Profligate honorifics

March 27, 2008

It is becoming increasingly common for managers to misuse honorary and visiting academic titles. The National Health Service is particularly guilty. One comes across people who use the title "professor" but who are not employed by a university. Often, these titles have been conferred for non-academic contributions to academic work. However, it advances careers and accords individuals credibility among peers and with the public.

We know of chief executives of NHS trusts who use the title "Dr" when it was awarded in a purely honorific sense. The Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Nursing Officer use the title "professor", and former chairs of the Nursing and Midwifery Council and English National Board for Nursing have used the title "Dr" and "professor" respectively, even though these were apparently honorary awards. We should know which institutions awarded these titles and in what capacity they can be used. Some universities are denigrating the title by failing to stipulate the circumstances under which they should be used, such as whether they relate to honorary, adjunctive or visiting appointments. Indeed, in some universities, the entire level of senior managers adopts the professorial title whether merited or not. Should the professorial glut be accepted as a fact of life? We think not. Most people who have earned an academic title have worked hard to attain the status and been accorded it as recognition for a unique contribution to knowledge.

The title "professor" demonstrates academic leadership (not to be confused with management) and indicates national (as a minimum) recognition in a field of scholarship.

This colonisation of academic titles by managers devalues true scholarly work. It also misleads students and the public. We could end up with people in the professions dropping the title because it has become so common. This is the case in the US, where the professorial title is distributed liberally and academics are quick to state that they are "Dr" or a "full professor".

David R. Thompson, University of Leicester; Roger Watson, University of Sheffield.

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