Apply for Honorary Professorship?

A colleague asked me whether or not it would be a good idea to apply for Honorary Professorship. On the spot, I simply indicated that, based on my own experience, I was now opposed to the entire concept.

That response was unhelpful to my colleague. The question of whether or not to apply was a very important one for them. To me it was a complicated issue, although perhaps not so to my colleague. In my view, my colleague needed to consider primarily what their best strategy might be to protect and uphold their academic standing and secondarily how they might contribute positively to the greater good, including the academic standing of their institute.

The concept of honorary i.e. unconnected with remuneration professorship, in practice and implementation, could be unfair or self contradictory, even though it was established with positive intent and aspirations. Unfortunately, honorary professorship could lead to the undermining of the very ideals and standards that it was intended to uphold and promote.

When I applied for professorship at my institute, the title did not carry the prefix ‘honorary’ and if the title had been so labeled I might have been less inclined to apply for it. In the context, I would have regarded the adjective as deprecatory, because everything I had done to possibly merit the designation had been done in my paid professional employment as an academic, mechanical engineer and educator. To my own understanding, I had applied for an academic professorship, in accordance with international norms, for example the level of expertise and achievements that would be required for appointment as a tenured professor at a reasonably highly rated university in the United States of America. Whether my judgement in relation to my suitability was accurate or not according to the prescribed criteria of my institute was, in due course, decided by others. At that time I was a fellow of Engineers Ireland and a fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. I had also been elected as a fellow of Trinity College Dublin when I worked there and I believed I had established a modest but verifiable level of international recognition for my work in the specialized area of applied engineering thermodynamics. I understood that if my application was successful it would not have any bearing on my salary or working conditions. As part of the process I had to nominate some potential referees. I included world renowned experts in my discipline on my list. These were experts who were likely to have high expectations, to understand the international norms and to be blunt in their assessments. I was courageous in putting forward experts of the highest possible level, as I was conscious that my achievements were modest. Nevertheless it was my strong preference that my achievements in my discipline should be judged by experts and specialists.

I was awarded professorship of my institute. The certificate, signed by the president of the institute, did not mention the word ‘honorary.’ I can say with certainty that I have not been deployed as a professor by my institute since I moved to the grade of Senior Lecturer (Teaching) from my previous position of a Head of School and I have found it difficult to function in a professorial manner.

I believe there are real dangers in appointing candidates who could be eligible for true professorship as honorary professors. I can list some hypothetical examples of what could happen.

A multi-level institute that did not financially acknowledge its professors (expecting them to play the role on an honorary basis) or did not automatically provide them with appropriate working conditions for professors could therefore easily fail to distinguish appropriately between different levels of activity, especially in the way it costed or measured that activity. For instance, it might decree eighteen or even twenty timetabled contact hours for honorary professors delivering modules for honours degree and taught master programmes, in exactly the same way as if the professors were highly skilled and qualified lecturers delivering first year apprenticeship programmes. This is wrong only insofar as it fails to recognise the different requirements for the achievement and sustenance of excellence in areas at different levels. In both cases there could be an institution-level failure to appreciate that ‘timetabled’ contact hours are not an appropriate and sufficient measure of the input of the educator, trainer, academic, discipline master or professional engineer as the case might be. In the case of the professor, excessive timetabled ‘contact’ hours could militate strongly against performing the role of a professor. If professors had their contributions measured using only the same criteria as for lecturers in general, then, I believe, the institute could be failing to acknowledge the nature of their importance. It could well fail to deploy them appropriately or optimally or it could undervalue them. For instance, one could imagine a professor being timetabled for four hours each week to help first year engineering students master Excel, Word, Powerpoint and basic CAD for engineering applications, even though, in principle, the work could be done perfectly well by someone who would not qualify as a professor. Conversely, the institute would not usually be able to ask a person highly skilled in Word, Excel and Powerpoint for engineering applications to function as a professor. Inevitably the ‘market’ would be likely to penalise any such misjudgement or misguided accounting. Quite simply, good professors or potential professors would tend to be lost, while there could be a lack of necessary encouragement for lecturers to seek to attain professorship. Tragically too, highly qualified PhDs taken on as assistant lecturers might find themselves in an environment where academic excellence, scholarship and research were not appropriately nurtured and where they might never realize their true potential.

A true professor should have academic and professional authority. For instance, if there were a health and safety issue on which a professor expressed a professional opinion, that opinion should hold a lot of sway.

In a university providing education to doctoral level, professors of at least the standing that a system of honorary professorship would intend to encourage are essential to the academic health and well being of the university. The professors should be paid in proper relationship to the importance of the role they play. More importantly, they should be empowered and facilitated to play their role. As an example, supposing a high proportion of students failed to meet the learning outcomes set by a professor, it should not be possible for a group of non professors in authority to call the professor to a meeting with them to explain why the professor had such a high failure rate and to provide encouragement to the professor not to allow such an outcome to recur.

In an institute where professors did not have appropriate authority, it could easily happen that some non professors in management roles would actively congratulate those lecturers who achieved highly, i.e. had low failure rates. This could undermine academic standards, as there is nothing easier for any lecturer to ‘achieve’ than a failure rate that approaches zero.

One potential advantage of allowing professors to have authority in a university could be to help counter any tendency to preserve the organization at the expense of standards. Administrators might be inclined towards taking virtually ‘all comers’ as students on degree programmes, against the advice of academic staff delivering those programmes, which might make perfect business sense. Professors with appropriate influence could help balance the arguments. If those in mainly management roles are paid more than honorary professors it seems likely somehow that they might carry more influence.

A system of honorary professorship could be self contradictory if, for example, the conditions of employment of those appointed to academic positions made it very difficult for them to attain professorship. Factors militating against such attainment could include excessive workload, workload inappropriate to their expertise and high level qualifications, wastage of their time due to poor IT records systems that hampered academic staff in the administrative aspects of their duties, lack of single occupancy office accommodation, lack of attention to the suitability of office accommodation, library services inferior to those normally available in mainstream universities, various barriers and disincentives to engaging in research, excessively onerous, complicated, rigid and bureaucratic systems and procedures that wasted the time and effort of staff, inadequate policies, procedures and systems to support researchers with the financial, purchasing and staff employment aspects of doing research, and lack of encouragement, or perhaps even active discouragement, from some superiors towards staff engaging in research.

Suppose it was easier to meet the criteria for professorship in an institute that had a system of honorary professorship by doing so before taking up a post in the institute than by joining the institute first and working hard and with great dedication for the same duration of time. Prima facie this would be unfair, just as it would be unfair if in an open competition for any senior lectureship position, external candidates were likely to have built up better academic credentials than internal candidates who had worked in a committed and dedicated manner for the institute over many years.

The honorary professorship system could become even more self contradictory if an institute were in certain circumstances to decide to appoint ‘real’ professors, to pay them accordingly, and to free the ‘real’ professors from the contact hours conditions imposed on ‘ordinary’ academic staff or honorary professors.

It is the place of professors to have views and to express them, just as it is the place of an institute of learning and research to encourage the expression of diverse views. I would like my institute to have a structure wherein those who managed the academic affairs of the institute were directly accountable to the academic staff. For instance, heads of school could be elected for a five year term. Academic staff should have a significant input to the selection process for directors of colleges and the term of office should be fixed at perhaps seven years. Likewise I would like to see significant involvement of academic staff in the selection of the president of the institute. In a context where the highest normal academic post is senior lecturer and where professorial level achievement can only be recognized with a title that is honorary there would seem to be little chance of these types of changes coming about.

Notwithstanding the above, colleagues who believe they may meet the prescribed criteria should, I believe, consider applying for honorary professorship. To do so would probably be in their best interests and it might be better to seek change from within than to opt out. Colleagues who know they would not meet the criteria are in a more difficult position, especially if their conditions of employment over an extended period have been such that they could not reasonably have met the criteria. Such colleagues can only make their concerns known in the hope that a more enlightened approach to workload and the facilitation and rewarding of research and scholarship might eventually prevail.