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Devious Use of Academic Titles

Thu, 3 Dec 2009 Source: Pryce, Daniel K.

: Professor Kwesi Yankah Spoke for Many!

On November 30, 2009, Ghanaweb.com, the leading and oft-accessed pro-Ghanaian Internet portal, carried a news item regarding Professor Kwesi Yankah’s recent peroration at the 50th anniversary seminar of the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences, an organization founded in 1959 by President Kwame Nkrumah to seek and promote excellence in the arts and sciences in the country. A Fellow of the august Academy, Professor Yankah would justifiably bemoan the proliferation and surreptitious utilization of academic titles by crooks and popinjays who did not labor for said titles. Yes, titles can easily distend a person’s ego – and most people are indeed captivated by academic titles – but no one will begrudge a holder of such degrees if the person acquired said titles the right way – by burning the proverbial midnight oil.

Universities around the world confer titles on deserving recipients for one good deed or another, but these titles are not expected to be used formally, as is often done by some pseudo-intellectuals and egomaniacal leaders in Ghana, and by perpetrators the Ghanaian Observer calls “imposters and academic charlatans.” Sadly, these pseudo-intellectuals will continue to deceive the hoi polloi because the average Ghanaian lacks the knowledge and sophistication necessary to determine who has genuine credentials – and who has counterfeit ones. Because the “perception that high academic laurels of an aspirant to political office could enhance his credibility and capacity to canvass for local and national development” (Ghanaian Observer) exists among voters, many crooks and aspiring politicians would continually exploit the masses to the latter’s disadvantage.

Certainly, there are genuine “Reverend Doctors” who have earned their theology degrees the hard way – from reputable and accredited institutions – but for those who studied in a hut in Donkorkrom or Agotime to employ such prefixes is indeed the epitome of fraud and perfidy. And then there are those who have never defended a dissertation or thesis “at least 250 pages examined, passed and defended through a viva” (Professor Kwesi Yankey, as reported by the Ghanaian Observer) at any time in their lives, yet they are traversing the vestibules of power in Accra with honorary doctoral degrees that were not earned the hard way! By “honorary” we mean an award that is not legally enforceable, folks! So, those with master’s degrees who are deceiving the hoi polloi with their honorifically conferred doctoral degrees should revert to the use of the prefix “Mister,” to save themselves the embarrassment intricately tied to their delusions of grandeur!

Perhaps, the title “Professor” is one that is vastly misunderstood, as the title simply refers to someone who is an expert in a particular field, or is a university teacher. In the U.S.A., a person does not have to necessarily hold a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) degree to be called a “Professor,” as some advanced college programs do not go beyond the master’s degree. Technically, though, someone with a master’s degree who teaches at an American university is referred to as an “Instructor.” Therefore, the correct use of the title “Professor” will denote someone with a Ph.D. who teaches at the university. Of course, we have certain gradations and their advantages: An Assistant Professor is just beginning his career as a university teacher; an Associate Professor most likely has a tenure-track job, and cannot be easily dismissed by the university. In other words, an Associate Professor has earned the right to have a lifetime of employment, if he so chooses. An Associate Professor can become a full professor after a number of years.

Tenure is an essential part of the lives of Associate Professors and full Professors, as it allows them to delve into controversial, yet knowledge-imparting, topics without fear of job loss. Most universities in the U.S.A. allow an Assistant Professor approximately 7 years to reach the tenure track of Associate Professor. Similarly, it takes several years for an Associate Professor to become a full Professor, as alluded to earlier. A Professor Emeritus is a retired professor who left his job while in good standing with the university. Such people usually remain in their old offices on campus and may even teach occasionally.

According to Nancy Steinbach, a Voice of America (VOA) Special English Education reporter, “Assistant, associate and full professors at American universities perform many duties. They teach classes. They advise students. And they carry out research that is published. They also serve on university committees and take part in other activities. Other faculty members at American universities are not expected to do all these jobs. They are not on a tenure track. Instead, they might be in adjunct or visiting positions. A visiting professor has a job at one school but works at another for a period of time. An adjunct professor is also a limited or part-time position, to do research or teach classes. Adjunct professors have a doctorate. Another position is lecturer. Lecturers teach classes, but they may or may not have a doctorate.” The aforementioned statements should correct some of the errors that we have seen on pro-Ghanaian Internet conduits in recent times regarding the teaching profession at the university level.

Let me make some clarifications as to why people with law degrees do not typically use the prefix “Doctor,” although they could, if they wanted to. The Juris Doctor (or Doctor of Jurisprudence) degree, commonly abbreviated as J.D., is a professional degree conferred by most American Bar Association-approved law schools in the U.S.A. An undergraduate degree is needed to get into an American law school. The J.D. was designed, starting in the 1960s, to replace the ordinary law (undergraduate) degree, called the LLB or Bachelor of Laws. Of course, there are other law degrees as well. Most J.D. degree holders do not use the prefix “Doctor,” however, because it is not an academic research degree. As such, the standard convention still remains thus: If a person does not hold a Ph.D. degree, or a professional degree in the medical, dental or veterinary sciences, then it will come across as odd to those in academia if said person used the prefix “Doctor.” This rationale explains why millions of lawyers in the U.S.A., including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, do not use the title “Doctor.”

Professor Kwesi Yankah rightly pointed out that “title conferment should be considered more as responsibility and a burden than a privilege … at least it should challenge honorees to stay the course and not deflate the exacting standards for which the honor was bestowed” (Ghanaian Observer). While ex-presidents Rawlings and Kufuor have had honorary doctorates conferred on them, both men have rightly avoided controversy by not using the prefix “Doctor,” as these degrees were not earned. Also, we need to stop calling President Atta Mills “Professor,” because he is no longer actively teaching at the university. And “Professor Emeritus” may not apply either. Instead, we ought to call Atta Mills by his legally and academically acquired title: “Doctor.”

Sadly, there are a few others who are deceiving the public with their honorary Ph.D.s. I call on such people to desist from using such titles: If they so badly want the title of “Doctor,” they need to get it in the manner in which my dear friend, Charles Appeadu; Kwame Okoampa Ahoofe, Jr.; Michael Bokor and the thousands of other Ghanaians got theirs: by burning the proverbial midnight oil! To those who display jealousy and animosity when they see others’ academic laurels, please stop making desultory remarks about these high achievers and rather acknowledge their hard work. In other words, attack their positions on the issues under discussion, but not their well-merited degrees!

Written and submitted December 1, 2009.

The writer, Daniel K. Pryce, holds a master’s degree in public administration from George Mason University, U.S.A. He is a member of the national honor society for public affairs and administration in the U.S.A. He can be reached at dpryce@cox.net.

Columnist: Pryce, Daniel K.