• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

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Academic titles that make sense only in academe.

 

October 16, 2018
 
 

A few weeks ago, I heard a comedian say that as a kid, he thought “BOGO” was a line of clothing. It was the designer his Mom insisted looked great on him.

It got me thinking about some of the labels we use in colleges, without necessarily thinking about how they come across to the uninitiated.

One easy test to find out if someone works in higher education, or is married to someone who does, is to ask them if they know what a “provost” is.  I’ve never seen the title outside of a college or university. “Deans” are bad enough, but enough people have seen Animal House to have at least some image of one.  (“Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son.”) Provosts are much more obscure.

“Vice President” is somewhat misleading.  When I took the job, The Girl asked if that meant that if the President died, I’d be next.  I had to explain that it works differently here.

Many colleges have “bursars,” another term rarely seen outside of colleges or maybe hospitals.  DeVry called the bursar the “cashier,” which students understood immediately.

Recently I read of a college asking its faculty to refer to “office hours” as “student hours.”  The idea was that to the uninitiated, “office hours” might sound like “leave me alone” time, but the “student hours” label conveys openness to students.  A first-generation student may never have heard of “office hours” before, since the term is rarely used in high schools.

A few years ago we changed the name of “developmental” courses -- itself an upgrade from “remedial” -- to “foundational.”  The idea was that both “remedial” and “developmental” suggested that there was something wrong with the student. “Foundational” suggests something about the material instead.  It may not matter to most, but all else being equal, it’s probably best not to insult students.

I’ve worked in places that had, simultaneously, a “Dean of Students” and a “Dean of Student Affairs.”  I’d bet money that few students knew which was which, or why.

Of course, “Academic Affairs” and “Student Affairs” lend themselves to all manner of jokes.  (My current title, Vice President of Learning, requires translation at meetings. It means Academic Affairs.) 

Every industry has its shorthand, and some of that is fine.  But given the industry we’re in, you’d think we’d be a little more conscious of explaining the terms we use.  How many high schoolers know what a “practicuum” is? Why would they? Heck, some of them don’t know the difference between a college and a university. Again, why would they?

Simple labels can work wonders. “Learning Resource Center” is fine, but it lacks the helpful clarity of “Library.” 

Finally, of course, there’s “adjunct professor.”  Look up the word “adjunct” in the dictionary. Given the importance of “adjunct” faculty to most colleges, we need a better word.

Wise and worldly readers, which academic titles would you change for the sake of clarity?

 

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