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Academics’ experiences of university leadership in constructing their professional identities: a case of a university in Cameroon.

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Teaching, research, and community engagement are the three main pillars of higher education institutions, and academics construct their professional identities by translating these pillars into teaching programmes across departments, research projects, and the provision of skilled labour to the general public. However, academics' roles and responsibilities are shifting, reforming, and being reviewed, making it difficult for them to interpret these roles and responsibilities accurately, calling into question their conceptions of their own professional identities in relation to their experiences of the influence of university leadership practices on the construction of those identities. Furthermore, professional identity research indicates that there is little literature on the conceptualization of academic professional identity, and the available literature only theorises concepts related to professional identity in general rather than academic identity in higher education. This study recognises the manner in which leadership practices negatively influence academics' roles and responsibilities in higher education in the context of a Cameroon university. To understand academics' conceptions of their professional identity and to address the question of why their experiences of university leadership influences the construction of their professional identity in the way that they do, this thesis focused on a Cameroonian university as a case study. Eleven permanent academics from the research site were purposively selected. A case study design within a pragmatic paradigm, where both qualitative and quantitative methods of data generation were used to explore the three research questions that underpinned this study. Distributed leadership theory and the force field model for teacher development were used to frame and generate data through semi-structured individual interviews and focus group discussions. A survey questionnaire was used to generate quantitative data with 170 academics through simple random sampling to find out how academics’ experiences of university leadership influence the construction of their professional identity. The findings show that academics’ conceptions of their professional identity are ingrained at three levels. At the micro-level, academics conceive of their professional identities based on individual forces, which establishes three distinct approaches to conceptualising academic professional identities in higher education. The study established that academics’ professional identities are conceptualised as self-conceptions of their professional identities embedded in the relationality of self, discipline, and context. Secondly, professional identity refers to academics' personal beliefs about their profession. This is demonstrated by the distinction between individuals' personal beliefs about their field of specialisation within their professional context and others' beliefs within the same professional context. The third perspective is that professional identity is defined by the roles and responsibilities of belonging to an academic profession, which are characterised by their capacity to ensure visibility, effective teaching skills, teaching and research ethics, and the deontology of the academic profession. At the meso-level, academics conceive professional identities based on institutional forces, which establishes that university leadership's incompetency, discrimination, egocentrism, and political leanings, among other things, negatively influence the construction of their professional identities as they undertake teaching, research, and research-led community engagement as their key performance indicators. At the macro-level, academics conceive of their professional identities based on external forces, which establishes that government interference in the pedagogical activities of the study context negatively influences academics' professional identities through its appointment policy for the university leaders and external political control. The study concludes with several recommendations and the contention that a blended bottom-up-top-down leadership approach is necessary to address issues related to corruption, discrimination, inconsistent and ineffective leadership, appointment policy, funding, external interference, and a mismatch between theory and practice in university policy implementation. This will significantly contribute to the development of a sustainable higher education system in Cameroon.


Doctoral Degree. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban.