By Nimal Chandrasena –
When the country is caught up in a death spiral (massive-scale corruption, stealing people’s assets and heritage, political chicanery, murder and mayhem, human rights abuses, thuggery, poverty, malnutrition and covid – in that order of importance), one might ask why the author should worry about ‘little things’ about which only the educated elite, arguably, need to be mindful about. But ‘little things’ DO MATTER!
The honorific academic title “Professor” in Sri Lanka is confusing and misleading even reasonably educated professionals. Many of my friends, well-educated professionals in varied fields, refer to some individuals in Sri Lanka, especially those in the Parliament and other endeavours, “He is a Professor”. The implication, pure and simple, is, “they, who are Professors, should know the stuff”!
This assumption people make is conjecture and often completely wrong. Most ‘professors’ may know their chosen fields of study quite well, but they may lack expertise in other areas and the common sense to admit that. Many step out to speak about matters about which they have really no profound grasp. Others are pretenders of knowledge. Only the well-trained have the integrity and honesty to stick to what they know and apply some degree of restraint and discretion when speaking about matters outside their expertise.
I say ‘little things matter’ because of the recent trend of ALL media referring to various individuals as “professors” in Parliament or elsewhere, holding important portfolios. As far as I could recall (I could be corrected here), Stanley Kalpage, the former University Grants Commission (UGC) Chairman (1977-1988 or near), was a Senator in a previous incarnation (since early-1960s). He was often referred to as “Professor Kalpage” within the University circles and outside.
Nowadays, G.L. Peiris, Tissa Vitrana and Channa Jayasumana, parliamentarians, are often in the news, referred to invariably with the title “professor”. W.D Laksman, now discarded Central Bank Governor, has always been referred to with the professorial title. Apart from them, many other individuals also appear to be presenting themselves in the media as ‘professors’. I assume they have earned their colours through the existing UGC system in Sri Lanka or equivalent systems in other countries. I hope they are not pretenders.
The Sri Lanka media appears to keep referring to a few political ‘professorial’ people with another adjective added – calling them ‘senior professor’. The references galore, these days, given the debates on fertilizer and pesticide bans, organic agriculture and other topics that fall within the scientific realms. The references may also fall in different spheres of endeavour (humanities, arts, culture and finance).
The previous Governor of the Central Bank, discarded last month as useless, was also continually projected using his previously-held title ‘professor’. The implication was that he might get the country out of the financial mess we have. Perhaps, he might have – if he had been allowed to do his job for a sustained period! W.D. Lakshman, whom I knew well at the Colombo University, at least would have added an iota of respectability to the highly-tainted Central Bank Governor role. In my view, he should never have accepted the position in the first place at the age of around 78 or 79, to be thrown out at 80 years. He was indeed a very senior genuine ‘professor’ and also a former Vice-Chancellor of Colombo University. What a shame? ‘If you lie with dogs, you will get up having ticks’, and there isn’t much we can do except commiserate with the good gentleman.
The indifferent way the title is used seems to perpetuate the myth that the person referred to as ‘professor’ knows everything and will guide the nation’s future correctly. Hardly the truth, needless to say. But I am more concerned about a system that perpetuates the above myth, and a not too intelligent media, broadly, using the title referring to questionable individuals. Globally, the procedures for becoming elevated by academic merit to a ‘professorship’ are well-established. Sri Lanka is no exception. We also do have a system. However, even a cursory examination will find the bar to jump is quite low within the Sri Lankan UGC schemes.
Dubiously using this time-honoured title referring to parliamentarians produces a rather negative worldview. Although many people do not realize it, the world is watching as Sri Lanka goes through probably one of the most traumatic periods in its history. Make no mistake – The quality of Sri Lanka’s administrative and educational systems, as well as socio-economic and civil society functioning, are presently under severe scrutiny. In many countries, the media would have sorted out the chaff from the wheat by now.
A somewhat confusing title called “Senior Professor” also evolved within the University administration in Sri Lanka in the new millennium. Some Australian academics have asked me who these people are. Correct me if I am wrong – but my answer has been that they are recognized by Sri Lanka’s University Grants Commission as ‘seniors’ service-wise, rather than academic brilliance.
The UGC Circular No. 05/2015 issued on 28 May 2015 appears to be the latest in this regard, and, again, that’s the best information I have. One who has reached the status of a “professor” by merit or by filling a cadre position needs to serve a minimum of 8 years in that position. There is a second requirement – 20 publications in ‘indexed journals. This is really baffling. One has to assume that the ‘professor’ already has those and plenty more! The circular does not stipulate the said 20 publications should be ‘post-professor’. See the confusion? It beggars belief that such anomalies continue to date unchallenged.
A comparable situation is hard to find. The Australian framework for attaining an ‘Associate Professor’ or ‘Professor’ status simply cannot be compared. The Australians, as in other developed countries, ask for evidence of outstanding and unquestionable academic contributions and peers’ recognition.
In other words, brilliant scholarly contributions via book chapters, keynote addresses, participation in expert panels, and the like, coupled with students’ recognition for teaching and guidance. The elevation to a position of ‘professor’ is also anchored by the proof of a significant number of papers published in “peer-reviewed” global journals, not just “indexed journals”.
Often, the numbers of peer-reviewed articles are well more than 150 and, in some cases, in the 300-400 range or more. Anyone can check the profile of an outstanding scholar from outside Sri Lanka to verify this. I must note that some such distinguished scholars are indeed Sri Lankans by birth. Some are world-renowned, brightly shining stars in an otherwise gloomy Sri Lankan sky! I can name quite a few.
Those of us who are Journal editors know that any “predatory journal” can get indexation by paying money. That’s a topic for another day and time, but the Sri Lankan UGC appears to be unaware of this. When Mohan De Silva was UGC Chairman a few years back, I tried to raise the issue to no avail.
The Sri Lankan system should also study the extraordinary improvements that have been made by our neighbour – India and its UGC. In this regard, we should get some help from ‘big brother’ India. Publishing in dubious “indexed” journals is not enough to recognize merit, peer acknowledgement and global standing. India stopped recognizing publications of its academics in predatory publications 2-3 years ago.
My point is a weighty category like ‘senior professor’ is not common in the systems we generally follow in other educational matters, i.e. the American, British Commonwealth countries, European or Australia-New Zealand systems. I don’t think our Sri Lankan UGC will change this terminology. It’s simply not the way the government operates. Still, it does not stop me from wondering why those diligent academics on the island, including previous vice-chancellors and the like, have not brought this matter up for UGC to consider.
More importantly, media and other commentators and the public need to be aware that the title “senior professor” reflects the length of service than academic achievements. In some countries, seniority in service is simply recognized by administrative classes – Grade I, Grade II or, in Australia – Level D (Associate Professor), Level E (Professor) and the like. If Sri Lanka’s education system, once the envy of the developing world, expects recognition globally, it needs to revamp these dubious terms and make them more meaningful. Needless to say, the criteria for recognizing academic achievements should be much higher and on par with at least India.
Some people, including a few relatives, have asked me, after I left academia in 1993, whether I retain my title “Associate Professor”, which I earned by merit through the then UGC’s system in 1990. My answer has been and always will be – a resounding “NO”. I prefer to be referred to as a “Dr.” reflecting a real academic qualification. As I moved out of academia into other positions, it would have been silly to be continually called a “professor”. However, that didn’t stop some of my closest Sri Lankan friends, including some Australians, from calling me ‘professor’ more as an endearing term.
In the USA, the title “professor” is used only in academia, generally in oral address – as a courtesy given by others– rather than used by you in writing or when presenting one’s own name. Those in Sri Lanka who use the title “professor” as authors of books and reports to entice readers should ponder this unsavoury habit. There are many books where authors, perhaps, are encouraged by publishers to use the title. It is totally unnecessary to sell books in this way. It places Sri Lanka in a poor light among global readers.
A ‘retired professor’ or someone who vacated a post as a ‘professor’ like me should not use the title. The world’s best practice is to fall back to one’s highest tertiary degree qualification – either a Doctorate or a Masters degree. A student or others may still refer to or greet you as a “professor”. There is no harm in it. Within our culture, it shows respect, courtesy, and perhaps even deference to someone who might have taught you something at a particular moment. Our value system, within all beliefs and faiths, places parents, elders and teachers at the top of any scale of reverence.
As I said initially, when Sri Lanka is gripped with a financial crisis, many other problems and Covid, some may argue it is anachronistic to discuss these ‘professorial’ titles. But fixing these ‘little things’ go a long way in winning back the prestige Sri Lanka once enjoyed in the world.
The constant reference by concerned people and media commentators to various ‘pseudo experts’ as ‘professors’ is the crucial issue here. I blame the media also for not being investigative enough to expose the pretenders. Some who believe in “Natha Deviyo” to find solutions to society’s problems, “Dhammika Paniya” for Covid, and similar deceptive conduct are hardly worth the title “professor”.
The matter I raise shows that as a country, we are far backward in every way than the public realizes. Unless corrected in some way, advice received from questioningly qualified people could also mislead the country’s future trajectories not just in organic farming, fertilizer bans and finance but in other fields, such as history, natural resources, and heritage protection.
It is time to wake up.
*Dr. Nimal Chandrasena – The author is a former Associate Professor of Botany by Merit (Weed Science), University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. He obtained his Ph.D. in Weed Science (1983) from the School of Plant Biology, University of North Wales, Bangor, U.K. He is domiciled in Australia and has served in various governmental positions and functioned as a Principal Scientist in several global Consulting firms. He is currently the Editor-in-Chief of the international Journal – Weeds.