Retiring staff are not shy of one last fight for a title

US faculty veterans are willing to go to court to claim the 'emeritus' honorific. Jon Marcus reports

June 11, 2009

It carries no salary and few tangible benefits, but growing numbers of retired US faculty are prepared to go to the courts to fight for the title of "emeritus professor".

Research by Robert Jarvis, professor of law at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, has identified a dozen recent court rulings in cases brought by academics over the "emeritus" title - an honorific bestowed on retired professors.

Given the proportion of cases in the US that are settled out of court, Dr Jarvis extrapolates that as many as 600 such lawsuits have been filed.

"The topic hardly seems worth grousing about, much less suing over, yet such disputes are beginning to show up in court," said Dr Jarvis, whose research paper on the subject, "Much Ado about Nothing", was published in the Nevada Law Journal. "And given the 'greying' of the academy, it seems certain that more are on the way," he added.

"We all know that universities are very odd places that have very little touch with the real world. And the reason for that is that the normal coin of the realm, money, does not exist in academia. The coin of the realm in academia is prestige."

So far, such cases have not been successful. In one, Alfred Avins, the founding dean of the Delaware Law School, feuded with trustees over a merger with another school. He was asked to resign, partly in exchange for the title of "dean emeritus". When the trustees threatened to withdraw the title after he continued to campaign against the merger, Dr Avins sued to keep it. He lost.

When Paul Nash, professor and chair of the department of humanistic education and human services at Boston University, was told that the department was to be disbanded, he negotiated a retirement package that included emeritus rank. But Boston withdrew it after a dispute about his plans for alternative employment. He lost, too.

Universities have also denied emeritus rank to faculty who caused them problems. Martin Zelnik, professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, was unanimously nominated for emeritus status by his colleagues. But because he was a member of a group of neighbours that opposed the university's expansion, Joyce Brown, the institution's president, refused to give it to him.

Professor Zelnik sued, lost and appealed to the US Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case.

Francis Shovlin, professor at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, had for years publicly called various administrators incompetent. He sued the university when it refused him emeritus rank despite the backing of the promotions committee. He lost.

Dr Jarvis has concluded that universities could spare themselves strife by giving emeritus status to everyone, giving it to no one, or bestowing the title posthumously.

He added that he would welcome the title "emeritus" one day.

"Sure. I'm like every academic. But my wife said, when she read my article: 'You do understand that they'll never give it to you?'"

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