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Professor me arse

March 21, 2012

A chair for everyone in the audience!

Recently Dublin Institute of Technology hosted the bizarre, yet strangely inevitable, spectacle of the Institute awarding ten of its own academic staff “honorary professorships.” Bizarre because no such notion of professorship exists, and inevitable because it crystallizes the over-weening ambitions of the Presidents of the Institutes of Technology, who have lost sight of their mission during the recent period of expansion.

On the one hand, the prioritisation of growth has led Irish universities to hoover up academically unprepared students, undermining standards to the point where they have impaired their ability to distinguish between the good, the bad and the indifferent. On the other hand, the IoT’s have drifted away from their original mission and engaged in a head-long rush to be considered universities. In this post we look at how the latter has found expression in bizarre spectacles, such as the recent DIT dog-and-pony show.

Professor Make-believe

The term “professor” has different connotations in different countries. In Ireland, as in most of English speaking countries, it is normally reserved for senior academics holding a departmental chair at a university. It is a position to which one is either hired or promoted.

Sometimes the term “associate professor” is used for the lesser position of senior lecturer – sometimes it is a little higher. And finally there are “adjunct professorships” referring to non-tenured positions. The title “professor” is, however, usually reserved for full professors.

Changes can occur. Trinity College Dublin recently designated all of their academic staff as “Professors” of some sort or other, so that they’d be taken more seriously internationally. Apparently, the fall of Irish universities in international rankings can be reversed by renaming your staff, although at the cost of confusing “Assistant Professors“, who are non-tenured, with “Lecturers“, who are permanent.

The position of “honorary professor” does exist in a few institutions, but never for permanent academic staff. Trinity occasionally awards such a title but not to salaried staff, and the University of Cambridge can also award them to non-employees, but only for five years.

DIT has now created a completely new academic appellation, wholly at odds with normal convention. Moreover, the manner in which it is being awarded is conflating a promotion with a conferral. The institute president “Professor” Brian Norton may well claim that the academic staff were peer-reviewed for the posts, but conferring is a highly unusual way to promote staff.

In fairness, at least the ten staff actually have doctorates, unlike some other soi-disant professors in the sector, which we’ll come to later. No doubt many of the ten are deserving, but, it being Irish third level, there are probably those in the ranks that are getting a pat on the back for towing some party line or other. Indeed, the preponderance of Heads of Department in the awardees, suggests this reading of the ceremony.

Furthermore, Norton’s claim that “it also reflects honour on your Schools and Colleges, and on DIT as an institution” supports the interpretation that the whole thing is a self-aggrandizing charade, wholly for the benefit of inflating some already-inflated egos. In this, they are not alone.

The WIT-less Professor

Promoted to professor by pulling on his own boot-straps

The fact that there is no recognised title of professor in the Institutes of Technology has encouraged some in the sector to proclaim themselves as such. Take the case of “Professor” Kieran Byrne, President of Waterford Institute of Technology from 2001 until his inglorious exit in 2011.

From the moment he took up the reins in WIT he appears to have insisted on being called professor. The justification for this remains obscure, although it may be related to his previous stint in the University of Limerick, where he was a Vice-President. Apparently, during his time at UL he also acquired the lesser position of associate professor, and decided not only to carry it to his new post in WIT where no such position existed, but to upgrade himself to full professor for good measure.

This taste for extravagant titles seems to have been matched with other extravagant tastes, including lavish offices to the tune of €157,050 and taxi rides worth €129,295. While it all ultimately cost him reappointment, one wonders whether his turning down of a €120,000 “step-back” position he was offered had anything to do with the title of the post.

Is there a doctor in the house?

Biffo and the Bluffer

The strangest case of all has to be Athlone IT’s President, “Professor” Ciarán Ó Catháin. Head of AIT since 2001, Ó Catháin has been in the media a lot of late arguing for Technological University status. Whether he’s addressing Longford County Council or trying to justify spending €200,000 on design and planning fees for a building that was never built, Ó Catháin is always a “professor.”

Strange-to-say, Ó Catháin appears to have been a professor long before he even had a PhD. In 2002 “Professor” Ó Catháin was attending a cross-border conference and complaining about not having enough money, while 2003 saw him drumming up Chinese students for AIT and helping an expert group on the knowledge society.

No doubt, the added gravitas associated with his “professorship” meant people at these events took his opinions that bit more seriously. The only problem is that, not only is he not an IoT professor, as none exist, but Ó Catháin didn’t even have a doctorate until 2004. Either the President of AIT has no idea what a professor actually is, or else he has been trying to pull a fast one to bolster his prestige.

Sowing confusion all the way to TU status

All of this tom-foolery around titles takes on a more serious aspect when considered in light of the IoT’s attempts to gain the much-coveted ‘technological university’ status. Part of the criteria for upgrading is that 45% of academic staff must hold a doctorate. With current levels in the IoT’s hovering at about 20%, there is a big mountain to climb.

What better way to muddy the waters than to conflate doctorates with professorships (a la Ó Catháin), conflate promotion with conferring (a la DIT) or carry your prestigious title from job to job (a la Byrne). With any luck, the Higher Education Authority will be bamboozled into relaxing the criteria or allowing all kinds of creative accounting to meet the targets.

Unfortunately for the IoT Presidents, this is all highly unlikely, because there are enough people who can tell the difference between such things. In fact, as they pander to their vanity, they drag the whole sector into disrepute.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. Jimmy P permalink
    March 21, 2012 9:21 am

    Good post, but I guess it presupposes that titles actually matter. Who cares what we call a professor versus what a professor “actually” is? It’s a job title and should be treated as such. We don’t hear of too many “Director John Murphys” around the place, so why care about this nonsensical, self-egratiating and meaningless title? The title “professor” isn’t any more legally protected than “engineer” is, and given that that is the case, why should anyone be put out by someone calling themselves a professor, when it is clearly a trite adjective? Surely the measure of a person’s worth, or prestige if you like, is their ability to effectively perform the job they are paid to carry out, and the better they do that, the more we should acknowledge their expert status? Now, if a title could really do that, then it would be a truly magical word, and one worth fighting over.

    • March 22, 2012 11:19 am

      That’s one way of looking at it. On the other hand, words do have meaning and we should resist their debasement, particularly when they are being employed in an attempt to claim some kind of authority.

  2. dan permalink
    March 21, 2012 7:21 pm

    http://politico.ie/crisisjam/8365-productivity-baby.html

    I refer to this article here

  3. cormac permalink
    March 22, 2012 6:04 pm

    There are several points made in this post that are worthy of serious consideration. It’s a pity the tone is that of the Sunday Independent on a bad day. Expressions like ‘professor me arse’ and ‘Professor make-believe’ immediately convey the impression of an opinionated writer with a loose grasp of the difference between opinion and fact.
    The self-aggrandisement of upper management of IoTs is an intriguing phenomenon (you might start with the recent title of presidents). Certainly, they seem to be losing the run of themselves.
    However, how about ‘Network for Irish educational Standards’? A pretty grandiose title for a gossipy blog written by three academics, only one of which is willing to make himself visible, as far as I can tell. A bit more analysis and a bit less prejudice from the ‘editor’ (a rather fancy title for a blogger) could make for a blog with content worth reading

  4. March 27, 2012 9:20 pm

    You spelled ‘Reigns’ wrong. It should be ‘Reins’ Have you lost the reigns of yourselves, or is grade inflation coming home to roost?

  5. March 30, 2012 3:22 pm

    Great post! Used to work in an IT and saw some of this stuff first hand. We have a new book that covers some of these issues: Degrees of Nonsense – The Demise of the University in Ireland http://www.amazon.com/dp/1908689021/

  6. Willie permalink
    April 23, 2012 11:03 am

    I find it surprising that considering your proclaimed interest in standards and the protection of the title of university professor you have made no mention of TCD’s decision to award the title of professor to all tenured staff. Await the arrival of your block and the tone of your analysis

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