Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Conundrums of Rank and Title at the University: Faculty Solidarity Versus Consumer Protection

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2017)

Universities worldwide have long dealt with the core issue of how an institution may convey information respecting individual faculty members.  The information that is conveyed relates to (1) rank, (2) status, and (3) function.  The information is usually embedded within what is commonly called the rank and titling of faculty within the university. Information conveyed by titling is directed to the community of academics and also to critical stakeholders (students, outside funding agencies, and others). 

This post considers briefly the complexities of titling faculty, revealing of the underlying issues that tend to make any real sort of principled construction of a coherent structure for titling faculty  unlikely.   It suggests that current efforts to reform issues of rank and title may not be able to avoid conflicts between principles of consumer protection and those of equity and solidarity among faculty workers.

Almost 20 years ago, Michael I. Shamos, Ph.D., J.D., Distinguished Career Professor, School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University, published a jewel of a study: Handbook of Academic Titles (2002)He notes in its introduction:

This is literally so, since many a professor has been lured or retained, in lieu of a salary increase, by the promise of a more exalted title. It is not clear, given the proliferation of such titles in the US, precisely what status each one denotes. More than 800 are described in this book, along with prescriptions for generating thousands more.

An "academic title," broadly, is a designation given to individuals who "engage in teaching of credit courses, academic research, or professional library service." (Oakland U.) Generally a title is relied on to convey three attributes of its holder: rank (level of appointment), status (Regular Faculty or otherwise) and function (Teaching, Clinical, Research, etc.) The title may also carry an Honorific, such as "Distinguished," as mark of special recognition. This much was recognized by W. S. Gilbert in referring to The Mikado's Lord High Executioner as "a personage of noble rank and title," making it clear that rank and title are different. "Lord" conveys nobility; "High" specifies rank; "Executioner" defines function.

While this trichotomy is fairly logical, there is much confusion in practice between the concepts of "title" and "rank." Title ought to mean no more than the name by which an academic position is known, e.g. "Associate Professor of the Practice of Surgery." But such a statement is too simplistic; one must consider the distinctions among Official Title, Working Title and Functional Title. Rank refers to the holder's position in an ordered promotion sequence known as a Series. The fundamental Series in US institutions is {Instructor, Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, Professor}, which are listed in order of increasing rank. Titles not in this Series almost always indicate a position equivalent in rank to a particular rank in the Series. For example, at Carnegie Mellon the title "Senior Research Scientist" indicates a nontenured position ("non-noble," one might say), a function of Scientist and a rank equivalent to Associate Professor.

The variety of academic titles in use is impressively vast. Numerous unusual situations have arisen at different institutions that have spawned the creation of carefully crafted titles to deal with specialized circumstances. If your institution is trying to create a title to describe a particular position, it has probably already been devised elsewhere and you will find it in this Handbook.

Professor Shamos suggests a number of issues that tend to influence the construction of titling regimes at the university. 

1.Titling has long been used as a "benefit" along with wages and working conditions.  An individual can be recruited or retained on the basis of the sort of title she may be accorded. It is only the limitations of imagination and the willingness of the appropriate academic community to recognize the value of a title (relative to others) that limits the ability to use titles as "currency" in employment markets. 

2.  Titling reminds us that it acquires its value by conveying information about the hierarchy within which faculty are placed.  And hierarchy sits at the core of ordering the world of academic labor markets. Hierarchy here can be understood in multiple senses. For example it may indicate progress to and through tenure, or it may indicate the esteem to which the university holds the employee (relative to others), or it may indicate assessment of reputation within an academic field. It is for that reason that rank and titles will often diverge.

3.  But if rank, then, suggests only a part of the hierarchies within which titles are framed, then the conflation of rank and title designations also produces ambiguity, appearing to conflate the two when that is often not the case. Confusion sometimes arises where the identification of place within a rank series also serves as the title of the academic.  In that case a single word becomes an ambiguous marker f status and may not convey information accurately. The typical case involves the titling of academics by reference to a place on the series of ranks indicating progress toward or through tenure, whether or not their status includes tenure.  This becomes important because tenure, like rank and title, is meant to convey information about function and  authority that derive from continuing appointment and academic freedom. It might also convey information about the relationship of the holder to function--that is as a producer and disseminator of knowledge, or only as one or the other.  

4.  That, in turn, suggests a possible contradiction between two important principles of university operation.

A. Consumer protection. Academic titles ought to clearly serve their purpose--to convey truthful information about the rank, status and function of any individual academic.  That is particularly important when, in this age of consumer choice (both students enrolling and employers deciding from which institutions they will draw future employees), the university's policy choices that produce sometimes quite different divisions among distinct classes of faculty can and ought to play an important role in exercising  informed consumer choice.  That exercise of informed choice becomes more difficult where consumers are unable to acquire sufficient information about the rank, status and function of individual faculty and of faculty as a whole.  It may be important, for example, to know that a majority of faculty are fixed term full or part time faculty with no research responsibilities and no protections of academic freedom.  It might be useful to know that a title indicates a certain level of accomplishment recognized within a discipline. Where the university chooses to blur the realities of its cost saving strategies by putting its faculty ought in ways that suggest that they share the same status and protections, it might be said to mis-direct consumers who whom this information is important.  Informed consumer choice is not possible where titles becomes monikers of convenience and marketing ploys that convey no information other than the tastes of an institution for particular titles to ascribe to individuals but which have no real connection with rank, status or function in any meaningful way. The ethics of using marketing principles in this way might merit some thought, especially by university administrators embracing stronger ethics based decision making.  None of that appears likely in the short term.  In that case social norms that prize consumer protection might guide choices.

B.  Equity Within University Faculties. As universities increasingly substitute fixed term, adjunct and graduate assistant faculty for the traditional reliance on tenured and tenure track faculty. Encouraging faculty solidarity has increasingly required  workers to ignore the differences in their rank, status or function--even if they all share the same title.  But that also adds to friction.  In many law schools, writing instructors and clinical faculty are titled "professors" but are denied participation in hiring decisions, and certainly in tenure decisions. Individuals holding the same title may have different expectations of function--teaching, research and service. And the contingent status of fixed term and adjunct faculty permit units to increase cadres of faculty under their domination and control all the while encouraging internal divisions.  More discouraging is the trend, now well advanced, to create expectations for fixed term faculties that in all respects mirror those of tenured faculty, but without the protections of tenure or academic freedom and always subject to the unbounded discretion of administrators (almost always drawn from the ranks of tenured faculty) to refuse to renew their contracts.  For many faculty in this position, only the dignity of a title provides the barest cover for the realities of their position within the university. Equity pulls faculty away fro the fractures that are increasingly imposed by university administrators in favor of the solidarity that calls the guilds of early universities--and the unions of this century (e.g., Gerhard Casper, Cares of the University) One sees this tension as well in the efforts of many universities to "make sense" of their rank-title systems (e.g., here, here, here, here, here, and here).  

5.  The result: it is unlikely that the contradiction between principles of equity and those of consumer protection--one focusing on the internal organization of the university, the other focusing on the university's external relations, can be resolved under the current titling regimes, however elaborate universities seek to make them.  If the core object is to convey truthful information to reflects the realities of university labor organization among its faculty, then it will be necessary to avoid conflations of rank and title and the proliferation of prefixes and suffixes (--of practice, etc.) that convey little information that may be is use to consumers.

6.  There is a path forward however:  The university and its faculty will have to rethink the components of rank, status and function and to build those into a truthful set of titles. These should include the tenure status of the title holder, coverage by principles of academic freedom, the focus of function (teaching only, research only, teaching/service/research) and the like. A fairer and more transparent system would be based strictly on a principle that all titles ought to be functional, that is, the rank, status and function components of titling but grounded on what may be important to consumers, one in which rank would be specified by position along a well defined and transparent hierarchy (which includes protections of academic freedom), status would be based on nature of employment relation (fixed term or continuing term), and function would be based on work activity (teaching or research, field of work and the like). While this system may be complex, it would represent an advance over the much patched up titling system created for another time and for a different vision of the university (e.g., here), and which now veils as much as it reveals. 

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