Desmond O’Neill: Quantitative easing – the academic version

Desmond O'NeillThe economic downturn has given us all a crash course in the arcane language of economics. A fine example is “quantitative easing,” a sober and serious sounding euphemism for the unnerving practice of governments printing money to spend their way out of a hole. While it may make sense in the short term, it dilutes the value of the currency and creates huge liabilities for the future, and thus is a step taken only in extreme circumstances and with due consideration.

Aligning itself to the spirit of the time, an Irish university, Trinity College Dublin, has just engaged in a major rebadging of academic grades that has uncanny echoes of quantitative easing. With these processes justified on the basis of alignment with academic standing in US universities, lecturers have been renamed assistant professors, senior lecturers as associate professors, and associate professors as full professors.

However, in the USA, the use of these titles is restrained, and those with the status of assistant, associate, and even full professor would rarely introduce themselves by the professorial title, content with title “Dr” arising from their PhDs.

Not so in the old world, and in a fine example of the challenge of introducing piecemeal changes from other systems, a rash of rebranding has taken place. Within the hospital system, except for those exercising admirable insight and restraint, the use of the title professor has spread more rapidly than a viral pandemic, to the point that exclusivity is now beginning to lie with those without a professorial prefix.

Does it really matter? It is not just a question of the disgruntlement of those who earned professorial titles the “hard” way: even to a hardened Dawkinite agnostic, the new testament parables of the labourers in the vineyard and the prodigal son contain useful psychological insights into how we adapt to the fact that the world does not deal equally with application and hard work, and learning that focusing on what others have gained is a waste of time and emotional energy.

But no less than with grade-inflation, the perception of title-inflation risks not only undermining the academic currency, but more worryingly may also alienate the general public, on whose moral and financial support the wellbeing of the academic system depends.

In addition, the pursuit of titular advancement without clear evidence of achievement invites mockery. Perhaps the best reflection of this is provided by Molière, a wonderful commentator on the myopia of professional pride. For example, in the final act of Le Malade Imaginaire (The Hypochondriac), the central character, Argan, can be cured only by induction in a mock-conferring ceremony with a pretend title as a doctor himself. There is little as undermining of respect as self-induced ridicule!

So, how might a desire to provide equivalence with the US academic system be allied with a due professional modesty that would retain the respect and trust of the public? One possible route would be to develop a code of practice whereby those working with the academic system with the new titles of assistant and associate professor level would distance themselves from the use of the professorial prefix, and for day to day use simply use the title from earned degrees.

Such a system already exists in the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland where all, regardless of the eminence of their scholarly activites, are referred to as “Dr” in the documents of the college. Similarily, most of those conferred with honorary degrees follow the convention whereby they do not use the prefix “Dr.”

And what of the author, lest he be accused of hypocrisy? On the first day at work in the UK, my insightful professor said to me: “I don’t mind what you call me, as long as the manner is professional and respectful.” What was good enough for him remains good enough for me, although one unexpected benefit of the professorial title manifested itself recently.

A student undertaking work experience in our clerical office heard the staff refer to me as “the prof” during his week of work experience. When it came to Friday, he was heard to ask whether he should say good-bye to “the Hoff”: as yet the orange swimsuits have not appeared in the department!

In this spirit, hopefully Trinity College will turn to the Irish sense of the absurd and amusing and reframe a presumably well-meaning initiative in a manner that retains the confidence and trust of the public.

Dr (or prof!) Des O’Neill is a consultant physician in geriatric and stroke medicine