Tuesday, 3 August 2010


I’ve been asked to serve on the professorial appointments committee of the University of Wolverhampton. After the first such meeting, I was impressed by the strictness of the criteria they apply. For one thing, the criteria form a conjunction rather than, eg, the kind of weighted cumulative disjunction (OK there must be a proper phrase for that) that readers of DSM are familiar with. Thus candidates do not merely have to meet, strongly, say three of five general criteria but rather all five. Of course, part of the point of then having a committee to assess these is that some judgement gets to be exercised.

One place where that judgement is needed is checking that the right local standards apply to different disciplines. So an engineer who has gained £600,000 of research funding has done about as well as a historian who has raised a tiny fraction of that. This reminds me of my favourite Kuhnian idea: that the tables in textbooks that seem to show how well supported by data a theory is actually show what good support in a local discipline comprises. (Chemists have to get things right to four places of decimals. Physicists need to be within an order of magnitude.)

But I was left wondering whether there should be a kind of personality to professorial appointments. It isn’t obvious to me that different kinds of university (eg. those that specialise in links to industry and in ‘knowledge transfer’) all need the same kind of professor. Do we really have a clear enough antecedent grasp of ‘professor’ that we couldn’t tolerate different notions?

(Some years ago, Neil Gascoigne and I came up with a kind of definition of ‘professor’ in philosophy, albeit one which would reduce the numbers massively. If Smith is a professor it should be possible to grasp what going on in a Smithian manner would be in a new area of philosophy but in such a way which isn’t explained as a Jonesian manner. ‘Smithian’ should be an irreducible projectible predicate.)