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University of Leeds - Original Proposal

Leading professors: Examining the perspectives of 'The Led' in relation to professorial leadership

SDP leader
For administrative purposes Dr Linda Evans, Reader in Education, University of Leeds is nominated the project leader.

Project team
The project will be carried out jointly by Drs Linda Evans and Matthew Homer, University of Leeds, and Professor Steve Rayner, Oxford Brookes University.

Project steering group
Professors Marlene Morrison, Mary Fuller and Geoff Hayward.

Project’s administrative home
University of Leeds

Aims and objectives
The aim of our project is to examine the nature and quality of academic leadership provided by the UK higher education sector’s professoriate, as perceived by ‘the led’, for the purpose of highlighting and disseminating models of good practice, identifying weaknesses and lacunae, and making recommendations for improved policy and practice.

Our objectives are to:

  1. elicit academics’ perceptions of the nature and quality of academic leadership provided by their professorial colleagues;
  2. examine the concept of academic leadership and how it is interpreted, with a view to better defining it and delineating its features;
  3. interrogate the nature and bases of: a) what is perceived as effective academic leadership, and b) what is perceived as ineffective or inadequate academic leadership;
  4. synthesise data and formulate models of good practice (identify features of ineffective or inadequate practice);
  5. raise awareness of the impact on academics and academic communities of professorial academic leadership and, in particular, of the benefits (potential) of good leadership practice;
  6. disseminate models of good practice in the professorial leadership role using both traditional and innovatory forms of participatory and self-sustaining continuing professional development.

Rationale for the study
A key theme in a recent review (Rayner et al., 2010) revealed a widely held view that the position and role of professor in a UK university is one located at the zenith of an academic hierarchy, and therefore incumbents are expected to offer leadership in an academic context. The professoriate are therefore expected to undertake a range of leadership and professional support activities connected with research and teaching practice, mentoring, influencing the work and direction of the university, representing the university in interfacing with wider communities and helping staff to develop (Tight, 2002). There is also a continuing understanding that academic staff in the university workforce should aspire to a professorship if they seek career progression (Tight 2002; Bassnett 2004). However, this expectation is often an unspoken assumption, and being a professor is not seen as having any clearly stated relevance for university management (Whitchurch, 2007; Bolden, Petrov, & Gosling 2008; Kolsaker 2008). Others argue (Pollitt 1997; Deem 1998, 2001; Trowler 2001) that this status, even when conceived as a form of career capital, is fast depreciating in a workplace that increasingly values ‘professional managers’ rather than ‘professors as managers’.

There is very little literature linking theory of educational leadership, curriculum management, or pedagogy to the work of professors. There is a paucity of research on the wider role of a professor or professors’ leadership within the institutional context. This has led Rayner et al. (2010: 619) to identify the ‘mysterious case of the absent professor and the missing professoriate.’ We need to know more about the working role of a professor.

Anecdotally, junior academics relate accounts of professorial leadership’s varying widely in kind and quality. Much of this professorial work might be classified as ‘academic citizenship’ (Macfarlane, 2007), aiding the development of less experienced colleagues. Some professors, however, are perceived as providing minimal leadership and offering little time to others, focusing instead on sustaining and expanding their own research activity and enhancing their own profile. Recent surveys of the professoriate have targeted those involved in managing the university (Bolden, Petrov, Gosling, 2008; MacFarlane, unpublished). Our proposal is to survey the silent majority in a university context: the workforce with whom a professor works, and whom s/he leads and may manage. This surfaces a distinction between rhetoric and reality in the leader-follower relationship. In the field of educational leadership the perspectives of the led are under-examined, but in those studies where these perspectives are examined, there is much evidence that leadership fails to deliver what it is intended to deliver, resulting in dissatisfaction, de-motivation, and lowered morale (Chaleff, 1995; Evans, 1998; Clements, & Washbush, 1999). There is a clear and urgent need, given the contemporary rapid and substantial changes taking place in the UK academy, for raising awareness and exploring opportunity for developing models of educational leadership involving the role definition of the professor in the UK University.

Proposed methodology, including how the project will be tested in practice
The project will comprise three main strands: 1. survey based data collection and data analysis, 2. targeted interviews for a case study; 3. formulation of recommendations, and dissemination.

Data collection will be directed at addressing the following questions:

  • What is the nature and extent of academic leadership received in the work of academic staff – what might/does it look like in practice?
  • To what extent, and in what ways, do academics consider themselves receiving the academic leadership that they a) want, b) expect, and c) need?
  • To what extent, and in what ways, do academics think professors should be providing academic leadership to junior colleagues?
  • What do academics perceive as the strengths and weaknesses of any academic leadership that the professor(s) provide?
  • What factors do they consider facilitate and impede the nature and extent of professorial leadership?
  • What is the emergent picture of professorial academic leadership – what models of good practice and examples of deficiencies are evident?
  • What is the perceived impact of professorial academic leadership on academics’ working lives, professional development, work-related attitudes and achievements?
  • How should professorial academic leadership practice and policy across the UK HE sector be articulated and improved

We propose three methods: online survey; focus group discussions, and one-to-one telephone interviews.

Online surveys, designed to be completed in around 8-10 minutes, will be circulated to over 6000 academic staff, employed in pre- and post-1992 UK universities. We will use Bristol Online Surveys, for which Leeds University has a contract, and which analyses data as they are received. The purpose of the questionnaires will be to gather data allowing us to gauge the general picture of professorial leadership, from the perspectives of the led. Respondents will be asked to indicate, for example: whether they have one of more professorial mentors; whether their professorial colleagues make themselves readily available to give advice, help and support; what kind of support and guidance is offered or provided (eg help with writing research bids; feedback on draft articles; co-authorship, etc.); their rating of the quality of professorial leadership in their departments and of the impact it has upon them. They will be asked to indicate their willingness to provide more detailed and in-depth data through one-to-one interviews or participation in a focus group at their institution.

Interviews and/or focus groups will provide opportunities to gather rich data, from around 40-50 individuals, that illuminate the relationships between leaders, and identify examples of effective or successful professorial leadership. From these data, with the agreement and co-operation of participants and their professorial colleagues, follow-up case studies will be undertaken of research leadership that, in different respects and for different reasons, represents what is perceived by ‘the led’ to be good practice. The use of selected focus groups will establish a foundation for further work in developing new and self-sustaining methods for knowledge mobilisation, dissemination and impact.

Models of good practice
Examination and analyses of the case studies will allow us to formulate models of good practice across a range of departments and institutions and representing a range of disciplines and subject domains. Synthesis of these will identify a set of features and a framework for effective professorial academic leadership. Using the play on words, we aim to present profiles that model the characteristics of and interpersonal behaviour and collegiality manifested by Leading Professors. After Hoyle’s (1975) models of the ‘extended’ and ‘restricted’ professional, we plan to illustrate a continuum of effective professorial leadership by constructing models of typical characteristics representing its two extremes, the more effective being the model of the ‘leading professor’.

Proposed outcomes and outputs, including plans for dissemination

  1. Recommendations will be formulated for institutional and individual policy and practice. These will incorporate a consideration of the extent to which models of good practice are transferable across the sector, and what modifications may be required to make them more widely applicable.
  2. Knowledge production, mobilisation and impact are key components of this project. We will involve key participants (our interviewees) as co-presenters in our dissemination, building upon specific cases of good practice. The Society for Research in Higher Education (SRHE) wishes to be included as a supporting partner in the project and has agreed to a contribution in kind, by hosting two dissemination events at its London Office and meeting team members’ travel costs to these. Dissemination will also take place at Oxford Brookes University and Leeds University, and this will then be cascaded to a range of HEIs across the UK. It will be targeted at HEI departmental and faculty leaders, academic development and support services, and at the sector’s professoriate. We plan to develop a KT methodology for networking workshops to be delivered under the aegis of staff development units at HEIs across the country, for the purpose of developing the academic leadership provided by their professoriates. Project webpages will be set up within the web sites of Leeds and Oxford Brookes universities.
  3. The intended benefits to the higher education community include wide dissemination in academic journals, professional journals aimed at staff development professionals and research administrators, in the Times Higher Education, and at relevant conferences in the UK and abroad. Evans and Rayner are active members of the national council of the British Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society, and we anticipate dissemination under the aegis of this society, as well as within the higher education network within the European Educational Research Association, of which Evans is an active member. We anticipate, too, dissemination in the form of a book, likely to be published by the SRHE in partnership with the Open University, including chapters devoted to different models of good practice.

February 2011 - April 2011: Questionnaire design; sample selection; pilot questionnaire and make revisions; administer questionnaire and receive initial analysis; select interviewee sub-sample; 2nd trawl of questionnaire to non-respondents; set up project webpages.

May 2011 - July 2011: Conduct interviews; analyse interview data; final reminder to non-respondents; identify cases of good practice (‘Leading Professors’) to serve as key dissemination content; update webpage content; organise and publicise first dissemination events; design professional development workshops to be offered to HEIs; liaise with specific HEIs, UK-wide, for hosting dissemination events and workshops.

August 2011 - October 2011: Continue analysing data; begin writing up findings; hold first round of dissemination events; disseminate in Times Higher Education and Guardian education pages.

November 2011 - January 2012: Continued dissemination in the form of knowledge transfer through HEI-based professional development workshops, and through journal articles and conference/seminar papers.


  • Bassnett, S. (2004). The changing role of the professor: Resistance and communication. NCUP Essay. National Conference of University Professors. htm (accessed October 10, 2008).
  • Bolden, R., Petrov, G., & Gosling. J. (2008). Developing collective leadership in higher education. London: Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.
  • Chaleff, I. (1995). The courageous follower: Standing up to and for our leaders. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.
  • Clements, C., & Washbush, J. B. (1999) The two faces of leadership: considering the dark side of leader-follower dynamics, Journal of Workplace Learning, Vol. 11(5): 170 –176.
  • Deem, R. (1998). New managerialism and higher education: The management of performances and cultures in universities in the United Kingdom. International Studies in Sociology of Education 8(1): 47–70.
  • Evans, L. (1998). Teacher Morale, Job Satisfaction and Motivation. London: Paul Chapman.
  • Hoyle, E. (1975). Professionality, professionalism and control in teaching, in: V. Houghton et al. (Eds.) Management in education: the management of organisations and individuals. London: Ward Lock Educational in association with Open University Press, 314-320.
  • Kolsaker, A. (2008). Academic professionalism in the managerialist era: A study of English universities. Studies in Higher Education, 33(5): 513–25.
  • Macfarlane, B. (2007). The Academic Citizen: the virtue of service in university life.
  • New York: Routledge.
  • Macfarlane, B. (In press). Professors as intellectual leaders: formation, identity and role. Studies in Higher Education
  • Pollitt, C. (1995). Justification by works or by faith? Evaluating the new public management. Evaluation 1: 133–54.
  • Rayner, S., Fuller, M., McEwen, L. & Roberts, H. (2010) Managing Leadership in the UK University: a case for researching the missing professoriate? Studies in Higher Education, 35 (6), 617-631.
  • Tight, M. (2002). What does it mean to be a professor? Higher Education Review 34:15-31.
  • Trowler, P. (2001). Captured by the discourse? The socially constitutive power of new higher education discourse in the UK. Organization 8(2): 183–201.
  • Whitchurch, C. 2007. The changing roles and identities of professional managers in UK higher education. Perspectives 11(2): 53–60.

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