Monday, August 16, 2010


Ask the Administrator: Ranks

A new correspondent writes:

Why are ranks at Community Colleges sometimes different from those at 4-year schools? For example, my rank is "Instructor," but I'm full-time tenure track. I only achieve the rank of "Assistant Professor" in five years, after I get tenure. The other ranks are for various levels of promotion.

I know it's a minor issue, but frankly it drives me a little nuts having to explain to people that I am, in fact, TT and that I'm not a part-timer. Sometimes I just fudge and say "Assistant Professor," to avoid the confusion.

Any idea why the ranks are so often different? How naughty am I to refer to myself as Asst. Prof. if that's not what it's called at my school?

This may seem weaselly, but my first response is to ask the context in which you refer to yourself that way. On a cv, in an official document, or in a job interview, it would be fraud. In informal conversation, though, I don’t see the issue.

DIfferent systems use different criteria and definitions for names, but the names themselves don’t change much. This leads to no end of confusion.

It starts with something as simple as “professor.” Much of the unhappiness in the profession, I think, stems from people having very different ideas of what a “professor” is. Is a “professor” a researcher with graduate assistants who occasionally gives an auditorium lecture, or a teacher who relies on group discussion, or a learning coach who helps students navigate self-paced learning modules? I’ve seen it carry each of those meanings and many more, but if you think it means the first and you get hired somewhere that believes it means the third, I foresee heartache.

It’s even worse for administrators, if that helps. Is a “dean” an august leader, a middle manager, or a low-level paper pusher? I’ve seen them all...

The instructor-assistant-associate-full ladder is fairly standard across the industry, but each rank carries different meanings in different places. I’ve seen schemes in which ‘instructor’ is reserved for full-timers off the tenure track, though in other places I’ve seen those called “visiting” assistant professors. I’ve also seen schemes in which new t-t hires are called ‘instructor’ until tenure, unless they have Ph.D.’s, at which point they’re called “assistant professor” until hire. (For my money, the best line reading of “assistant professor” belongs to Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But I digress.)

Oddly enough, in some places, ranks are entirely disconnected from tenure status. I’ve never understood that -- it seems to me that if you have a tenure system, then tenure and promotion should be connected somehow -- but it happens. I’ve seen systems in which you could gain tenure, work for decades, and retire still at the rank of assistant professor. It doesn’t make much sense to me, but there it is.

The issue isn’t really that different colleges define the terms differently. The issue is that they don’t know it. Since most tenure-line faculty don’t move around much, they often only know the system in which they personally work. When you try to move between systems, you’ll often see assumptions made based on a lack of awareness that different systems use the same words differently. Are ‘instructors’ on the tenure track? Maybe, maybe not. Do assistant professors have doctorates? Maybe, maybe not. (On the administrative side: do deans have tenure? What’s the difference between a director and a coordinator? Are department chairs administration or faculty? The answers to each of these varies by institution.)

I hope that the quirkiness of the local naming scheme doesn’t cause any real issues for you. As long as you don’t lie in an official context, I say call yourself whatever is easiest.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a particularly odd rank/naming scheme? How did it work?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

At all of the four year schools at which I have worked, instructor implied that you had not finished your doctorate. When I came into the two year system, I was surprised that I was still an instructor even though I have a Ph.D. At my previous institution where I was a post-doc, I was also an adjunct assistant professor because of my degree. It felt odd to take a title demotion when I went up to tenure track at a different institution. Of course, my new institution just cared that they could pay me less because of the demotion in title. I was just happy to have a job near my husband's new job. This may vary campus by campus, but our union contract is very specific about who gets what title and how to move up to the next title.
It has also been my experience that the ranking system isn't as inconsistent at the four-year schools as at community colleges. Universities seem to mostly follow the standard format and so mostly all understand each other. The confusion is at cc's, which imitate the university system only to the degree that it suits them individually. My current cc, for example, uses a ranking and tenure system modeled closely on our local 4-year school, I suspect to foster the impression (true in this case, as it happens) that we're as qualified and capable as our counterparts at the university. My previous cc employer, in a remote rural area with no close connection to a university, called everyone Instructor regardless of their degree, length of service, or tenure status -- presumably out of a sense of frontier egalitarianism.

This can be confusing, I suppose, but I don't see why it should be a problem. Before taking a job, maybe especially at a community college, applicants should read the faculty and/or board policy manual carefully (but then this goes without saying) to be clear on how that particular institution ranks (and promotes, and tenures) faculty. As for what to tell others outside the institution, how hard is it really just to say "I'm a full-time instructor," or "I'm a tenured assistant professor"?

And isn't the confusion over the meaning of "professor" common to most professions? What, after all, is a "doctor" or an "engineer"? (Where I grew up, an engineer was somebody who designed semiconductors; in my current town it's somebody who refines petroleum; at my first job it was the guy who drives the train!) Most job titles can't be summed up in a single word without some confusion.
The emerging system of ranks for teaching professors at RI universities along the lines of "lecturer->instructor->Senior Instructor" that get tenure for teaching excellence instead of research productivity offer an interesting spin on the question of what ranks mean.
I find academic ranking at community colleges (and to a lesser degree 4-year colleges) to be a charming anachronism. Other than achieving tenure (yet another even-more-charming anachronism), do the duties and responsibilities of the individual change? Sure s/he now gets to sit on certain committees that were unavailable to the unwashed non-tenured folk, but that's about it. I would suggest giving all CC faculty the same title, because they all do pretty much the same thing. So, let's call everybody 'teachers', or 'professors', or 'instructors', or "didacters" (my favorite), or whatever, and end the charade.
At my CC in California, all instructors are "instructors." We do not have an ranking system that brings different titles. The only reason I find this frustrating is that in the classroom, if I don't want to go by my first name, I have to use "Miss" or "Ms." or "Mrs." This can be weird since these title are traditional used when younger people refer to older people and since some of my students are older than me. When I finish my PhD, I'll use "Dr."--not because I'm pretentious, but because I'll be glad to drop the "Mrs."
I've had a lot of weird titles, but the weirdest was when I was purely a research faculty member and my title was "Visting Assistant in X."

Another school where I was an adjunct and asked to step in when a fulltimer got sick, I was given the title "visiting professor." I said, "You mean 'visiting assistant professor.'" No, I was told, although permanent faculty had the three ranks, visiting faculty were all "visiting professors."

I also once was a Director. It felt weird to hear "Director" used with my last name by professors at a faculty meeting.

Another time as a part-timer my title was "faculty associate." Mostly adjunct titles are "adjunct lecturer" or "adjunct instructor," and some schools make a big distinction between the two for reasons that have always been unclear to me.

Now, as an old man, I just go by my first name, and if people ask me what I do, I say, "I'm a teacher." In my seventies, "teacher" is good enough for me.
Our community college once used the scheme where everyone was an "instructor", but it was felt that this created confusion when we wrote letters of recommendation. Hiring as Asst and promoting to Assoc when tenure is granted sends the signal that the person writing has at least as much (if not more) experience with calculus students as someone at a university.

I am told the change was easy to get approved because no money was involved.

BTW, most places I know of use Lecturer for full-time faculty who are in contract positions, but I once saw a tenured Instructor.
We are all Instructors at my CC regardless of tenure or degree. I always put Assistant Prof. on my name tag for conferences now because the Uni people kept assuming I didn't have the Ph.D. (and/or the tt job) and it irritated me. I don't really feel like it is being dishonest, rather it is just communicating in their jargon. Of course, as DD points out, a CV or other official document needs to have term favored by the cc itself.
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