Comment on: Thompson D.R. & Darbyshire P. (2013) Is academic nursing being sabotaged by its own killer elite? Journal of Advanced Nursing 69 (1), 1–3.


Killer elite of academic nursing; if only it was ‘an absence of Professors’

Some Professors of Nursing are outstandingly talented academics. This, together with the awkwardness of their structural position, often across more than one organization, has been previously acknowledged (White 2007). However, there is little doubt that in their recent JAN Editorial, Thompson and Darbyshire have dared to speak the unspeakable (Thompson & Darbyshire 2013). The bravery of their remarks will find a ready international echo in many university common rooms and conference tea rooms, where such sentiments are regularly whispered. Indeed, it is an open secret in academic circles and they are right-headed in the tenor of their commentary. Most seasoned University academics can identify institutional cultures where the lions are led by donkeys.

Behind the theatre of fairness, local power brokers can operate in cartels to influence, if not determine, professorial level appointments; frank nepotism. This can be to the chagrin of others whose justification for appointment to the same chair would, by any relevant and objective measure, be stronger. Occasionally, appointments can take the form of an internal secondment, without the need to test the incoming post holder against robust international competition and can be fixed term, or as if to appear ongoing [up to a decade]. The power and prestige derived from a professorial title can be jealously protected, not always by the exemplary performance of the post holder, but the subtle [and not so subtle] subjugation of less driven – but often more talented – academic peers and juniors. Intoxicated by public status, such exploitation can be boundless. Even within the hallowed portals of Universities, nursing has the capacity to eat its young (White 2003).

The reach of these scarcely believable professorial appointments can be considerable. Some can occupy key gate-keeping positions within the machinery of contemporary academic nursing as ring-ins befitting their title [a misplaced proxy for their expertise] and may include membership of Local Human Research Ethics Committees, of local grant-awarding agencies, of Editorial Boards of professional journals, and so on. There, as a compensation for the near absence of a conventional academic background and little [if any] previous personal experience of conducting real-life nursing research (White 2012), their light-weight contributions to business can be overzealous, pedantic and arduous. Self-serving publicity can reach legendary proportions, especially when privileged access to print and other media outlets is available. This can reap an additional dividend of appearing to outstrip the publication track records of otherwise stronger colleagues. When these publications are boiled-up, however, much can be evaporated-off as mere rhetoric. Some years ago, it was commonplace to hear the adage ‘if you can't do the scholarship, be controversial’. For those who lack the gravitas, this has remained a mantra. The occasional attraction of modest insider research grants to conduct self-indulgent small-scale inconsequential studies, or presentations at local workshops amongst groomed sycophants, only fashion the mirage of productivity.

The sobering upshot of these sleights of hand by those who have accepted appointments to box above their weight, and others who are complicit in maintaining them, is that they are most unlikely to ever work in the service of the nursing profession per se nor, by extension, the best interests of patient care. Both deserve better. Therefore, the Editorial by Thompson and Darbyshire (2013) should be read widely. Doubtless, it will attract some howls of indignation from predictable quarters. However, wiser academics may be relieved to read a public account that resonates loudly with their own experience and will be encouraged to strengthen their personal and collective resolve to bring about positive change and increase high-quality research capability and capacity in contemporary professional nursing.