categories, the first four of which refer to scholarly attributes and the second four to complementary attributes of increasing importance nowadays. The conclusion, §8, addresses apparent uncertainties about the professoriate’s role that have arisen in recent years, and firmly asserts the pre-eminence of this role in its alliance of scholarship and institutional husbandry.

1. Introduction

In each of the Annual Assemblies held since the foundation of the NCUP, the following question was addressed. How can professors best exercise academic leadership in spite of reduced resources and the changing patterns of management in universities?

Many professors now find that the time available to them for scholarship, their primary responsibility, is being progressively eroded and some have good reason to believe that their distinctive expertise and experience are undervalued.

Several recent trends bear on these issues:

  1. The increasing prevalence of non-professorial Heads of Department.
  2. The changing composition of University Senates, some of which no longer accord professors the statutory right to membership of this highest academic body of a university.
  3. The growing administrative demands on many professors arising from, for example, the establishment of cost centres, the introduction of more formal appraisal and auditing procedures, and the increasing tendency for routine administrative tasks to be delegated to faculties and departments rather than being undertaken centrally as they once were.
  4. Reductions in resources of all kinds and the increasing difficulty of obtaining and keeping university-funded secretarial, administrative and technical assistance (assets provided much more generously to those in industry and commerce at comparable levels of seniority and responsibility).
  5. Wide divergences in practice throughout the university system.

It has been judged timely that the NCUP should review the present role of professors within the university system and should decide on a plain statement of their most important contributions. This document incorporates advice received from many members of the NCUP in response to a preliminary version, Green Paper No. 2, which was circulated in February 1991. It includes in §7 a summary of the qualities that professors generally need in fulfilling their distinctive responsibilities.

2. Established, Personal and Honorary Chairs

Holders of Established Chairs are appointed principally to provide leadership in a particular academic subject and to bring distinction to activities in this discipline. They are also expected to represent their subject – and their university – on a national scale, so that their promotion of the subject is widely recognised and supported by peer review. Their work will generally require management skills, both in seeking appropriate funding and other resources to support the subject and in responding effectively to initiatives for research and scholarship by non-professorial colleagues. The need for such skills differs greatly in extent between the respective roles of professors in the sciences and in the arts and humanities. Irrespective of subject-area, however, the NCUP has strongly advocated the principle that no professor should be appointed primarily to meet management needs.

Personal Chairs are in general awarded solely on grounds of high academic merit. The holder of a Personal Chair will be expected to have international recognition as a scholar and to contribute high-level authority to the university’s involvement in an area of scholarship and research. Often such a professor will head an active research group, leading an identifiable subject-stream within a department, and this function is often recognised by a specific title to the Chair. In addition, the professor may contribute valuably to undergraduate and postgraduate teaching, being able to use experience of new developments in research to bring freshness to the subject and instill enthusiasm in students. In a few universities Personal Chairs are largely reserved for subjects specific to locality (e.g. Scottish History or Celtic Studies); and in others they are used principally to foster new disciplines, with the expectation that by outside contacts the holders of them will develop the subject eventually to the extent of justifying established status for the Chair.

Honorary Professorships now provide additions to the staffs of many universities, and the value of appointments in this category is well established. The holders of Honorary Chairs typically are leading members of research institutes associated with the university, or have positions of authority in industrial or commercial companies that sustain links with the university; and they may contribute large amounts of teaching, at little or no cost. In accord with precedent, it remains desirable that comparable criteria of scholarly accomplishment should always apply to appointments in this as in the other categories of Chairs. It is timely to recommend also that Honorary Professors should be accorded a well integrated place in the university community, being involved with the organisation of courses as well as with incidental teaching and research supervision.

A wide variety of comments has been received on the relative standing of Established and Personal Chairs. The latter appear to carry more prestige in some universities, particularly from the standpoint of leadership in research, although in the older universities the opposite seems to be true more or less. In many universities, however, there seems to be no distinction between the two categories of professors, and this situation can be commended as the most satisfactory. A policy covering professorial appointments that is uniform, rigorous and well recognised as such by everybody constitutes an important safeguard for any university.

3. Professors and External Duties

The principal guideline to the appointment of a professor should always be the scholarly standing of a candidate at national or international level, an attribute that is likely to have been established primarily by significant publications and contributions to the academic community. Other activities indicative of this external recognition may include external examining for higher degrees, membership of visiting and subject-review groups, editorial work, service to research councils and other granting bodies, and service to learned societies. Such wider influence is commonly appreciated to enhance the contribution made by a professor to the department and university. It can reasonably be argued that proper academic leadership in any subject demands this broad experience, so that all Heads of Department should be professors; but such a conclusion needs careful qualification as follows.

4. Professors and the Headship of Department

Some universities customarily recruit Heads of Department from the professoriate. This practice was recommended in at least one of the UGC’s subject reviews. It is nevertheless increasingly common for other senior staff to be appointed Heads of Department. Is the trend harmless or inherently dangerous for the future of the university system?

While deserving a plain answer in general terms, this question is obscured by the great diversity of circumstances among university departments, large and small, and also by disparity in the capabilities that Vice-Chancellors require from Heads of Department nowadays. Moreover, many examples of successful non-professorial appointments as Head of Department can be appreciated, and so a categorical preference for professorial appointments would be unjustified. But an abundance of evidence supports the generalisation that, on balance, professorial Heads of Department are more effective, in particular because professors are generally better qualified to fulfil the wider responsibilities summarised in §3 and because it is harder for non-professors to know the full character – strengths and shortcomings – of the local system. An unequivocal yet necessarily generalised answer to the foregoing question is therefore warranted. Namely, the professoriate with its distinctive wealth of academic expertise and experience still provides the best stock for Heads of Department; and in any university the persistent rather than merely occasional disuse of this resource will risk serious harm to the academic vigour and hence to the repute of the institution in the long term.

In this connection the prevalent and ever-increasing demand for management skills exercised by Heads of Department must be acknowledged as an ominous trend, which at present causes widespread misgivings among the professoriate. The value of such skills is well appreciated below (§7 and §8) with particular reference to Established Chairs: their importance in general certainly deserves ample recognition in this commentary on the contemporary role of the professoriate. But our anxiety arises from suspicions about the undue priority often assigned to them in the qualifications for Head of Department. Corresponding doubts attach to reported cases where managerial skills are reckoned as primary criteria for Personal Chairs too. In at least one university, the advent of non-professorial Heads of Department is said to have been followed by such a policy, which has offered a standard route to becoming a professor via the Headship of Department. Particular examples may be deceptive, of course, because of widely varying circumstances; but the general trend exemplified is plainly unsafe for the university system.

In the interests of long-term stability and steady progress, a simple principle deserves to be used consistently as a guideline for the appointment of Heads of Department – and a fortiori for the appointment of professors, of whatever status. Namely, while deference to the advantages of managerial capabilities is proper and often appropriate, it should never be given first priority. In all cases, a strong foundation of scholarship should be a necessary requirement, and conversely the supplementary capabilities in question should never be reckoned as sufficient qualifications.

On the question whether Headships of Department should rotate at predetermined intervals, say 3 to 5 years, a clear consensus in favour of rotation has appeared among members of the NCUP. Rotation is widely appreciated to be conducive to fair-mindednesss and esprit de corps.

Definite comments have also been made on the personal qualities needed by a good Head of Department. One comment is worth quoting; “Heads of Department, whether professors or not, should create conditions wherein all members of staff can develop to their full potential. A person who thinks only of his or her own development is not suited as Head.”

It deserves acknowledgement finally that the relationship between a non-professorial Head of Department and professors within the department is generally not a problem, and holders of Chairs usually accept that they must negotiate for university-funded resources in competition with other members of the department. It can happen, however, that the relationship is strained to the extent that a professor feels deprived of due support in the role for which his or her appointment was originally made. Rules governing the appointment and duties of a Head are usually just, but success in this office often depends crucially on a balance of diplomacy and effective ordering of academic priorities. In particular, a judicious, adequately far-sighted policy should be exercised regarding the needs of professors as scholarly leaders. In respect of their special capacity to contribute expertise and experience relating to teaching and research, professors may have a strong claim to special consideration from the Head of Department in the allocation of university resources – including research time.

5. Professors and Senate

Heads of Department, whether professorial or not, generally become ex officio members of Senate or its equivalent, because the highest academic body must be assured of representation from the management of every department. On the other hand, it is by no means universal that professors have a statutory right to membership of Senate. Where such a right is retained for Heads of Department and professors, the size of Senate may become unwieldy. In addition, Senates may have a category of membership elected from the non-statutory constituency, often to a prescribed proportion of the statutory membership, so increasing the Senate’s size disadvantageously. In some universities a suitable reduction in size of the Senate is achieved by inviting professors to waive their right to membership, or by including professors in the elected rather than statutory membership.

Such procedures are on the whole undesirable. Our majority view is that professors, whether in Established or Personal Chairs, can fulfil their responsibilities as subject leaders only if they are able to participate in the highest academic forum of the university. They need to keep abreast of what is going on throughout the university, so that their own subject can contribute to the collective authority of the academic body and can benefit from discussions at Senate level. Almost always, leadership implies an element of management, and therefore professors should expect to exercise management duties in addition to pursuing scholarship. The responsibilities carried by the holder of an Established or Personal Chair can seldom be prosecuted successfully in isolation: integration within the corporate body of the university is essential, usually being ensured by membership of Senate.

It has to be recognised, however, that Senates in some universities are too large for effective decision-making and their authority may be greatly reduced by this and other local circumstances. (In the view of one commentator, the power of Senates is in inverse proportion to their size!) Moreover, executive power is often vested in steering committees, policy and resources committees and other such ad hoc authorities rather than in the Senate itself. The foregoing recommendations about professors and Senate-membership need to be qualified accordingly; but the underlying principle remains the same. Professors should contribute energetically to the corporate identity and collective governance of the university, by membership of Senate or whatever other means are locally the most effective.

6. Prior Views on the Role of the Professoriate

A brief recent survey has shown that few universities have been deliberate in defining the perceived role of the professoriate, and most statements on the subject are short and generalised. For instance, one university declares the primary requirements of professors to be:

“responsibility for the promotion of research in their field of specialisation”, and

“an ability to undertake research and to direct and stimulate others to do likewise.”

Others state:

“The duties of professors include contributing to the advance of knowledge in his/her subject”, and

“Professors are responsible for the prosecution and encouragement of original studies in the

subject and for furthering the influence of the subject upon other fields of academic work.”

As expected, the survey has confirmed that much about the responsibilities of professors is usually taken for granted or paid cursory attention. On this nevertheless complex subject, the views of professors themselves are the most definite and consistent but are often discreetly unproclaimed; and the views of others on or off campus are seldom impartial. The present detailed statement on the role of the professoriate sui generistherefore appears timely, as a bold re-emphasis of criteria that are self-evident to members of the NCUP yet deserve wider attention.

7. Summary of Standards for the Professoriate

Appointees to Chairs exemplify a wide range of individual characteristics that adds richness and diversity to the academic community. To represent every desirable attribute, a professorial ‘job specification’ would have to be broader in scope than could reasonably be expected of any single appointee. The main desiderata still important in the 1990s can nevertheless be identified as follows. The first four items in the list can be described as scholarly attributes, the rest as associated or complementary attributes which are increasingly needed from professors nowadays but which ought not overtake the first four as qualifications for appointment. All of the items represent wide agreement within the NCUP, although some mild divergence of opinion remains regarding their relative importance. In particular, while item (iv) on teaching is a strong statement based on consensus, certain colleagues would prefer an even more emphatic assertion about the importance of professorial teaching.

(i) Established and Personal Chairs

Professors are appointed to Established Chairs to provide leadership in their subject of specialisation; and they should be expected to play an organisational role in addition to bringing high academic distinction to the post. Staff are elected to Personal Chairs on the strength of international distinction, or at least genuine national distinction, in their field of scholarship; and this local recognition should be complemented by an understanding that the holder will remain energetic in promoting an identified stream of research within a department.

(ii) Academic Standing

Professors should always have outstanding authority in their field, at international or genuine national level, so that their subject-area attracts high-calibre staff and students and activities in it add to the repute of their university. Another valuable effect of high standing is to attract academic visitors, including visitors from overseas.

(iii) Research and Scholarship

Professors should be expected to maintain individual, authoritative industry in scholarship and research and by example to encourage other staff in their subject to engage in original work. They should be expected also to engage in scholarly activities outside the university, such as examining of external theses, refereeing and honorary editorial services for research journals, reviewing of grant proposals for research councils, participation in and organisation of national and international research conferences, and holding office in learned societies.

(iv) Teaching

Professors’ distinction in and responsibility for their subjects should be reflected in the quality, quantity and variety of courses offered by them at all undergraduate levels. It should also be reflected in the quality of courses, seminars and training in research aims and methods given by them to postgraduate students.

(v) Acquisition of Resources

Professors’ leadership in research should extend to the organisation and support of their subject-area in general, so that resources underpinning scholarship and research in their area, such as assistantships, fellowships, library support, computing facilities, physical space and consumables, are successfully sought both at departmental level (through the Head of Department) and externally (through funding agencies).

(vi) Powers of Communication

Professors should have a range of skills in spoken and written communication that will serve them in meeting their responsibilities for academic leadership and, when presented, their responsibilities for management. They should thereby be able to express their views cogently and to defend their judgements effectively.

(vii) Services to the Wider University Community

Professors should be prepared to accept membership of those organisations within the university to which they can make an effective contribution, such as committees, review groups, working parties, certain social events on the university calendar and, above all, its Senate or equivalent. They have a vital contribution to make to the esprit de corps of the academic body, and it is part of their responsibility to give service to such activities.

(viii) Services Outside the University

Because universities represent a concentration of learning that can make valuable contributions to Society beyond the provision of teaching and research, professors should play a leading role in this external function: in fact they should be the most prominent evidence of it. In addition to external scholarly activities as exemplified in (iii), wider service to the community outside is at present an urgent part of many professors’ responsibilities, including service on local and national boards, consultancy work for public bodies, and availability to make specialist comment in the media.

8. Conclusion

The foregoing statements about the role of the professoriate are meant to reaffirm truths that have been neglected or disguised in much recent commentary on the state of the universities. Our aim is to assert what appears obvious to us but may often be overlooked by non-professorial colleagues and by the public. Specifically, the British university professoriate is a distinctive concentration of expertise and experience constituting a source of strength upon which the continued vitality of the university system will depend crucially. Inadequate deployment of this resource, or weakening of its constitution, would have seriously detrimental effects on higher education in the U.K.

Our summary of the capabilities expected of university professors and, the responsibilities undertaken by them is necessarily sweeping, and so is perhaps at risk of appearing idealistic. But plain statements are needed in highlighting the principal responsibilities of the professoriate that are common to all universities. It nevertheless has to be allowed that the university system is far from homogeneous, so that these aspects may have complicated local variations, and the efficacy of the professoriate’s role in general at present is far from ideal. For example, professors have a collective right to membership of the Senate in only a few universities; the disposition of professorial appointments in some universities may be unsatisfactory, particularly between science and arts departments; and it is a conspicuous anomaly of the system as a whole that too few women are professors.

This paper is motivated primarily by concern about an apparent regression in the perceived role of professors. It appears that in recent years the professoriate has had decreasing influence in setting the academic policies of universities, which decline may be attributable inter alia to under-representation on Senates and Senate Committees and to the proliferation of non-professorial Heads of Department. Concomitantly, perhaps more than ever before, other university staff grumble that professors do little to justify their marginally higher salaries.

Current uncertainties about the professoriate’s collective role derive above all from recent changes in the organisation of universities; and this aspect needs to be faced squarely as an essential step towards securing our claims on behalf of professors. First, without necessarily implying any value judgement, it has to be recognised that the new dissemination of managerial responsibilities has been contrary to the tradition of collegiality on which universities had operated until recently. From being leaders in a collegial structure, many professors have been assigned novel responsibilities as units in a system of line-management. The change is not uniformly effective: some members of the professoriate are driven into greater decision-making roles and others into lesser ones. In most cases, moreover, the accession of weighty line-managerial duties needing to be met in competition with other professorial responsibilities presents difficult conflicts of loyalties; and the abdication of such duties to younger, non-professorial colleagues is sometimes a deliberate resort by professors who prefer to devote their energies elsewhere.

As already made clear in §4 and elsewhere, however, the corporate voice of the professoriate is decisive and progressive on this general issue, with particular regard to the good health of the university system in the long term. We must acknowledge current difficulties associated with reorganisation based on line-management principles, and we must plead for moderation in its further imposition on the system because only a moderate, carefully conservative policy of development will ensure continuing high standards in teaching and research. But we are resolute in our dedication to serving the best interests of the system as a whole, which now require a leading contribution from professors as line managers. Closely allied with other university staff but qualified distinctively, the professoriate is best able to fulfill this new responsibility while also serving to safeguard academic standards and academic autonomy.

Our pledge of preparedness in this respect cannot be universal, of course, because not every professor is called upon to serve as a manager and some are unsuited to this particular task. But the underlying principle here can be affirmed with confidence, being widely adaptable to different circumstances. The principle is just that the professoriate should be dedicated to contributing its distinctive capabilities effectively in support of the institutional structure, which includes departmental organisation, management where devolved, inter-departmental liaison and the overall governance of the university. The importance of Senate-membership and comparable responsibilities for professors has been argued strongly in §5; and the bestowal of ample opportunity for the professoriate to contribute in this way deserves re-emphasis as a long-term safeguard for universities. Many other instances of this general principle can easily be recognised, as covered by §7 (v)-(viii). For example, those professors not involved in management may well contribute to the university’s academic audit procedures, which form of service is an apposite counterpart of professors’ responsibilities for the maintenance of proper standards in their own subject-areas.

All the adverse signs that have been acknowledged can be judged as warnings rather than symptoms of any serious basic deficiency. As has been argued in several passages above, the professoriate remains a cornerstone of the universities’ useful function, an investment that ensures the continued excellence of British higher education and could be the main instrument of future progress in the higher-education system. The NCUP believes that it is timely to broadcast the importance of these assets because recognition of their existing strength and potentiality has been unduly subdued on occasion in the past.

While approving this document for unrestricted circulation, the Committee of the NCUP regards it only as an interim statement about the subject on behalf of the Conference. Advice from many colleagues in the NCUP has been incorporated into the document, and further advice, criticism or commentary will be welcome from any reader. Responses should be addressed to the NCUP Secretariat, NCUP, School of Construction Management and Engineering , University Reading, Whiteknights, PO Box 219, Reading, RG7 3XH.