Professorships must be earned

The contempt for standards in higher education is something one sees also in senior appointments in the Ministry and Department of Higher Education.
The contempt for standards in higher education is something one sees also in senior appointments in the Ministry and Department of Higher Education.
Image: 123RF/Christos Georghiou

There is a fraud we seldom talk about.

It concerns the way in which the title “professor” is attached to people without any claim on this highest achievement in the academic profession.

Yes, it is an achievement. It starts with the hard work of obtaining a research or professional degree called a doctorate (mainly a PhD).

That itself takes years of study, often combining field research in distant places and difficult theoretical labour with countless revisions and then a searching final examination involving four or more assessors from around the world.

You don’t just collect the PhD.

But that is only the start, for then you have to produce years of scholarship involving peer-reviewed articles in leading journals as well as books (in the non-science fields).

That is not enough, though, for you then have to successfully supervise masters and especially doctoral students as part of your portfolio of academic works.

That collection of scholarly works, including evidence of outstanding teaching and approval of your peers, qualifies you to be considered an associate professor and, with more research of international standard, you become a candidate for (full) professor.

Not in South Africa.

The number of people appointed to professorship these days amounts to academic fraud.

Sometimes it is an effort to increase the number of black professors because of political pressure; even some of our top universities are beginning to fold under this pressure.

By the way, the Afrikaans universities once did the same thing under the pressure of Afrikaner nationalism.

I know, because as dean and as vice-chancellor I had to deal with the consequences of such fraud perpetrated over many years.

Now, black nationalists (coloured, Indian, African) have been doing exactly the same thing for the same reasons.

Strangely, some of the main beneficiaries of this complete disregard for academic standards are white colleagues with honours and masters degrees but with activist credentials.

The field of education is one of the main disaster areas for such promotion.

In a strange way, this fraudulent practice reinforces the poor image of education as a profession and parallels the decline in scholastic standards in schools and universities.

Such contempt for standards in higher education is something one sees also in senior appointments in the ministry and Department of Higher Education.

Think in recent years of the people charged with senior responsibility for higher education – men and women with no experience of higher education as senior academics or high-level administrators.

These are the people who must talk to vice-chancellors about credentialling, quality assurance and academic planning.

But these are political operators with no understanding of the complexities of higher education.

It’s like appointing a minister of health with an engineering degree.

The message? Competence does not matter and standards are irrelevant.

Yes, there are honorary professorships, but these are almost always senior academics who have already attained the position of professor.

Then there is the visiting professor (which, personally, I disapprove of) for an accomplished professional from the corporate world who delivers teaching during a semester and then relinquishes the temporary title.

There is also something called adjunct professor, which applies to high accomplished scholars who meet some of the criteria above (such as the PhD and publications) but whose real achievements have been in a clinical field (such as surgery) or a professional vocation such as journalism or policy analysis; even then, in a good university there are strict peer review criteria for such appointments. Those are exceptions.

Most professorships are achievements at the pinnacle of a career, and we must defend that standard.

When somebody shows up on a stage or on television and is introduced as “professor”, somebody needs to ask: what exactly do you profess?

That would put the skids under these pretenders.

Strangely, we are less tolerant as a society of people who fraudulently use the title of “doctor”.

Lives have been ruined by fake doctors, but not by fake professors.

True, in America, a professor is usually an academic appointment at a university, but few get to that point at a serious institution without satisfying several of the criteria mentioned earlier.

But that is not a South African tradition, where a junior lecturer becomes a lecturer, then senior lecturer and then an “Aspro” (associate professor) and then “Prof”.

That said, people who insist on being called “professor” are usually insecure.

A true professor of any standing would allow her or his academic work to speak for itself; the considerable and substantive achievements of such a person would confirm the gravitas of the position.

But if we continue to hand out professorships like toffee apples, we should not expect society to value our universities and those who strive within them.