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What Academics Want from Their Professors: Findings from a Study of Professorial Academic Leadership in the UK

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Part of the The Changing Academy – The Changing Academic Profession in International Comparative Perspective book series (CHAC,volume 14)

Abstract

This chapter examines the academic leadership role of university professors in the UK (a grade title which in that national context refers only to the most distinguished, senior academics). Drawing on theoretical interpretations of professionalism and applying these to university professors, it analyses selected findings from a funded study that explored the concept of academic leadership by gathering data from academics, teachers and researchers who are not themselves professors and who thus constitute “the led”. The research findings revealed a perceived professorial academic leadership role within which three key features were highlighted: professors’ distinction, knowledge, and relationality. These findings are synthesised into a delineation of the ideal professor, from the perspective of “the led”, and the chapter examines the extent to which professors in the UK are considered to live up to this idealised notion of professorial academic leadership.

Keywords

  • Professorial Role
  • Senior Lecturer
  • Academic Leadership
  • High Education Sector
  • Questionnaire Respondent

These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Fig. 4.1

Notes

  1. 1.

    Within analyses and examinations of leaders and/or leadership roles I use the term “the led” as a concise, generic label for those who do not hold the officially recognised leadership role being analysed/examined and are subject to the effects and impact of its enactment. I select it in preference to the more commonly used ‘follower’ because it implies a lesser degree of choice and agency in the relationality of leadership. I fully accept the point made by analysts of distributed leadership, such as Gosling et al. (2009), that the term “follower” – and implicitly similar labels, such as “the led” – fail to incorporate consideration of the quality of engagement of everyone involved in an initiative or organization. Nevertheless, the concept of leadership is predicated on acceptance that it is a relational position – without someone to lead, the term would be redundant – and I use the label “the led” principally to make a distinction on the basis of leadership relationality between one (or more) holding a specific leadership role and those who are not the holders of this very same, specific leadership role.

  2. 2.

    Post-1992 universities are those that acquired university status after 1992 – a date that marks the end of the binary divide in the UK that had separated universities from polytechnics and colleges of education. Many post-1992 universities interpret the title “professor” differently from how it is more generally understood and employed in the pre-1992 sector. A professorship in a post-1992 university is invariably considered less prestigious than it is in pre-1992 universities. As one questionnaire respondent observed: “I am from a pre-1992 institution and now working [in a] post-1992. A professor at each institution is seen in a completely different light.” More specifically, although it depends on the individual incumbent – and there are a few notable exceptions – a post-1992 university professor is generally considered to be on a par with, and s/he usually receives a comparable salary to that of, a reader (see footnote 8), or even a senior lecturer, in a pre-1992 university; as Malcolm Tight (2002, p. 19) observes, “It might be assumed that gaining a professorship at a high status university is more difficult than at a lower status one. It might even be felt, and is by some, that obtaining a lectureship or fellowship at a university of the highest status is at least the equivalent, in intellectual terms, to holding a chair at a low status institution”. Similarly, Kogan et al. (1994, p. 52), writing almost immediately after the end of the binary divide in the UK, refer to “the award of professorial titles in the former polytechnics and colleges of higher education who would not have been so designated in ‘old’ universities”.

  3. 3.

    The RAE (research activity exercise) is the UK’s nationally applied mechanism for allocating government funding to higher educational institutions based upon the quality of their research activity. It occurs every few (5–7) years, though the 2014 exercise has been renamed the research excellence framework (REF). For each of a range of subjects in which it engages in research, each university is invited to submit as a key part of its entry a profile of research output represented by academics’ selected publications (up to four per academic). The quality of this output is judged by peer review subject panels.

  4. 4.

    These were research fellows or research assistants.

  5. 5.

    I explain “enacted professionalism” as professionalism as observed, by any observer(s), including those doing the enacting. This means that it is a subjectively determined perception of professionalism.

  6. 6.

    Pseudonyms are used in all references to the research sample.

  7. 7.

    Reader is an academic status-related position, or grade, that is unique to the UK and some Australasian universities – though some UK universities (e.g. the Universities of Oxford and Leeds) no longer use the grade or are phasing it out. Applied to academic staff as a title that is awarded in recognition of research achievement, it lies between the grades of senior lecturer [associate professor] and [full] professor. (The lowest academic grade in the UK is lecturer [assistant professor]). Readers are considered senior academics and are usually expected to be promoted to full professorships within a few years of appointment to readerships, though some remain readers throughout the duration of their careers. Readership status is not required for promotion to professorship; many professors have never been readers.

  8. 8.

    Whilst I now enjoy professorial status, at the time when I led the Leading professors study I was a reader and was therefore perceived by the research participants as a non-professorial colleague.

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Acknowledgement

I gratefully acknowledge the support of the UK’s Leadership Foundation for Higher Education in having funded my research. I also acknowledge the contributions to this research project of my co-investigators, Matt Homer (who took responsibility for the statistical analyses) and Steve Rayner (who shared with me the design of the online questionnaire whose data I present above).

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Evans, L. (2015). What Academics Want from Their Professors: Findings from a Study of Professorial Academic Leadership in the UK. In: Teichler, U., Cummings, W. (eds) Forming, Recruiting and Managing the Academic Profession. The Changing Academy – The Changing Academic Profession in International Comparative Perspective, vol 14. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16080-1_4

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