Research on professors, professorial academic leadership and preparation for professorship

“What it means to be a professor - and more importantly what others think it means - is magnificently opaque. There’s plenty of advice on how to get there, but little once you’ve reached your destination. There’s no global job description, no template, no handbook, only the example of those who have gone before. There is no consensus: definitions vary by country, institution and mission, and it is unclear whether professors are there to improve research or teaching.”

Such sentiments, expressed in this quote by Ann Mroz in the leader in a 2011 issue of the Times Higher Education underpinned Linda Evans’s (Professor of Leadership and Professional Learning at the University of Leeds) desire to carry out research into professorial academic leadership and to apply to the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (LFHE) for funding to do so. Linda has been successful in winning funding for three LFHE-funded projects, including a stimulus paper: The purpose of professors: professionalism, performance and pressure, which she recently completed. She has also won funding from the British Educational Leadership, Management and Adminstration Society (BELMAS), for a complementary study, Leadership preparation and development for UK-based university professors. This ran from September 2012 until August 2013 and involved data collection through an online questionnaire which was sent to over 6000 UK-based professors, and follow-up interviews with 20 professors. 

The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education funded Professorial academic leadership in turbulent times: the professoriate's perspective, a project on professors as academic leaders in higher education. The one-year study, which ran from March 2012 until the end of February 2013, was led by Linda Evans. The co-investigators were Dr Matt Homer (statistician) from the University of Leeds and Dr Justine Mercer, from the University of Warwick’s Institute of Education.

The team used a questionnaire that was sent to professors employed in UK universities, asking for their perspectives on their own roles as professors and on the role of professors generally, and how – if at all - it has changed and is still changing. This yielded 1282 responses. Data were also gathered through interviews with over 40 professors (selected from the questionnaire respondents) to delve deeper into their views on and attitudes towards professorial academic leadership. Professorial interviewees represented a range of subjects and were employed at different universities in England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland.

This project was a follow-up to Leading professors: examining the perspectives of the led in relation to professorial leadership, which ran from April 2011 to March 2012 and was also funded by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. This was a most successful project and its preliminary findings were reported in the Times Higher Education in November 2011; read the report here.

Some key findings from the Leading Professors project questionnaire, which generated over 1200 responses from non-professorial academics, teaching fellows and research fellows in UK universities:

  • only 21.4% per cent of questionnaire respondents indicated that a system of professorial mentoring (where professors mentor junior colleagues) occurred in their departments/centres.
  • Almost 50% (48.5%) indicated that no mentoring system operated, and almost one-third (30.1%) were unsure whether there was a mentoring system, or were unable to answer the question simply.
  • Less than a quarter of respondents reported having a designated professorial mentor.
  • Asked more specifically about the extent and nature of help they receive from professors - ‘Do you feel that you receive as much help and advice as you want or need from one or more of your professorial colleagues?’ - over 50% of respondents (52.3%) selected negative responses (‘no’ or ‘not really’)
  • 63.7% of respondents ‘definitely agree’ that it should be a requirement of the professorial role to ‘have a responsibility to advise non-professorial colleagues and help them develop professionally’
  • 30.0% ‘agree to some extent’ with the above statement.

The first academic paper to disseminate the questionnaire findings was published in 2013: Evans, L., Homer, M. & Rayner, S. (2013) Professors as academic leaders: the perspectives of 'the led', Educational Management, Administration & Leadership, 41(5).

More recent publications that draw upon these research findings include:

Evans, L. (2014) What is effective research leadership? A research-informed perspective, Higher Education Research and Development, 33(1).

Evans, L. (2014) What academics want form their professors: findings from a study of professorial academic leadership in the UK. In W. Cummings, C. Musselin & U. Teichler, Recruiting and managing the academic profession, Dordrecht, Springer.

The findings from phase 2 of the study - the research interviews – indicate a balanced view of professorial academic leadership, with nearly all interviewees reporting a range of experiences of professorial colleagues: some excellent, some less satisfactory, and a few very bad, typified by one interviewee's comment: "I've seen the gamut of academic behaviour expressed by professorial colleagues, from the ... y'know, behaviour which I think has been impeccable, to behaviour which I think has been extremely bad".

Although all of the studies on professors are now officially ended, their findings are still being disseminated through conference papers, invited seminars and keynote addresses, and the researchers are working on a number of journal articles. Recent conferences or seminars where the findings were presented of one or both of the LFHE-funded projects are:

This conference paper was reported - unfortunately, rather selectively and with a few inaccuracies - in The Times Higher Education in December 2012. Read the report here.

Findings from the BELMAS-funded study, Leadership preparation and development for UK-based university professors, were disseminated at:

  • The 2nd Annual EFMD Higher Education Research Conference in Paris on May 23rd 2013, where Linda Evans presented: Professorial academic leadership in UK business schools: is there a need for professorial preparation and development programmes?
  • The BELMAS annual conference in Edinburgh, July 12-14th 2013, where Linda Evans presented: Leadership preparation and development for UK-based university professors.
  • The annual conference of the International Professional Development Association at the University of Aston, November 29th-30th 2013, where Linda Evans presented: Becoming and developing as a professor: examining the professional development needs of the UK's professoriate.
  • The annual conference of the Society for Research into Higher Education, at the Celtic Manor resort in Newport, Wales, December 11th-13th 2013, where Linda Evans presented: Becoming and learning to be a professor: academic leadership and preparation for the UK's professoriate.