By statute and long precedence, academic professorship is an earned academic achievement. It is more than an academic decoration. Professorship is accorded to a person after full consideration of academic qualifications, teaching and work experience, evaluation of scholarly research, new knowledge added to existing literature, peer-reviewed publications, and for innovations in processes, products, services and patents. It is distinguished from honorary professorships or honorary doctorates which are academic decorations bestowed on persons that have shown extraordinary personal achievements, with or without academic qualifications, whose accomplishment has a significant impact on a society. Such decorations may also be proffered to persons who are already professors or holder of a doctorate degree.
By international standard, Namibia is a relatively young nation. So, it is not unusual for many persons in the society to be unaware of the distinction between a teacher and a lecturer, and more so, the difference between a lecturer and a professor, at a university. Notwithstanding, there is a sufficient number of persons within, and institutions dealing with academia who know very well the distinction and differences. Therefore, it must be disappointing, quite frankly disturbing, to find such persons and officials playing deaf, dumb or blind to some recent decision to convert posts without calling for clarity, censure or expressing contempt.
In our progressive country, it is our individual right and collective duty to speak out when such flawed actions are taken because they could prove in the long run to be counter-productive and costly. Imagine the disaster that can happen if you give a title of medical doctor, a nurse and pharmacist or an engineer to someone that is not qualified. And this surely will happen if we are not careful. Students and the society as a whole want to know what they should expect from a university, a professor, a lecturer and from a teacher. I write this note ‘with no axe to grind’ as I was a teacher, a lecturer, an associate professor, adjunct professor and a full professor and very familiar with the progression.
According to the Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, a teacher is a student friendly educator, who is caring, highly passionate and who remains connected to his or her student for life. In the same vein, it states that a lecturer is a highly trained, organized and focused academic who imparts knowledge and processes to students; and that the professor is an academic leader, mentor and researcher to both students, tutor and lecturer. In universities, the academic progression process stipulates the ladder below and beyond the lecturer position as well as establish for each post the minimum education qualification levels, as well as teaching, working and research experience.
Thus, we could say that teachers relate closely with students. They provide regular guidance and facilitate students learning, availing detailed information and explanation. Teachers use various pedagogies and teaching styles depending on the pedagogical needs of the learner, their education levels and gaps.
On the other hand, lecturers provide structure and direction to the class and students, making organized academic presentations, leading discussions on key subject matter issues and sharing ideas, skills and experiences on methodologies and solution options. Unlike teachers, lecturers expect students to take responsibility for their learning, take their own notes and expand on ideas shared. Professors are lecturers at the high end, empowering students with skills, techniques and motivation for independent thinking, to undertake scholarly research and find answers to complex issues.
And clearly, the roles of the teacher, tutor, lecturer and the professor are complementary but different, and so are the profiles of their education, training, knowledge, experience and expertise. Teachers are usually associated with primary, secondary and high schools, and most pre-university colleges although it is today becoming quite common to have lecturers at colleges. However, lecturers and professors are mostly associated with universities and for research universities there is a progression ladder showing the path both below and beyond lecturer that is highly regarded and respected by peers.
The academic ladder
In the chart below, you will note that for transparent academic progression, assistant lecturer and lecturer have basically the same academic qualifications, i.e. a PhD or master degree (minimum). The difference between the two lies in their teaching, working and research experience. Tutors, on the other hand, usually have slightly less academic qualification than assistant lecturer/lecturers. For most universities today, for one to advance academically from lecturer to senior lecturer, it is usual that such a person is a PhD holder although there are exceptions when the experience component is substantive or profession-related.
For a senior lecturer to advance to associate professor, and ultimately professor, the academic requirement and consideration is quite rigorous and goes beyond Master and PhD qualification holders. It requires clear evidence of consistent high standard of teaching, continuous creation of quality research, and publications, innovation and exposition of new knowledge which are openly shared with and reviewed by peers, national and international. Such research may be expressed in academic books, chapters in books, book reviews, pee-reviewed articles in journals, presentations at technical conferences and professional symposia. These works together with proof of one’s teaching excellence including recognition of substantive administrative and/or supervisory responsibility are assessed at least by two internal committees - one under the leadership of faculty dean and the other under a professorial committee on which external equals, and members in the candidate’s discipline are duly represented. The recommendation of this latter committee is critical and its conclusion is usually ratified by an external committee or referee of international academic peers to assure fairness and objectivity.
This is the basis and process that assure professorial candidates and aspirants as well as members of society, students and the international academic community that the university and its academic processes are at international standard and that the practice is not subject to internal or external interference, subjective dictation or corruption. Anything else is unacceptable.
Any decision, directive, decree or legislation that allows a university (public or private) to estimate equivalence must be suspected. Decisions to convert posts directly, of say manager or director, to professor, etc., would be interpreted as academic interference or corruption. In any case, such practices do not spell well for a tertiary institution that is growing, and aiming or claiming to be internationally ranked. This is a shortcut, a dangerous one at that, and a clear formula for confusion and tension later between existing duly appointed professors and those who gain it through conversions or directives.
Professors are expensive and in the final analysis, it’s the students and society that get the worst deal when such shortcut actions to make professors are sanctioned by our collective innocence, ignorance or lethargy. It is the society, tax payers and citizens that will be called upon to fork out much more for their professors from whom society expects value adding research output, cutting edge knowledge and innovation and improved processes and more importantly, new products and patents. Students, inspired by professors, have the independence and confidence to research, innovate, problem-solve and make informed timely, efficient, technical and business decisions.
In the end, it is the society as a whole that pays the ultimate price when the expectation of the tertiary education system fails to deliver quality education, research and to foster innovation and production of new knowledge, goods and services. It is up to the accreditors to query and recall such practices and flawed decisions by university leadership and management of the Namibia University of Science and Technology to convert posts of director to professor, deputy director to associate professors and so on.
That Namibia did this type of conversion many years ago when the “Academy” was split to form the University of Namibia and the Polytechnic of Namibia should not give us comfort. That conversion happened just after Namibia’s independence and long before the Namibian Qualifications Authority, the National Council on Higher Education and the Anti-Corruption Commission were established, and so could be written off as learning experience for a new nation.
Today, we operate in different times, in a globalized world, where every move we make is scrutinised, left, right and centre. How we perform as institutions and a nation in a competitive environment count. Today, the society expects national and international standards and the society must demand speedy correction, not silence, from those empowered to observe, supervise and accredit, standards and expectations are not to be flouted.
Let’s not be caught on the wrong side of history. Let’s do what needs to be done, rectify the shortcuts and respect the academic processes, and guide our benefactors and beneficiaries. Professors are not made by demagoguery, decree, patronization, legislation or post-conversion but through quality education, hard work, research, innovation and publication and affirmed by a rigorous peer-review system of democratic consensus.