TT: Deans and Dons

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back one and curl up with me as I share a bowl of curry and a good book.  Then join me and Alan as we decipher who is what in the British academic world.

Lewis and Tolkien

JANE: Now I have a question about your educational system. When I was reading about C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, they were referred to as “dons” or was it “deans”?  Anyhow, what is a don?  Is it the same as a dean?

ALAN: They were both dons. A don is the head of a mafia family, and also a fellow of a university or college. I doubt if the two professions have much overlap in real life.

A fellow is a retired member of the academic staff who continues to be associated with the university in some capacity. Do not confuse a fellow with a teaching fellow or a research fellow. A teaching fellow is a person currently active in a teaching role on the academic staff. A research fellow engages in research at an academic institution but is not involved in teaching. Research fellows tend to be young and inexperienced, just starting out in academic life. They aren’t trusted to teach yet…

We don’t have deans except at collegiate universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. The dean of the college is responsible for discipline. An interview with the dean as a result of bad behaviour is, I am told, much to be feared.

What’s a dean in America?

JANE: At least at the schools I knew, a dean was the head of an academic area.  There might be a dean for the liberal arts college, another for sciences, another for business.  Deans usually had started life as professors, but shifted at some point to administration.

ALAN: Ah, I see! That sounds similar to our collegiate deans, though I don’t think we have an exact equivalent, at last not in the sense of the head of something as vague as an academic area.

But while we’re on the subject of job titles, I’ve always been puzzled by the vast numbers of professors that American universities seem to have. As far as I can tell, any member of the teaching staff seems to get called professor. Is that right?

JANE: Not quite…  It works like this.

The lowest rank is an instructor, sometimes called an adjunct professor.  This person can be considered a contract worker, not really a part of the department.   Next comes the assistant professor.  In some places, there is an in between role – the “visiting assistant professor.”  This person teaches classes, but usually doesn’t hold any committee appointments.

Now, neither adjuncts or assistant professors should be called “Professor.”  This lofty title is reserved for “full professors.”  Full professors have years of teaching and publications behind them and have passed the complex and demanding tenure review.

Therefore, an adjunct or assistant professor should not be called “Professor.”  He or she should be called “Mr. or Ms.”( if he or she has not completed the Ph.D.) or “Doctor” (if he or she has done so).

However, most American students use “Professor” indiscriminately.  I guess they feel it’s better to “promote” than accidentally demote someone who gives them their grades.  Calling a Professor “Doctor” is actually a demotion of sorts, because it acknowledges only the degree earned, not the passing of the complicated tenure process.

ALAN: We only have one “official” professor per department. The professor is the administrative head of the department and, as with your professors, will have years of teaching and research experience. Though having said that, my degree is in chemistry which traditionally divides into three areas of study: organic, inorganic, and physical. Consequently at my university, the Chemistry department had three professors, one for each discipline.

Depending on their relative positions in the hierarchy, our university teaching staff are known as readers, lecturers and junior lecturers.

Not that it particularly matters, except in terms of the pay packet the different ranks receive. Most students call their teachers by their Christian name. I can’t really imagine calling any of the university staff by a formal title except perhaps “Doctor” for those who were a little strait-laced, or those I met only once in blue moon.

JANE: A couple of terms that have always puzzled me are “chancellor” and “rector.”  The latter sounds vaguely ecclesiastical.  Can you fill me in on these?

ALAN: A chancellor is a figurehead. The actual work of administering and representing the university is carried out by the Vice-Chancellor. Chancellors are non-resident and generally non-academic. Often they will be prominent people in other fields who are appointed so that the university can (somewhat cynically) ride on their famous coat tails for a while. Princess Ann is the Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, for example.

And, to answer the other half of your question, in Scotland, the Vice-Chancellor is called the Principal and often has a Rector as the third administration/management official.

JANE: And a rector is?

ALAN: Just another administrator as far as I know. There probably were religious connotations once upon a time, but if there were, they have long since vanished. Of course, I don’t really understand the Scottish system all that well. They’ve always been a law unto themselves and I might be missing something subtle.

JANE: Well, at least we have an abundance of administrators in common.  Next time I want to ask you about a term we have in common – but one I think has widely different meanings.


8 Responses to “TT: Deans and Dons”

  1. heteromeles Says:

    I should point out that “fellow” in the US is an unfunded researcher. I was one for a while, because it allowed me access to the rather extensive online resources of that university. Considering that it currently costs $20-30 to buy a paper (if you can’t cajole a copy from the author), this can be a valuable position for people trying to complete research projects on shoestring budgets.

    I’ve also seen adjunct professors in a similar position. The adjunct professor is being paid by some other budget (I’ve seen adjunct professors belonging to another department, another university, and a government organization), and they are getting access to the department’s resources without the pay. This can allow them to use a library, labs, or mentor grad students. It also allows professors who have taken jobs at other universities a way to finish up their work at the old job and let their students graduate without having to transfer.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Good point about facilities access. I did miss having access to a university library when I left teaching.

      I’ve never gotten a pass for UNM’s because the parking there is prohibitive. Our public library does have a good loan system and Jim has some access to oddities through his work for the museum, so I’ve managed.

  2. Henry Farrell Says:

    In the US system, you’re missing out on a rank. Between assistant professors and full professors are associate professors, (the rank I currently enjoy). Typically, assistant professors (unlike adjuncts and visiting assistant professors) are tenure track – they have some job security for a fixed period (five to seven years in sciences and humanities; shorter in law), after which they are evaluated for tenure. Those who don’t get tenure have to leave the university, after a year’s grace period. Those who do have wide-ranging job security for life and are called associate professors. When an associate professor feels that she is ready to be considered for full, she can put herself up for evaluation by the department (and by various external figures in the field whom the department asks to write letters of evaluation). If she doesn’t get it, she still has her job, and can apply again after a gap, but is probably going to be highly embarrassed. If she does, she is then a full professor. There are some idiosyncrasies here and there (e.g. some prestigious universities give assistant professors associate rank before they go up for tenure; there are also rarer beasts such as endowed professors and university professors), but that’s the standard path.

  3. Henry Farrell Says:

    Thanks for the kind thought (not happening soon, but one of these days …).

  4. Peter Says:

    The departmental hierarchy, as defined by that most prolific of academic authors, the esteemed Anon. of Ibid:


    Leaps tall building in a single bound
    Is more powerful than a locomotive
    Is faster than a speeding bullet
    Walks on water
    Gives policy to God


    Leaps short buildings in a single bound
    Is more powerful than a switch engine
    Is just as fast as a speeding bullet
    Walks on water if the sea is calm
    Talks with God


    Leaps short buildings with a running start and favourable winds
    Is almost as powerful as a switch engine
    Is faster than a speeding BB
    Walks on water in an indoor swimming pool
    Talks with God if special request is approved


    Makes high marks on the wall when trying to leap buildings
    Is run over by locomotive
    Can sometimes handle a gun without inflicting self-injury
    Dog paddles
    Talks to animals


    Runs into buildings
    Recognizes locomotive two out of three times
    Is not issued ammunition
    Can’t stay afloat with a life preserver
    Talks to walls


    Falls over doorsteps when trying to enter building
    Says “look at the choo-choo”
    Wets himself with a water pistol
    Plays in mud puddles
    Mumbles to himself


    Lifts buildings and walks under them
    Kicks locomotives off the tracks
    Catches speeding bullets in her teeth
    Freezes water with a single glance
    She is God

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