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A Pocket Guide to Academic Ranks

Explaining what titles mean for faculty members and academic administrators.

January 18, 2022
 
 

“When I look at the position titles in academic affairs, I have no idea what they mean.”

While job titles in most higher education divisions seem straightforward, academic affairs structures its position titles relative to contractual obligations, the scope of duties, qualifications and a well-defined system of achievement thresholds. Each institution’s faculty manual defines faculty rank by process and criteria.

The two sections below—faculty and administrators—provide a general sketch of the titles used. Individual institutions may differ and have greater nuances. The listing starts with the most junior position and concludes with the most senior position in each grouping.

Faculty

Teaching or graduate assistants (TAs or GAs) are graduate students hired to support the work of faculty in a temporary and part-time capacity. Generally, TAs teach intro-level courses, labs or study sessions. TAs may or may not have grade-book responsibilities (ability to assign the final grade to a student). They may also grade papers for faculty members. GAs typically assist faculty in conducting research.

Adjunct faculty members are temporary, part-time employees, paid per course, and hired to teach one or more courses on a semester-by-semester basis. Institutions use adjuncts to fill in when a class is oversubscribed or if a department has a temporary need. Adjunct faculty members may or may not have a terminal degree—the highest degree possible in a discipline. Most terminal degrees are doctorates, but there are exceptions, such as with studio art, where the highest degree is a master of fine arts.

Lecturers can be permanent or temporary employees hired to teach several classes per academic year. Sometimes they have a teaching load akin to an individual within the professorial ranks. A teaching load is the number of classes taught per year by full-time faculty members and varies by institution. One example is a 3-3 load, meaning three courses are taught each semester. Some institutions limit the number of years an individual can be a lecturer. In many cases, a lecturer does not have a terminal degree, may have recently earned a terminal degree or is an individual from outside academia hired for their specific expertise.

Sometimes additional descriptors such as “senior” or “visiting” are used. A senior lecturer ranks higher than a lecturer, has more experience and receives a higher level of compensation. Using the word “visiting” equates to indicating a limited length of service. “Visiting” can also be used in association with professorships.

There are three levels of professorships—assistant, associate and (full) professor. Each is a full-time, permanent employee who holds a terminal degree. Typically, professors have a 10-month contract with summers to be used as a time for scholarship. A professorship may be tenure track or non–tenure track. Tenure represents that an individual has met the institution’s standards to be awarded permanent employment. The tenure and promotion process typically includes a series of evaluations over seven to 10-plus years and formal documentation of achievement in service, teaching and scholarship.

After a professor earns tenure, a process called post-tenure review also takes place several years later (typically five years +/-). The purpose of post-tenure review is to determine promotion and salary, awards and grants, and special appointments. It is a mechanism for faculty development, not one to remove tenure status. Disciplinary procedures guide the removal of tenure and outline the causes for dismissal. More information can be found here.

Some individuals might skip this process if they were awarded tenure at another institution or have a record of exceptional achievement. Professorships exist in both degree-granting and non-degree-granting academic departments. Examples of non-degree-granting academic departments include libraries and museums.

Upon retirement, professors may be awarded an emeritus/emerita or honorary status. The faculty manual or board of trustee policy outlines the criteria for the award and its privileges (e.g., faculty senate voting rights, continued use of an office and library, participation in thesis committee).

Faculty members are grouped into department by disciplines. They report to the department chairperson (also chair). The chair is a faculty member who also serves as the department’s administrator. They are responsible for creating the department’s course schedule and teaching assignments, evaluating faculty, facilitating tenure and promotion, ensuring compliance with policies and procedures, and overseeing its budget. Typically, chairs receive a stipend for extra duties and have a reduced teaching load to afford them time to attend to these tasks. The chair reports to the dean.

Administrators

Academic administrators typically hold faculty rank and are often tenured. They have 12-month contracts and may teach on occasion. After serving as an administrator, individuals with tenure may return to the classroom as faculty.

In academic affairs, directors are most often responsible for co-curricular programs. Examples might include a museum, an archaeology field school, a community audiology clinic and a study abroad program.

Assistant or associate deans support the dean’s office by attending to specific initiatives or tasks. Assistant deans may be considered staff positions. Associate deans have faculty rank and are released from some or all teaching duties.

Deans are responsible for specific academic areas and have titles to indicate which area they serve, such as dean of the school of arts and sciences, etc. (Also note: sometimes there are deans in student and campus life, but they don’t have academic rank.) The dean’s primary role is to ensure smooth operations in delivering academic programs. Deans report to the provost.

Assistant or associate provosts (also vice provosts) work on specific initiatives in the provost’s office. An example is a vice provost for faculty affairs. Their job would be to support faculty development, leadership training, tenure and promotion, and other personnel issues.

The provost is the senior administrator in the academic division and often has the additional title of vice president for academic affairs or executive vice president. Some small schools may title the position “provost and dean of faculty.” The word “provost” is thought to have military origins and means “chief” or “one who keeps order.” Hence, the position is also referred to as the chief academic officer. The provost is most often considered the second in command of the institution and takes charge in the president’s absence.

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