Academic hierarchy

About a year ago I was at a dinner in another Irish university and sat next to a very distinguished senior academic from that institution. The conversation was lively and interesting, and amongst other things we talked about the changing circumstances of academic lives and careers. My friend expressed the view that one of the things that distressed him in the modern university was the erosion of what he called ‘the deep-rooted democracy of the academy’. I had to pause to think about that, and on reflection I told him I couldn’t agree that ‘democracy’ had ever been a real feature of university life; or not, as I suggested somewhat mischievously, unless you took the view that pre-liberation South Africa was a democracy.

My own academic career began in 1980, and my early impressions were of an extraordinarily hierarchical setting. Most departments had one professor, and this professor was God. His (invariably ‘his’) word was the law. Departmental meetings involved discussion, but rarely decisions taken by a majority of those present. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t unhappy, and as it happens my Professor and Head was actually an extremely civilised man whom I owe a lot. But it sure as hell wasn’t a democracy; nor was any other department of which I had any knowledge. In fact, having experienced life as a bank employee a few years earlier, I can say with some emphasis that it was far less hierarchical than life in the academy; which is saying something, as banks were notoriously old-fashioned back then.

I mention this because, in the latest issue of Times Higher Education, there is an article by John Warren, a lecturer in Aberystwyth University, in which he muses nostalgically about an bygone era when fewer people were professors and when this title was reserved for those somewhat older academics who had experienced ‘many years of scholarly endeavour’. The tendency to give the title now to ‘youthful high-flyers’ appears to be something he finds regrettable. I can’t say I agree.

In this blog I have on previous occasions drawn attention to the proliferation of professorial titles, and the decision by some universities to award them to all academics, whatever their precise grade. It still seems to me that, if this were done everywhere and across the board, it would not be such a bad thing. It would help overcome the sense of hierarchy that has been part of university life. It would still be possible to recognise exceptional academic achievement by having different grades of professors (such as Assistant, Associate and so forth), but it might bring to an end the kind of personal deference that was a traditional feature of the academy.

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4 Comments on “Academic hierarchy”

  1. Al Says:

    Hell, why not have a few associate professor students too.
    Vice presidents is where we lost the run of ourselves.
    Vice President of the Student Experience

  2. Danielle Says:

    Hear, hear! I could be wrong here, but I seem to recall that in Canada we called everyone “Professor,” whether this was their correct title or not – where we had to be careful was in the use of the word “Dr.” – which of course makes sense – either one has a doctorate, or not. I believe it was when I started working for an American university abroad that I was told to rein in my use of “Professor” and to only use this where an individual had achieved “full” professor status. Working in the UK definitely reinforced this. But I still can’t help but see any university lecturer as a professor – one who professes knowledge, no? It’s also just a mark of respect, I think, between student and teacher – but I see how it could level the playing field in terms of internal politics as an added benefit.

  3. anna notaro Says:

    Quite rightly Danielle’s comment hints at the various use of the term ‘professor’ in different university contexts, I still have nightmares about the all powerful hoogleraar (Dutch for professor) I had the misfortune of having as a colleague during my (luckily) short academic experience in the Netherlands. In general, I have always found academia in the UK and the US refreshingly less hierarchical compared to the one in continental Europe, this for several cultural & historical reasons not worth dwelling upon here. I also read the article in the Times Higher mentioned in the post and, having just been awarded (for the first time)a large grant, I could not help noticing the following:’The title professor is seen as a reward for capturing grants …’ judging from the degree of acknowledgement and congrats I’m receiving I can now sleep safe in the conviction that, nothwithstanding my previous research achievements, I’m finally on route to a professorship myself!

  4. cormac Says:

    I suspect Anna is right about an increased hierarchy on the continent. Personally, I have long hankered after a title like ‘Herr Professor Doktor’!

    However, in the IoTs, we have the opposite problem; everyone is a yellowpack lecturer. Outstanding research? Good for you, but don’t expect any titles, better office space or reduction in teaching load.

    Which makes for a very harmonious environment, but also makes it extremely difficult to keep lecturers engaged in research…why should they?

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