The Jill Biden controversy underlines the malignant hierarchy of doctors

The idea that the First Lady’s doctor of education degree is any less worthy than a PhD or MD is utterly misguided, says Vipul Sharma

February 14, 2021
A human pyramid

The US had just weathered its most rancorous and divisive presidential campaign, but the vitriolic attacks on Jill Biden over her use of the title “Dr” still took many aback.

In the weeks following the election, the incoming First Lady was branded “fraudulent”, “comic”, even a national embarrassment, for laying claim to the honorific earned by virtue of her doctor of education degree from the University of Delaware rather than a PhD or MD.

“Any chance you might drop the ‘Dr’ before your name?” wrote Joseph Epstein, in a scathing Wall Street Journal op-ed, urging the community college educator to be a good wife and simply enjoy the “thrill” of living in the White House.

Many of us in academia were not, however, surprised by the pile-on, knowing too well how the multiple levels of hierarchy regarding doctoral degrees play out on campus and beyond.

First up was the implication that those with PhDs should refrain from using their doctoral titles outside academia – unless they want to be accused of having “status anxiety”. Medical doctors, by contrast, are never asked to drop their titles outside professional settings.

Then there is the issue of the supposed difference between STEM and non-STEM doctorates, which predictably led to the assertion that Biden’s EdD qualification bears no comparison to a science PhD.

Nor will those who follow this debate have been surprised that it was a woman facing accusations of academic illegitimacy. If a female president of the US had entered the Oval Office, would we be asking her academic husband to revert to Mr?

The episode brings to mind, in some ways, the controversy that arose when the BBC announced that the next Doctor Who would be a woman. Would a female Doctor fit the narrative, asked US fans of the show – despite women making up a third of physicians and more than half of PhD recipients.

Maybe, however, we should welcome scrutiny of Jill Biden’s doctorate. Though branded lightweight by some, the subject of her dissertation – reducing drop-out rates from community colleges, where one in three US undergraduates begin their studies – attracted praise from many. That topic is particularly apposite given that educational opportunity is likely to be a key issue in the Biden administration.

Moreover, the controversy reminds us – as many pointed out – that the word “doctor” originally meant teacher or scholar (derived from the Latin verb docēre, which means to teach). The title is a recognition of the academic challenges that a person has overcome to obtain a high level of knowledge in whatever their field is, developing a hypothesis, collecting primary data, performing extensive statistical analyses, passing oral and written qualifying exams and defending a written dissertation. In that context, what do we gain by pitting hard-earned titles against each other?

The futility of such exercises was perhaps best underlined by a 2009 court case in France over the use of the term Dr by a chargé de recherche – equivalent to the rank of research-only associate professor in the US – who had signed off a paper as “docteur”. A regional journal called them out, saying they were not a real doctor, but only a “mere scientist” – despite the fact that a PhD is required to get this position. France’s supreme court eventually ruled in favour of the scientist and the journal was condemned for defamation of character. In 2013, the law in France was changed to explicitly state that PhD holders have the right to call themselves and be called “doctor” in professional settings. 

The invective against Jill Biden perhaps also reminds us of the strenuous efforts in recent years to delegitimise expertise. Some may think that complaints about this are thin-skinned or alarmist, but the dismissal and ridicule of academic credentials matters and is particularly important in the case of women and people of colour, who face many extra obstacles to success and career advancement. After all, an academic title can be a tool to remind others of their expertise in a world that often undermines them.

But this is not just a feminist or racial issue. It is an issue for everyone who believes in the recognition of achievement and knowledge. Though doctoral graduates will continue to contribute to their fields regardless of how they are addressed, it is only appropriate to recognise their hard-earned credentials. And if the debate over Jill Biden’s EdD helps to underline that expertise of all kinds should be recognised and respected, then some good, at least, will have come out of a very unsavoury episode.

(Dr) Vipul Sharma is assistant director for postdoctoral affairs at the University of Chicago and is co-chair of the National Postdoctoral Association’s Diversity Task Force.

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