27 July 2012

Namibia: Is There a Professor in the House?


TO meet someone called a 'professor' a few decades ago, was almost like encountering an endangered species in the Congolese jungle.

Because to become a professor was a very demanding task that only a few brilliant, hard-working and enterprising souls could hope to achieve after having gone through several rigorous years of study to obtain a university qualification.

But times have changed and things have changed too in recent years and this species is now multiplying at an alarming rate thanks to the mushrooming of colleges and universities during the last century or so. In the past a typical professor would be someone mainly confined to the ivory tower, immersed in teaching, research and writing. These days one can walk into a bar and the person next to you would introduce him/herself as professor so and so. 'But what do you profess in sir?', the ordinary man on the street might ask.

So, what does it take to become a professor though? This is a question that many people don't bother to ask or it is taken for granted, especially in our society, because some people assume that once the person has obtained a PhD then automatically professorship follows the next day. This is not so because many people with PhDs never attain the level of a professor in their teaching careers.

How did this rather 'taken-for-granted' question come to mind one might ask? Yes, I was reading a 'media statement' by Professor Lazarus Hangula, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Namibia who came out in defence of Professor OD Mwandemele, the Pro-Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Research at Unam, against 'malicious and xenophobic' attacks. I have not read the attacks on the good professor and that's actually not my interest here.

What attracted my attention was this line: "Those who obtained their PhDs are now busy doing research and writing their articles to prepare for the rigorous international peer review through which the respective Committee of Unam Council may recommend them for promotion to the ranks of associate or full professorship". My reaction is that a university doesn't prepare someone for a professorship. This is first and foremost an individual effort. The other confusing issue has to do with some academics that are called a 'Dr' and suddenly 'professor' even in the same newspaper article. Is this carelessness on the part of our journalists? We have to be consistent on this issue because in many countries these are legal titles.

What is required from the individual to attain that respected title of a 'professor'? One usually needs a PhD, in most cases, and you'd ideally need to have high quality publications - usually journal papers and your PhD if you get it published and this can take ages.

Teaching experience is important but the emphasis, at most reputable universities, is on research and publications in reputable journals, books or chapters in academic books. I suspect that the process varies from field to field, from university to university or even from country to country. For example, academics at research-oriented universities in North America and at some European universities are promoted primarily on the basis of research achievements and external fund-raising successes.

But as a general rule one has to stay on top of the latest research in one's field and attend and present papers at academic conferences and one will need to publish as many papers as you can in the top-ranked journals of your discipline. A professor is thus a highly accomplished and recognised academic, and the title is awarded only after decades of scholarly work. As Samuel Madden, a professor at MIT, puts it: "A professor is someone who has done something seminal, who has defined an area, or closed the book on an area by solving it once and for all."

In the American system, for example, scholars who hold a title of 'professor' typically begin their careers as assistant professors, with subsequent promotions to the ranks of associate professor and finally professor. It takes time to be promoted from assistant to associate professor. Applicants are evaluated based on their contributions to research, teaching, administration, supervision of dissertations and theses and the elusive community service.

As with promotion from assistant to associate professor, promotion from associate to full professor involves review at multiple levels. This includes external reviews, decisions by the department and recommendations by members of other departments or universities. Usually, this final promotion requires that the individual has maintained an active research programme, and excellent teaching, in addition to taking a leadership role in departmental and other administrative tasks.

Additionally, most universities require the traditional 'inaugural lecture' to announce that one is now part of that species called a 'professor'. The question is: have our professors met all those requirements? And which are the conferring/awarding universities? It would be interesting if both the Poly and Unam can, in addition to the usual biographical notes about their lecturers, include a bibliographical list of their publications on the websites of their respective institutions.

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