The perceptions of what a professor is thought to be tends to be wrapped up in the narratives of public images around certain ‘pop‘ individuals who have developed through history and fiction.
Take for example when someone uses the term “Einstein”. The term “Einstein” is now a persona meaning someone who is brilliant, a brilliance almost untouchable for the ‘average man in the street‘. It also allures to that person having a sense of pragmatism in solving ‘unsolvable’ problems.
The “professor” played by Russell Johnson in the long running TV series Gilligan’s Island, showed a professor as a technically competent man, although socially awkward around others. In the series, the professor could invent all sorts of marvelous inventions that made life on the island easier, However, he could not build the one thing all the castaways wanted. Weird Al Yankovic in his parody song Isle Thing pointed out that “he (The professor) couldn’t even build a lousy raft“. One of the ironies about the professor in Gilligan’s Island, is that he wasn’t a university professor as most thought, but a high school science teacher and scoutmaster.
There have been numerous other fictional professors over the years portraying traits that people associate with the ‘professorial institution’. Some examples of these are absent-mindedness (Professor Ned Brainard – The Absent Minded Professor), vigilant (Professor Michael Faraday – Arlington Road), Nerdy, unkept, introverted, and accident prone (Professor Julius Kelp – The Nutty Professor), imperious, respected, and even feared (Professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr – The Paper Chase), and cowardly villain (Dr. Zachery Smith – Lost in Space) .
Through the above personic metaphors, professors are seen in society as both a good and bad influence.
So what does the institution of ‘professorial’ position constitute today? Do the professors fulfill public perceptions, or are they pretenders?
Professors preach to both their students and the world from sheltered ‘ivory towers‘ that in many cases are bastions of ‘old school tie‘ cliques. This environment, it could be argued, disconnects them from the rest of the world.
Statistics show that very little university research ever becomes commercialized, and thus new innovative intellectual property generated has little social or enterprise value. Many pieces of research end up being solutions that seek a problem. The comfort zone many university professors exist within blind them to potential opportunities.
Some of the most compelling evidence is the failure of so many complacent academics to see the gravity of the 2008 financial crisis. This led Queen Elizabeth to ask the question of economists on her visit to the London School of Economics. Professor Tim Besley replied on behalf of LSE and admitted that the economic fraternity “lacked any collective imagination” to see the extent of what was coming.
Nouvelle persona of academics see the entrée of celebrity academics or ‘super professors’ as coined by Richard miles, who are media savvy and public personalities in areas adjunct or even totally unrelated to their discipline. One recent article in the Australian website The Conversation suggests that professors are poor communicators in their disciplines, and the advent of these celebrity super professors are a very positive trend in changing academia.
So let’s make a few observations about this crisis in professorial leadership of the academic world.
1. Professors appear to become tenured more through who they know rather than what they know. Academia is closed and cliquey, protecting itself from outsiders who are not of similar background. University boards and Senates make rules about who can become one of the professorial clergy, and it won’t be anybody who doesn’t fit the script.
2. Many, if not most professors when they retire, really retire. Very few ever stay in public life, continue with research, or enter private enterprise. This is a let-down from such an supposedly bright and intellectual group.
3. Very few professors actually do the work that the public perceive them to be doing. Teaching professors take classes not unlike high school teachers. Administration professors run faculties not unlike managers. Its only the research professors who tend to research, invent, and take post graduate research students under their wings, and further society’s knowledge through both fundamental and applied research. Research professors however constitute only a very small percentage of the total professorial population. However research professors don’t fare well to the output of researchers based in the corporate world.
4. Most professors have a very narrow area of expertise that hinders holistic approaches to solving problems and making contributions to public society. Professors may be able to excel in very narrow areas, but it appears to be others who take up these ideas and apply them for public benefit. This issue has been so limiting on innovation, that an international innovation initiative has just been launched to improve the capacity of academia to be innovative along with other partners in society.
5. Many professors contribute towards making public policy. Professor Jeffrey Sachs with much superstar fanfare, with supporters such as U2s Bono formulated the Millennium Development Goals to supposedly eradicate poverty from the planet. However this policy has been heavily criticized as lacking initiatives to create any sustainable development. Others argue that these Millennium Goals were developed without much consultation by an elite group of people with little knowledge and experience of developing countries, where consideration of local conditions in various countries and regions was basically ignored. Yet others argue that technocrats (professors) arbitrarily put development over human needs without any discussion and debate over what is really needed. Many professors on reputation alone are able to impose their own policy ideas upon society, without actually having the knowledge and experience to yield such influence in solving world problems. Putting it another way, reputation allows them to escape scrutiny.
6. It could be argued, that with the rigid bureaucratic structures and mechanistic processes that are employed within university organizations, institutes of higher learning are actually the antithesis of intellectualism. Universities are protected bastions from the events and pressures of everyday society, which partly effects the ability of those within these institutions to make contributions to the betterment of the practical world out there.
This validates the pretender metaphor and highlights a problem in world academic leadership, especially in the area of contribution in public policy.
Perhaps it is now time to look at how to restructure the academic hierarchy to promote the development of multidisciplinary academics who can lead academia into the 21st Century. Maybe it’s time to stand aside the masters of any single discipline for those who are ‘jacks of many trades‘, and thus more relevant to the needs of contemporary society.
A ‘professor’ is only a temporary title, which has been expanded with new terms like ‘honorary professor’. It’s based on tradition and governing regulations that keep the institution an exclusive club rather than an arsenal of intellectualism that can be utilized to assist society. A new category of academic is required. Thus academia is required to look inward upon itself to redefine the positions in the hierarchy to reflect the great need of ‘new paradigms of wisdom‘ required to solve the world’s problems.
This is very necessary if public policy is to shed it’s uni-dimensionality, where ‘out of the box‘ creativity can be drawn upon to create future policy roadmaps.