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How has professorship evolved over the centuries?

The most significant ways in which professorship has evolved relate to professors’ work, and their status.

For centuries, the work expected of professors in European universities was predominantly teaching – the need to provide teachers was, after all, the reason why many endowed professorships were created. Yet professors were also expected to be knowledgeable about their subjects, and to ‘profess’, beyond the university cloisters, as Finkenstaedt (2011) explains:

The idea of an Ordinarius publicus, a “professor in ordinary” (whether the name was used or not), was fundamental throughout the history of the European university. It was based on the belief that a finite number of fields of knowledge constitute the totality of human knowledge, and that this knowledge, these fields or subjects, should be taught by qualified and salaried people. They were required to teach the “whole” subject, and they were also expected to present it to the general public.

(Finkenstaedt, 2011)

This expectation of public engagement, by leading experts taking gown to town, prompted many professors to disseminate not only orally, through lectures, but also through the written word.

Two Scottish professors of the late medieval age were jointly prolific in their written output in the field of theology: the one (Robert Rollock) as original author, and the second, Henry Charteris (who had been Rollock’s student), as the editor of Rollock’s work, as well as the author of homages to Rollock. The University of Edinburgh website tells us that:

Charteris co-edited the following posthumous editions of the works of Robert Rollock: Commentarius D. Roberti Rolloci, Ministri Ecclesiae, & Rectoris Academiae Edinburgensis, in Epistolam Pauli ad Colossenses (1600), Lectures upon the First and Second Epistles of Paul to the Thessalonians (1606), Certaine Sermons, upon Severall texts of Scripture (1616), Lectures, upon the History of the Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ (1616), and Five and Twentie Lectures, upon the Last Sermon and Conference of our Lord Jesus Christ (1619). He also revised Bartholomew Robertson's life of Rollock, printed by the Wodrow Society in 1826 as De vita et morte Roberti Rollok. Collections at the University of Edinburgh also include Latin and Greek verses by Charteris to Rollock's memory in a manuscript of Rollock's Commentarius in primam beati Apostoli Petri Epistolam (ca. 1627) (completed by Charteris) and Greek verses by Charteris in honour of James VI and I* in The Muses Welcome to the High and Mightie Prince James (1618).

(* King James VI of Scotland also became James I of England when he acceded to the English throne, uniting the two nation.)

But, whilst such output may have been considered by contemporary commentators as prolific and scholarly, it is important to appreciate its limitations by today’s standards. In his history of the University of Oxford, Brockliss (2016) reminds us that ‘The late medieval university was not a research institution pushing forwards the frontiers of knowledge but an arm of the church in its struggle to create unity, uniformity, and good order’.

Of course, in Scotland it was for several centuries a different church from the one south of the border, in post-reformation England, that was trying, through its universities and its professors, to exert and consolidate its societal influence, but there nevertheless remained the same the basic issues of the church’s interests spilling over to shape the nature of scholarship that might impact upon politics and on power in society. Scottish university history is marked by periods of religion-based purges of professors who practised the ‘wrong’ religion or religious denomination, or whose allegiances were misaligned (usually on religious grounds) with those held by those who called the shots in the university – see, for example, information on the University of Edinburgh’s website on the purge of Episcopalian and Jacobite staff in 1690. Such was the nature of academic life in European universities of the late medieval and early modern periods: professorships were frequently given – and retained - on the bases of personal qualities, characteristics and religious and political allegiances, rather than (or at least as much) on the basis of scholarly achievement and potential.

In this way professors – through what they ‘professed’ – contributed to societal development in ways that were approved by those whose political agendas they supported. This is not to say that professors habitually or typically ‘professed’ messages that undermined their academic integrity; rather, professorial appointments were often made to ensure that professorships went to ‘safe’ pairs of hands. Indeed, there are many examples of professors resigning from or being squeezed out of their posts because they refused to compromise. Academic freedom thus often took the form of protest.

The key issue is that the nature of professors’ work has evolved over the centuries in response to political agendas and prevailing external circumstances. With this evolution we have seen shifts in how professors as members of society are perceived, and the status associated with such perceptions. In professorship’s early days professorial status was much lower than that afforded by incumbency of senior clerical posts. The latter were much more lucrative than the former, so in Tudor England, for example, it was much more desirable to be a bishop than a professor. This meant that those professors who were recruited from the clergy invariably put most of their effort into their episcopal work, and this also afforded them political influence: in Tudor England a bishop was someone important, who potentially wielded influence across all strata of society.

As the Age of Enlightenment highlighted the value of scientific knowledge and scholarship, scholars began to be perceived as valued members of society, and professors had the potential to be influential (though many scholars at this time worked outside the university system – some were able to support themselves and, depending on the disciplinary field, fund their work themselves, while others were funded by private patrons). Scholarship, then, at this time, did not necessarily imply university employment or professorship. Then followed what has been mythologised as the ‘golden age’ of academe, when academics of all grades, and particularly professors, enjoyed high status in society, when people took notice of what professors ‘professed’. With the massification of higher education that, in the UK, was kick-started by the Robbins Report of 1963, professorial status is perceived to have gradually declined. This evolution has been most notably outlined in A. S. Halsey’s seminal text: Decline of Donnish Dominion, in which he reports the changing academic work environment, and what was perceived at the time of his research (in the 1970s and ’80s) as the ‘proletarianisation’ of academic work. It is at this point in time that research seems to have begun to become a prominent feature of professorial work, and Halsey identifies its importance in being promoted to professorship:

We found that research attitudes and performance are strongly associated with entering the professoriate. Professors are more than twice as likely (odds ratio 2.19) as the non-professorial academics to give priority to research. They are also almost twice as likely (1.94) to value teaching and research equally as distinct from being oriented towards teaching compared with the other ranks. Publication records tell a similar story. A person who has published over twenty articles is eight times more likely (8.36) to be found among the professors than a person who has published less than ten articles. Between ten and twenty articles gives twice the chance of becoming a professor as publishing less than ten. Each book increases the odds on being a professor by 0.43 (1.43); thus three books more than doubles the odds.

(Halsey, 1992)