Monday, July 4, 2022

Professors can’t agree on PhD-less professors

A story in Sunday Standard about PhD-less professors at the University of Botswana has touched a raw nerve halfway across the world.

Professor Motsomi Marobela, a UB lecturer who is currently a resident research scholar at the University of Massachusetts in the United States, wrote a letter “in defence of PhD and in defiance of new management policy” after reading with “great trepidation”, an online article in the Sunday Standard “where UB management was featured in an interview, struggling to defend what the paper called “UB’s PhD-less Professors.”

His view is that this policy “renders a PhD ineffectual if not irrelevant to scholastic advancement, especially to professorship as it is accepted practice in the global academia.” The letter is addressed to the chairperson of University of Botswana’s Academic and Senior Support Staff Union, Professor Thapelo Otlogetswe, and copied to other union members.

The issue at hand is the reversal of a 2008 rule that says that only lecturers who hold a PhD can be promoted to the position of associate professor. At its meeting on June 10, 2011, the UB Council decided to abolish this requirement.

In defence of this policy, UB’s Director of Public Affairs, Mhitshane Reetsang, asserts that it is perfectly legitimate to promote highly competent lecturers who don’t hold doctoral degrees to the position of professor.

“UB considers competence and relevant expertise when such appointments are made,” she says.

On the other hand, Marobela, who holds PhD from Lancaster University, argues that this policy can only serve to dumb down standards of academia and relegate UB to a lower status.

“Even small private colleges such as Botho, Ba Isago etc respect the eminence of PhD. I have strongly opposed the implementation of this policy at my own faculty and expressed my opinion to the [Vice Chancellor] at our Faculty Appointments and Promotions Review Committee. I have no qualms with the beneficiaries since they didn’t create this. My concern is directed at a policy which seems to be, for all intents and purposes, an antithesis of UB’s vision – excellence. This is not to suggest that all PhD holders are brilliant but at least it is fair to say that they have all gone through the rough and tumble of philosophy and withstood that litmus test which subjected them to articulate their own theories/perspectives and to defend what they contribute as original ideas, notwithstanding the messy and vexing environment that sometimes makes one feel like calling it quits,” he writes.

UB is currently consulting members of the public on whether it should retain its new logo or reinstate the old one. From where he stands, Marobela feels it would be more prudent to consult on the PhD-professorship policy.
“Forget about spending money romanticising our image through the logo-mania. The logo is in the PhD. As a unionist and academic I feel that some of my rights and legitimate expectations are frustrated and trampled by this management policy,” he writes, ending with the question: “What is UBASSSU doing about this scruffy policy?”

Nothing, it turns out because as Otlogetswe explains, the issue has never been tabled before UBASSSU. However, should that happen, he says “it would be a very interesting issue to debate.” What one can safely predict at this point is that there will be none of the “solidarity forever” expressed in Marobela’s letter.

Otlogetswe, who holds a PhD from Oxford University, opens his argument by stating that internationally, there is no hard and fast rule that one has to hold a PhD in order to become a professor.

“The main requirement is scholarship. One has to prove himself or herself to his or her colleagues. A PhD alone doesn’t guarantee scholarship,” he says adding that some of UB’s own PhDs have become “teachers” instead of researchers because they are neither broadening the scope of scholarship nor providing academic leadership.

He asserts that a doctoral degree merely shows that one has studied and written extensively on a particular field of study and gives as an example, the case of a colleague in the Department of English who studied for her PhD, stops (sounds produced by total blockage of air) that occur in Shekgalagari.

“She didn’t study the entire alphabet but a group of sounds,” Otlogetswe says to buttress his point about the narrow focus of PhD study.

He finds unconvincing the argument that UB standards are being dumbed down, noting in the course of his argument that its standards “are much higher than those of many universities in Africa.” By his account, many senior lecturers from UB who join South African universities are promoted to professorship in no time.

On account of these standards, Otlogetswe says that a PhD-less UB professor would be someone who has written extensively on a particular subject and would have been accredited by a panel of five international experts whose primary question would be, “Is this man an expert on a particular matter?” and not “Does this person have a PhD?”

Becoming a professor at UB is a four-stage process in which a candidate is assessed by their department, faculty, Staff Appointments and Promotions Committee and the panel of five professors who have the final say on whether one is academically fit for such position.

One oddity pointed out by UB lecturers in Marobela’s camp is that in terms of the new policy, a professor who failed their PhD would be required to supervise PhD candidates with their supposedly limited knowledge. Conversely, Otlogetswe says that there are instances when failing a PhD programme has absolutely nothing to do with the competence of a candidate but rather, circumstances in which they are studying. He reveals that some candidates would be attached to “famous professors” who won’t devote enough time and attention to their charges, thus making it impossible for the latter to complete their programmes. Others have to contend with “social issues” that can have similar effect.

“Not completing a programme doesn’t mean that someone is incapable,” says Otlogetswe, adding that he personally knows lecturers who haven’t completed their PhD but are just as capable as those who have.

All in all, he feels that UB is right to reward lecturers for being competent and not just for holding PhD certificates.

In countering the latter, another lecturer who prefers anonymity said that UB already has a regulation on the performance of exceptional scholars in its ranks and therefore, does not need to do anything new. He gives the example of Professor Michael Crowder who can write a full-length book of about 80 000 words on a single idea.

“If this book is properly peer-reviewed and published by a reputable publishing house, it is regarded as even better than a PhD because it has been published,” he says.

He accuses UB of rewriting the rules of academia because PhD is regarded as an original contribution to knowledge whose attainment was originally regarded as a license to teach at a university.

“The assumption was and remains that such a person with a PhD is an authority in his area of specialty, such as Economics, Chemistry, Sociology, Physics et cetera, and that he is in full command of the subject matter right up to the boundaries of the current state of knowledge and is therefore able to extend them,” he says.

The other issue he raises is that a PhD thesis cannot be replaced by a collection of disjointed book chapters published over a given period of time.

“The length of a PhD thesis ranges from 80 000 to 120 000 words depending on the institution. The assumption is that throughout the length of the dissertation, the author will have a thesis (the original idea) that he will be able to defend at a viva or oral examination, which basically tests if the author of the dissertation is indeed the real author and if he can defend the idea that he raises. It follows that a series of unrelated book chapters in journal articles, no matter how many, can never be an equivalent of a PhD. Ten journal articles of 5 000 words each will add up to 100 000 words. But this is not a PhD equivalent because each article speaks to a different topic,” the lecturer says.

He maintains that the removal of the PhD requirement essentially means that the requirement of progression to the rank of professor has been reduced.

“It is only logical: if you previously had 10 requirements and you take out one of them, the number of requirements drops to nine.”

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