Professors should earn their status, not be “made”

18 July 2016 | Opinion Tim Crowe.

The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the individual authors in their private capacity; they do not represent or reflect the views, opinions or policies of the University of Cape Town or the Communication and Marketing Department.

Emeritus Professor Tim Crowe comments on a recent article by Dr Robert Morrell, director of the Next Generation Professoriate.

This article is based on the premise that South Africa's professoriate needs to be “transformed” to “reflect its population as fully as possible”. He offers no other premises/goals/criteria/standards.

To do this, he states that “one [who?] has to take account of the “open” processes that have been put in place to ensure fairness and transparency” and that “these processes are the guarantors of legitimacy” which will replace the 'old' ones based on “patronage” (discriminatory favoritism).

Before I address Prof. Morrell's article in detail, I restrict discussion to 'old' and “new processes” relating to promotion to full-professor at the University of Cape Town (UCT), a self-proclaimed “research university”.

First, he nowhere describes/explains these new “processes” and who developed/endorsed/validated them. He suggests that the “old” ones (also not described/explained) were illegitimate because they were allegedly based on “patronage”. But, I move too quickly.

First, Prof. Morrell describes a vision of what a professor should/might be, concluding that they are “flawed mortals”. He then outlines the history of an individual 'black' professor's rise “starting from very humble origins, facing poverty and prejudice, encountering some luck, receiving family and mentor support, but most of all testifying to dogged determination and a love of learning.” The key word in this outline is “prejudice”. Otherwise, it could equally describe the career path of a 'white' professor. The word left out is excellence.

Next, he discusses the career of perhaps South Africa's most brilliant man, Afrikaner Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr (1894-1948), irrespective of 'race'. Hofmeyr had a privileged background and competed successfully for a professorship at the age of 23. Many historians dream of a South Africa with him as prime minister/president given that, from early in his career, he stated that universities "should know no distinctions of class, wealth, race or creed".

Then Morrell chronicles the career path of academics (like me in the 1970s) from junior lecturer, when the expectation that, given “one's achievements were modest rather than stellar, one could reasonably expect to be a senior lecturer. This was called the career grade.”

Now, given similar “achievements”, after coping with “demanding work regimes and long, long hours”, the career grade is associate professor. In the old days, promotion to associate professor was much, much more difficult. No mention of excellence.

Next, he moves to demographics, pointing to the long-standing paucity of women reaching the rank of professor, and only doing so much more slowly. No one disputes that this was a result of patriarchy-based sexism. Also, no one disputes that UCT has made enormous gains at redressing this institutional discrimination.

Then he jumps to patronage, focusing on the need of support (e.g. from the head of department) to get promoted. He cites no examples of this at UCT, but alludes to “a conspiracy theory” and “many other factors”. At UCT, in the old days the only criteria assessed were: “research and publication, teaching and learning, administration, management and leadership, and [more recently] a fourth area, social responsiveness”. In most, but not all, UCT faculties the review committees “allocate numerical scores for each area and a total score is stipulated for successful promotion” and demonstrable excellence in research was essential for promotion to full professor. Also, unsuccessful applicants were informed on their deficiencies (certainly I was) and could appeal. In short, the old system was clear, fair and transparent.

Prof. Morrell (and no one else to my knowledge) has provided examples of this system being 'illegitimate'.

Next, he moves to measures of achievement, mentioning “the number of publications” and “citation counts”. However, unlike ad hominem promotion documents issued by most UCT faculties, he neither mentions research rating by South Africa's National Research Foundation (NRF – which is based on evaluation by epistematic peers) nor h-indices (which measure the 'impact' of research).

Nevertheless he attempts to deal with them by stating: “Although these provide a comparative basis to judge one candidate's performance against another, matters are complicated, for example, by differences between disciplines”. He offers neither a reason for this “difference” nor other superior measures of achievement. His argument in this regard is to suggest that in “some” (unspecified disciplines) “it is normal[?] to publish just one article a year, whereas in others[?] five a year will be normal[?]. He provides no justification for this 'normality', and asserts that, to deal with this 'normality' “require[s] a careful[?] assessment of the quantitative and the qualitative elements [of what?]”. This perhaps refers, in part, to publishing primarily in long-to-produce, largely un-peer-reviewed books versus articles in peer-reviewed journals.

In place of an NRF-rating and h-index, he suggests that a low rating/index may be offset by “a balancing[?] of, for example, excellence in one area against average performance in another, and then an attempt to come up with a global[?] conclusion”. He offers no examples of measurements of excellence in teaching and learning, administration, management and leadership, and social responsiveness. Ones that come to mind are Distinguished Teachers' Awards (DTA), career success of supervised graduate students, serving as head of department or on committees, election to and senior service in disciplined-related societies, public service awards and public intellectual writings. These, with the possible exception of DTAs and student career success, suffer seriously from the influence of patronage-related popularity and subjectivity. This is why faculties such as Science, Health Sciences and Engineering and the Built Environment specify research excellence in the form of a high NRF rating and h-index as a sine qua non for promotion to full-professor. He hints that the absence of this demonstrated excellence is a “barrier” to and promotes “arbitrary decisions” resulting from “external intervention [international peer-review?] that can undermine or skew the process”. The converse of this, of course, allows for the possibility of “internal intervention”, i.e. patronage.

Then he simply states (without evidence) that “Promotions in the past were often poorly understood and quite secretive processes. They were rightly suspected of nepotism, the influence of old boys' clubs and racist and sexist bias.” Another senior UCT academic has been more specific, writing that applicants for promotion were required “to compile mounds of documents”, “jump through bureaucratic hoops” and to “figure out who they should ingratiate”.

I can testify unequivocally that my 25-year 'journey' to be promoted to full-professor was characterized by: submitting a short form and a few pages of supporting documents in addition to my full CV, followed up by 'well-understood', 'transparent' and confidential (except to me) processes. I was fully informed why my unsuccessful applications failed. I can identify no 'old-boy' enemies or friends who unduly influenced the results of my applications. I can even name members of the committee that recommended my promotion who neither agree with me academically nor like me personally. In the end, I was promoted only once I had achieved an NRF 'B' rating, had an h-index of 22, graduated 45 (successfully employed and published) post-grads and published 250+ peer-reviewed papers. I can name others with similar 'journeys'. Most importantly, I can name no one who was promoted under the 'old system' when she/he did not warrant it and anyone whose pathway was blocked. Prof. Morrell and those who suggest otherwise – please provide names of patrons, old-boys, 'nepotists' and favorites and victims, and the bases on which they benefitted or suffered.

The 'new' situation at UCT

I agree with Prof. Morrell on three points. First, there are “new processes” being used to promote academics. Second, “Talent, fortunately, is evenly distributed.” irrespective of 'race' gender, gender identification etc. Third, at least some “Professors are made”.

Sadly, he does not outline specifically what these “new processes” involve, how they make the system “legitimate” and “transparent”, or how the new criteria are “balanced” (supplemented?) to “ensure that academics from under-represented groups are given at least the same opportunities to meet the performance criteria required for promotion”. One faculty may have added some new criteria: “historical, cultural and linguistic knowledge” without offering ways to assess or “balance” them against excellence in teaching and research. Indeed, one public intellectual article by a senior UCT academic suggests that a newly fledged Ph.D. could be professorially promoted soon after graduating by “making the institution accommodate to the individual” because “if someone is good at what they do, you can smell them from afar”. Surely, those who created these “new processes” have not followed this advice.

Thus, the UCT Community and outsiders have to believe that: “These processes will ensure that professors are accorded respect because of their achievements and knowledge[?]” and “no short cuts and patronage” will be employed.

I have commented on this elsewhere.

In the last round of ad hominem promotions (implementing the “new processes”?), two applicants “made” full professors were extremely lacking according to the old criteria. One has no NRF rating, an h-index of zero and lists no graduated post-grads in his CV. The other has a NRF C rating (characteristic of Science lecturers or maybe senior lecturers), an h-index of 6 and also lists no employed graduate students. Notably, both 'publish' conspicuously as 'public intellectuals'. I leave you with:

“There is always something new coming out of Africa.” Aristotle >300 BC

Emeritus Professor Tim Crowe

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