A piece in today’s Sunday Times:
Title of lecturer is phased out at many academic institutions to improve staff status at no cost.
It is not just grades that are inflating in Irish universities: the number of professors has soared over the past 20 years, a survey by The Sunday Times has found.
One of the biggest increases has been at Dublin City University (DCU), where there were just four professors in 1991, and 48 in 2001. Now there are 105.
The number of caps and gowns has mushroomed at Belfield, the campus of University College Dublin. It had 111 professors in 2001, plus 63 associate professors, making a total of 174. Now the academic ranks have swollen to 189 “full” professors, 116 ordinary professors, 284 associate professors and 712 assistant professors, making a grand total of 1,301.
At Trinity College Dublin, the upgrading started in earnest in 2011, after a working party on the internationalisation of academic titles recommended that it phase out the title of lecturer and replace it with professor.
At the time, Trinity said the aim was to standardise, and follow a precedent set by third-level colleges in America. The result is that the college has gone from having 771 professors in 2011, including assistants, associates and chair professors, to 914 today. Back in 1991, Trinity made do with 234 professors.
One senior academic there believes title inflation has devalued the traditional notion of what it meant to be a professor. Seán Barrett, fellow emeritus of economics, says its status is reduced when more and more academics possess the title.
“Being a professor has lost its distinction,” Barrett said. “Even from watching interviews on TV, you can see that there’s so many professors.”
He added: “The name change occurred because the title of lecturer was judged to be inferior in international academic circles. [Retitling] was also useful in the frequent economic crises, when universities short of cash could substitute improved titles for extra take-home pay. That gave a certain temporary feelgood factor.”
Barrett, who joined Trinity in the 1970s, was among those who had his title upgraded from senior lecturer to associate professor in 2011. He believes the net result of the changes was to give administrators a greater role in university management. “Since power has shifted from the old full professors, who used to run universities, to a growing army of bureaucrats, the devaluation of full professors is likely to add to costs,” he said.
“I do think this is perhaps more the case in other universities though, as Trinity has the fellowships institution [a body of professors] which has an input into governance. However, from going around Irish universities, [I’ve noticed] a sort of a low morale and kind of despair that the bureaucracy has expanded so much, and in fact most universities aren’t run by academics any more.”
Eileen Drew, fellow emeritus at the school of computer science and statistics in Trinity, does not agree that retitling has devalued the status of university professor, but noted it did not involve a pay rise.
“It was helpful in applying for international funding or being part of international networks and exchanges,” she said. “Prior to that what you were up against were people who would have been professors in a French, German or Swedish university, but you were only a lecturer or a senior lecturer in the Irish system.”
She said there have been benefits for female academics too. “Psychologically, I think it helped women to feel, ‘Yes, I can be a professor too,’ even though they didn’t have many role models at the time,” Drew said. “Many would have thought that once they were already an assistant or an associate [professor], why shouldn’t they rise in the ranks as men would have traditionally done?”
In 1991, all of DCU’s four professors were men, while of the 105 it has now, 37 per cent are women.
Anne Sinnott, DCU deputy president, said gender balance is something it has focused on. “Our last president, Brian MacCraith, instituted a women in leadership committee which adopted a whole range of activities to ensure women would become better represented at senior levels,” she said.
“Slowly but surely that’s beginning to happen but only . . . [because it was] deliberately planned. For a long time, the bar [for women] would have been seen at senior lecturer. Every year, we have an annual competition for promotion to associate professor. For the last four or five years, we have moved to having two lists and if we’ve six promotions, three will go to women and three to men.” [J4MB emphasis]
Drew, who joined Trinity College in 1981, often uses her title in her signature but does not expect people to refer to her as professor. “When people are introducing you they would use your title but my students just call me Eileen,” she said. “In school, it’s appropriate to be called Ms or Mr, but at university everyone is an adult, so why would I be going by professor?”
Ita Richardson, a professor of software quality at the University of Limerick, was recently promoted to full professor. UL did not follow the Dublin universities in upgrading its academic titles and has kept lecturers and senior lecturers.
“I’m still smiling,” Richardson said. “When you become a full professor you have hit the top of the academic ladder and it’s something very gratifying. However, if you asked a UL student now, they probably wouldn’t know whether I’m a lecturer or a professor.”
UL had 46 professors in 2002, which rose to 73 in 2011 and it now has 132. NUI Galway has had a more modest increase in gowns, with 105 professors in 2011 and 167 today. University College Cork had 108 professors in 2002, and now has 185.
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