‘Prima Donna’ Full Professors

Junior faculty in Britain see their senior colleagues offering little in the way of help, survey finds.

November 17, 2011

A lack of leadership and the failure to support and mentor junior colleagues have been highlighted in a major study of the British professoriate.

Of the 1,200 academics below the level of full professor who responded to a survey commissioned by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, more than half (53 percent) said they did not receive sufficient help or advice from full professors. Only about one in seven (14 percent) said they did receive enough support. Asked if they had received excellent leadership or mentoring from professors in their university, 26 percent said "never" and 36 percent "occasionally." This compares with 9 and 19 percent who responded "very often" and "quite often," respectively.

The study was led by Linda Evans, a reader in education at the University of Leeds, who revealed the provisional findings to Times Higher Education.

Working with colleagues at Oxford Brookes University, she collated hundreds of comments about professors from the point of view of "the led," with respondents from across 94 institutions complaining that many professors were remote, unhelpful, haughty, self-aggrandizing and poor communicators. One disgruntled staff member described professors as "prima donnas, bullies and not team players," while another said the "notion of 'professorial leadership' struck a slightly odd note" because he viewed them as "only looking after their own interests."

Another characterized them as "personal glory seekers," while yet another inveighed against "backstabbing assholes who take the credit for other people’s work."

Asked about the accessibility of professors to more junior academics seeking advice, one respondent said: "Are you kidding?" Another said they were generally "too 'busy' with 'important stuff' to bother with mentoring."

Evans, whose study is titled "Leading Professors: Examining the Perspectives of 'The Led' in Relation to Professorial Leadership," said she was struck by the volume of criticism. "The comments were predominantly negative," she said. "There were also positive comments, however, so it’s certainly not a case of 'professor bashing.' But some academic leaders and management would be quite surprised at how negatively they are viewed."

A lack of clarity over the professorial role helped to create much dissatisfaction, added Evans, with some professors asked to fulfill too many roles. “It was remarked that many professors are appointed solely on the basis of research and some are almost autistic," she said. "So why should we expect them to have leadership skills? That was not the criterion on which they were appointed. There must be some system of bringing on the next generation of academics, but whether it is done through professors or the wider university is an important question. If we are not careful we will be pulling professors in too many directions. They are not Superman – we can’t push them into roles they do not want or cannot do."

Defining a professor’s remit was also difficult when the university sector contained so many different institutions, she added. About 87 percent of respondents said a professor should maintain a publication record above non-professorial staff, while 82 percent said excellence in teaching should be a requirement. About 77 percent said professors should generate a steady stream of research funding, while 52 percent believed they should have a lighter teaching load than other staff.

However, the comments received in the survey highlight many common gripes. "I have no idea what professors in my department/college are supposed to be doing," said one academic, adding that "from the looks of things, neither do they." Another said: "Many of our professors were 'bought' in for the last [research assessment exercise] and have done nothing to contribute to an improved research culture. Some think teaching is beneath them."

Professors were also described as "pointless – they have little or no role outside their own direct concerns" and are "only interested in getting the star on other people’s papers and raising research funds with other people’s ideas."

" 'Professorial' and 'leadership' are two words that in general do not fit together in universities from my experience," concluded another. "Once promoted to that position, the majority are slowly heading to retirement. Many of them are unknown to colleagues even in their own corridor."

The yearlong study will now seek to gain views from professors themselves, with the findings discussed in seminars hosted by the Society for Research into Higher Education.

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