An egalitarian culture, or neglect of achievement?

It is sometimes said, with good reason, that universities are amongst the most hierarchical organisations of any in society. It may well be that in the general run of academic discourse, and in recognition of academic freedom, one opinion is as valued as another (though in fact that is arguable); but in terms of personal recognition, status, support, facilities and general terms, universities celebrate status and attach benefits to it in a way that many corporate business organisations have long left behind.

Perhaps the key to all this is the professoriate. In the British and Irish framework of university practice, very few academics make it to professorial status. Those that do are thereby recognised as having made exceptional contributions to the academy, particularly (often exclusively) in scholarly output. It is in fact sometimes claimed that professors, like football strikers, sometimes achieve celebrity status because they are selfish players, scoring off the groundwork laid down by others. Lest anyone assume that this is necessarily my view, I should add immediately that I know many professors who work selflessly in the interests of their colleagues. But I also know there are other cases.

Of course in the American tradition it is different, and all those with tenure tend to be styled professor, even those who are quite junior. This doesn’t mean that it is an egalitarian system, but it provides more status for the academic community as a whole, particularly in its dealings with the outside world. Some universities on this side of the Atlantic have been looking at this model, and the latest to do so is Trinity College Dublin, which decided to change to an ‘all-professor’ framework for academic staff at its board meeting of June 29. A lecturer will now be an ‘Assistant Professor’, a senior lecturer will be an ‘Associate Professor’, an existing Associate Professor will be a ‘Professor’, and existing professors will remain what they are.

What will this change bring about? Will it push other institutions, for reasons of comparability and to ensure that they can compete for staff, take the same decision? Should it in fact have been a sector-wide one? And will the new framework make the system less hierarchical? Will it suggest that scholarly achievement is no longer rewarded as clearly? Or will it all make no difference whatsoever?

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23 Comments on “An egalitarian culture, or neglect of achievement?”

  1. Peter Lydon Says:

    More ‘education inflation’. If they have more professors per head, how do we fix this if we have stricter criteria – I know – let’s loosen the criteria. Of course there isn’t a solution to this other than an international treaty.

  2. Jilly Says:

    I know the first effect of this move by TCD has been gales of derisive laughter from the rest of Irish universities…

    • Don Says:

      Not in the Irish university where I work. There is instead a reserved (perhaps guilty, given the present fiscal crisis) anticipation that this is a welcome development which will cascade in time down (and I mean down) to the other aspiring (as in academic league tables aspiring) universities. ALL academics aspire to a professorship for that is the embodiment of academic life; if some say they don’t have such an aspiration then they’re either delusional (and have no business in a university) or bitter (probably having been overlooked for promotion by their peers).

  3. Steve Button Says:

    Fiddling while Rome burns me thinks. For Gods sake extract heads from the sand and face real world challenges.

  4. Al Says:

    Will there be any extra burden upon the public purse in terms of wages or pensions involved with this innovation?

    • Jilly Says:

      no, these aren’t promotions, they’re just changes of job-title. And primarily it seems to be a pandering to American provincialism. Because the term ‘lecturer’ in the US is used only to refer to the equivalent of teaching assistants, US colleges and academics tend to not to understand the professional position of lecturers and senior lecturers on this side of the Atlantic. If I can learn that an Assistant Professor there is a very junior academic without tenure, why can’t American academics learn that a senior lecturer here may have 20 years’ experience and be the HoD?

  5. Vincent Says:

    Most students call the lecturers Prof’ anyway. Unless the person is so young looking that the title is faintly derisory.
    And I expect that all the others will conform within a year. If for no other reason than DU might be getting ahead of the game in some fashion.

    • Jilly Says:

      No, they don’t call their lecturers ‘prof’. Most of the time our students use our first names, and on the rare occasions when they’re being formal, they use ‘Dr’.

      • Don Says:

        There’s the REAL reason for academic-title inflation…right there…academics are fed-up being treated as one of the lads by the students – ‘no respect’ they mutter, ‘so I’ll now have my professorship title to zap them with when needed…’😉

  6. Douglas Says:

    Actually, an increasing number of UK students do already use ‘Professor’ as a default term of address (and do not really understand the the gradations of lecturer, senior lecturer or reader, and professor). I would prefer to be addressed by my first name or as ‘Dr’, but there’s an element of holding back the tide …

  7. cormac Says:

    Wow. That is news indeed, I’m not sure what to make of it – though the ratio of professors to lecturers has always been far higher in TCD than in the former NUI colleges, in most all disciplines.
    On the other hand, I do think the IoTs suffer from having no professorships; with no meritocracy whatever, it’s hard to keep reseacrhers motivated.
    Me, I like the sound of the word professor – (what’s wrong with recognizing acaedmic seniroty built up over many years?)- but I’d settle for a quiet office

  8. iainmacl Says:

    So we’ve moved from grade inflation to ego inflation, ah well.

    • Don Says:

      Well, one definition of there word ‘academic’ is ‘Of no practical relevance’. On this topic, perhaps that definition has a certain cadence?

  9. Mike Lyons Says:

    I welcome the internationalization of academic titles, since it is cost neutral (not a promotion) and follows existing practice in much of the world (outside the UK) such as the US and Asia. Trinity has led the way yet again. It’s time we lost the UK centered focus predominant in our University culture.

  10. Mike Lyons Says:

    Why not. The US still leads the way in Science. China and other neighbours has already adopted these titles. The term Professor fairly represents what a working Academic does since s/he is involved in teaching/ research and academic administration in more or less equal measure.


    • This suggests that the title ‘Professor’ doesn’t indicate achievement but profession. It is like addressing all schoolteachers as ‘Teacher X’. However that is not particularly how the title is understood, and of course we don’t address teachers that way.

      I’m agnostic myself regarding this change. But if it were to be done it should be a sector-wide decision, not a TCD one.

      • EduardDuCourseau Says:

        Ferdo, you probably should have mentioned that a similar change was introduced at the University of Warwick a number of years ago (but apparently they have kept the “Reader” category which does not exist in ROI, anyway) but did not take off at any other UK institution.

        Also, two further benefits to consider: a) having the title professor holds more sway in international conferences. Apparently professors get a nicer hotel room when they register at conferences than lecturers.
        b) Also, there are quite a number of senior academics who still have not complete PhDs and thus cannot be called “Dr”. Henceforth, at TCD they will be called “prof” along with colleagues who have wasted 3-6 years earning a PhD, akin to receiving a get-out-of-jail-free card. But, hey, what’s new: TCD gives all of its graduates a free MA just for being TCD graduates. Nice work if you can get it.


  11. In the far off days when I was an American undergraduate, the criteria for the title of Assistant Professor, etc. did not include even tenure status. I can remember several mid-level staff with such a title, who then failed to get tenured status.

  12. Emily MFG Says:

    Assistant Professor still usually indicates a junior, untenured faculty member in the U.S. There is no equivalent to the tenure system in Ireland, of course, and people can be Lecturer for years (ie permanently) without ever being promoted to Senior Lecturer (that wouldn’t happen generally in the States — you couldn’t be an Assistant Prof indefinitely). As an American perm. lecturer in Ireland I already used the joint terms on CVs etc. (Lecturer/Asst. Professor), because as Jilly points out, many American academics don’t understand what ‘Lecturer’ status is in the UK/Ireland, and many assume it means a more temporary, lesser status of academic than it really is.

    I agree with Ferdinand that this would have been more appropriate as a sector-wide shift (at the very least getting both TCD and the NUI on board). However I don’t agree with F’s implication that the American system is more egalitarian than the Irish one because of the broader use of the term ‘professor’ — in my experience the tenure system creates a much more troubling and dysfunctional gap between junior and senior academics, than the brass ring ‘professor’ title creates here.

    It’s somewhat ironic that the most British-centric of all Irish universities is the first to make this change (they’re the only ones to still use Michaelmas/Hilary/Trinity terms, etc.)

    • Don Says:

      Look: cut to the chase – it’s simple: the proposed widespread adoption of the word ‘professor’ which, historically, conveyed and described an academic of outstanding calibre, is simply and unashamedly being hi-jacked, devalued, and belittled by a lobby of wannabe academics who would be laughed out of the hallowed qaudrangles in academically high-ranking universities. These universities do not convey their professorships lightly, and rightly so.

      • Emily MFG Says:

        Well, not really, that’s the thing… ‘professor’ in many countries simply means an academic teaching at the university level. In the US example, whether you’re teaching at Harvard or at a small state college, you get the title if you have a PhD and are part of the academic staff (with words like ‘assistant’ and ‘associate’ differentiating levels). And the academic staff at Trinity can hardly be called ‘wannabe academics’. It’s not really a case of inflation, because the different grades will still exist and there’s no salary consequences. It’s more an issue of the ‘Americanization’ of the terminology.

        Interesting point – I overheard a colleague complaining that he felt the title change would damage his status as Lecturer, since Assistant Profs in the US don’t have tenure, whereas he does (for all intents and purposes) and has been working much longer than any US ‘Assistant Prof’.

        • dude Says:

          yep – that is a problem – something like “subject professor” would have been a better idea than assistant professor, with perhaps ‘assistant’ professor being used before the merit bar in the junior scale. The merit bar (usually reached after about 8 years on staff, and beyond which one cannot pass without peer review) seems equivalent in many respects to the non-tenure/tenure decision point in the us system (?).

          In any case, to call a research active ‘junior’ lecturer of perhaps 12-15 years standing an ‘assistant’ professor, equates such an individual in some eyes with a non-tenured post-doc. Particularly since there has been an embargo on all promotions, such that many ‘junior’ lecturers operate in effect as seniors. Many I know manage personally awarded research funding in excess of 600-700k per annum. Many of these continue to use Lecturer as their title.

          The logic of the change incidentally, was to give long standing research active lecturers at TCD the academic titles appropriate to their research standing when seeking international funding, this being increasingly a world where ‘lecturer’ denotes junior staff. It’s been botched a bit in my view, with the primary winners being associate professors, who become full professors.


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