A sense of entitlement

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Higher ed, as the casual observer might divine, is awash in titles. We have directors and managers, assistants and associates, fulls and interims. We’re well-versed in vice. Titles mean everything, which is another way of saying they mean nothing.

I’m reminded of that “Cheers” episode in which Rebecca, the bar manager, gives Carla and Woody, barmaid and barkeep, respectively, contrived, bombastic titles because the establishment can’t afford to award raises. They’re thrilled beyond comprehension, sporting their titles like badges of honor and quickly forgetting the corresponding lack of pay.

Back here in collegeland, titles work much the same way. I once went from assistant to associate director of nail clipping, or some such activity, with no raise or change in duties. Nor did I suddenly outrank colleagues and demand they do my laundry. I did, however, have to get new business cards and amend my email signature. For that, I gather, I was supposed to feel professionally elevated and compelled to clip more nails.

Some titles are more self-evident than others. Presidents, we intuit, preside, just as chancellors chancel. An associate vice president is an aide to someone who aids the president. That individual is, technically, an administrative assistant, known in previous generations as a secretary. We don’t use that term anymore because it’s demeaning. Plans are under way in Washington, in fact, to create an “administrative assistant of state” cabinet position.

Provost also is a peculiar title. On most campuses, it denotes the chief academic officer. The equivalent abroad is pro-vice-chancellor, not to be confused with the anti-vice-chancellor, normally the faculty senate president. Some institutions add “academic vice president” to “provost” just to belabor the issue.

Using that logic, we could have a “president and august chief toastmaster” to head up the joint. Did you know that the University of Pennsylvania didn’t have a president until 1930? The campus was led by a provost, owing, ostensibly, to the university’s Scottish heritage. Actually, the phenomenon was the result of 72 failed searches over the span of 190 years.

Endowed positions provide yet another level of titledom. You can be the Ethan Allen Professor of the Ottoman Empire, certainly a distinguished chair, or perhaps the Anna Graham Professor of English Syntax or the Ben E. Drill Professor of Immunology. Some endowed designations have fallen out of favor, such as chairs tied to Enron, Big Tobacco, Arthur Andersen (not the accounting firm but the unfortunate chap who happens to share its name) and Pee Wee Herman. Nonetheless, endowed chairs provide incumbents incalculable prestige in the academy, enviable salaries, and slush funds for research, conference presentations and similarly frivolous junkets.

The longer the faculty title, the more clout it conveys. Having the Dr. Edmund and Ms. Fanny Fitzgerald Exalted Professorship in Midwestern Maritime Studies is clearly superior to the mundane associate professor moniker. Yet among administrators, the opposite holds true: president beats vice president, which in turn beats assistant vice president, which thoroughly trounces assistant to the assistant vice president. More modifiers equate to lower status on the admin org chart.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. Thanks to enterprising fund raisers, some non-teaching roles now carry fancy titles of their own. Donors can attach their names to deans, band leaders, coaches and, coming soon to a university near you, their favorite student-athletes. Imagine the country club bragging rights when you announce you’ve established the Duncan Dervish Endowed Power Forward Position, the proceeds of which, naturally, do not attend to the player himself. Naturally.

To manage these ever-elongating titles, the academy has come up with a series of initialisms. We have the CEO (borrowed from private industry, along with the salaries), the CFO, the COO (bloodless, usually), the CIO (which, somewhere along the way, lost its AFL), the CAO (which can be either the chief academic or advancement officer) and the CDO (relating to development or diversity, and never the twain shall meet). Lots of chiefs inhabit our universities, which is chiefly the reason why tuition continues to outpace inflation.

Titles even trickle down to students, beginning with freshmen, who are, for the sake of gender clarity, no longer known as freshmen. “Freshperson” never caught on, likely because of the suggestion of social impropriety, and “freshpeople” sounds like the latest boy band. So we went with “first-year student,” newbies who are subjected to freshman orientation and freshman seminars.

Each institution has its own titular culture, which can be confusing to those outside its gates. When a visitor comes to campus — say, a job candidate interviewing for a title of his own — we introduce ourselves by stating our titles and expect that person to know exactly what we do. “I’m assistant director of procurement operations,” you announce confidently, only to discover a flummoxed gaze in return. “I buy stuff,” you add. He’ll catch on.

We’ve grown entitled to our titles, forever chasing shiny new ones that bring luster to our resumes and fill us with a sense of pride and purpose. We look askance at those whose title pursuits seem downwardly mobile, even though they might have had good reasons — such as more money or better working conditions or a shorter commute — for their descent.

After we retire, we cling to our titles, often adding “emeritus,” Latin for “no longer on the payroll,” as a suffix. In an age when “personal branding” has become all the rage, we covet things that easily identify and position us. Titles confer worth, or perhaps validate it. They have become a form of currency. They define our existence.

And yet, they don’t. Titles come and go; intrinsic value persists. Case in point: I tried giving my dog Brady a new title, executive canine, to see if he would stop stealing dirty underwear from the laundry pile. We emblazoned his new title on his bowl and fastened a sign on his crate.

I even wrote a press release for the family newsletter touting his appointment. He did strut about with a more dignified air, but, alas, his malfeasance continued. Stripped of his title and standing, Brady has found legitimacy on his own terms.

He’s a consultant.

Mark J. Drozdowski is director of university communications at the University of New Haven.

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