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Academic Identity Crises: Who is a Professor? What is an Administrator?
October 3, 2010 - 9:30pm

The two most misused nouns in the American academy are “Professor” and “administration.” In a recent New York Times piece, “The Case of the Vanishing Full-Time Professor,” Samantha Stainburn wrote of the disappointment parents feel upon discovering that their child’s “Professor” is an adjunct, which means in most cases the instructor is NOT a Professor at all. Just as the American academy suffers from perpetual grade inflation, we suffer from title inflation. Things are simpler in Europe where only very senior faculty - equivalent to endowed chairs here - call themselves Professors. In the US, students miss out on a critical opportunity to gather knowledge and therefore power - what sociologists would term “cultural capital” - about the institution in which they are ensconced. Divisions of labor and hierarchies of power get lost in translation when everyone from graduate assistants to the university president carries the same prefix, “Prof.” Students get to know the people who stand in their classrooms and teach, but these people are rarely those who hold the power and influence to help them launch careers.

I work with my university’s very best and brightest students as they apply for the most competitive international awards. They suffer from two sustaining delusions: that all their instructors are Professors and that the “administration” is somehow constituted of a different life form from their oft-mislabelled “Professors.” The confusion hurts the students in their quest for funding and the academy as a whole in our desire to be understood beyond ivy-covered walls.

These students only learn when they assemble letters of recommendation that many and sometimes all of their most ardent faculty supporters bear titles of lecturer or adjunct. Selectors want to see the names of full professors with endowed chairs. Not even a rapidly-rising, tenure-line, assistant professor can compete with the academic elite’s ability to write that a student is the smartest s/he has taught in three decades on the international circuit.

The confusion stems from the misuse of the appellation. I correct my advisees and my students when they call me “Professor” Pardoe. I was “Professor” Pardoe once, but I am “Dr.” Pardoe now. Nonetheless, I have colleagues from across the university, who in a good-hearted effort to show respect, introduce me as “Professor” to their pupils. I find it embarrassing to correct them, but I frequently do. Explaining that Mr/s. or Dr. so and so, whom I deeply respect, is NOT a tenure-line “Professor” causes yet more discomfiture on my part.

The ironic flip-side of students’ ignorance manifests in their misuse of “administration.” My first year at my current university, I participated in a discussion among student-leaders about how to improve relationships with “the administration.” It came to them as a shock that university presidents and provosts inevitably rose from faculty ranks. These icons of administrative authority could only ascend to their positions of power after years in the tweedy pedagogical trenches. Admittedly, their managerial and money-making prowess may have weighed more heavily in their ascent than their Mr. Chips classroom manner, but one must teach to attain the tenure required to sit atop the ivory tower.

President Obama has further complicated the issue. Endlessly referred to as a Constitutional law “professor,” the critical distinction gets lost between those who hold tenure-line professorships at law, medical, and business schools as opposed to the hoards of clinical and adjunct professors, lecturers, and instructors. Too often, when someone calls Obama, “Professor,” they intend it as a slur. Professor means disengaged, egghead, academic, incapable of the macho decision-making the speaker thinks the presidency demands. They miss that The University of Chicago hired Obama as a senior lecturer (NOT a Professor) precisely to share his ‘real world’ experience just as the irate undergraduates fail to grasp the academic roots of university administrators.

As someone on the tenure side-lines, I understand and struggle with the desire to claim the additional respect and evocative imagery of the professoriate. Then I think of the shell-shocked students who suddenly realize they have no one of the stature needed to write on their behalf as well as those staging sit-ins before administrators’ doors assuming that corporate automatons not chemists ponder policy within. For them, I insist that my students and advisees use the “Dr.” I earned rather than the “Professor”or “Mrs. Administrator” they suppose me to be.

Evanston, Illinois in the USA

Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe is a regular contributor at University of Venus and an associate director of the office of fellowships and teaches history and American studies at Northwestern University, from which she earned her B.A. (1992). She earned M.Litt. (1994) and M.Phil. (1995) degrees in European History as a Marshall Scholar at Cambridge University before completing her Ph.D. at Princeton University (2000). In her so-called spare time, she fights household entropy, gardens, bakes boozy bundts, enjoys breakfast in Bollywood, and writes scholarly papers about funky monks. For more, visit or find Elizabeth on Twitter@ejlp and LinkedIn.


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