This piece first appeared on the Tallahassee Democrat.
A national firestorm has erupted over a commentary published in the Wall Street Journal over Jill Biden’s use of “Dr.” as a prefix to her name. I now use the honorific, which is common in higher education, but I largely ignored it prior to coming to Florida State University in 2011. What caused my change of heart?
I am very proud of the effort it took to earn my doctorate (in public administration), and I believe I earned every credit. Yet, while I included “Ph.D.” on my business cards, I didn’t start using the title “Dr.” consistently until 2019.
I changed to using the title regularly when I realized my personal choices in the professional workplace had implications beyond my own decisions and interactions. More specifically, some students tended to treat others in leadership — mostly women — with less respect and deference than they treated me. This differential treatment was largely unconscious. But the informality of the culture I had created in my center and classroom led some students to diminish the counsel and advice of others with authority to make decisions, shape research and manage projects by appealing directly to me.
Moreover, a fair amount of research shows that (mostly male) students tend to treat female faculty and faculty of color with less respect than white male professors. Women and faculty of color are more likely to have complaints filed against them, have students comment on dress and demeanor in evaluations, and view them as less authoritative and knowledgeable in their field.
I should have seen this earlier, but I credit my female colleagues for bringing my attention to these facts on the ground. I realized I personally needed to make a change. I needed to level the playing field so those in leadership could do their jobs more effectively. I could do this by signaling to my entire staff and students in the classroom that I respected their work and expertise with a simple change: referring to my colleagues by their titles.
Sacrificing the informality and ease of these relationships, which I cherish, is a worthwhile trade-off to help ensure my staff and leadership team are given the dignity they deserve. Not only am I modeling respect in the workplace, my team knows I am fully behind them and support them.
I now also more fully recognize that the informality I prefer to define my relationships is, in fact, my choice. It’s a privilege that I exercise on my platform as director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center.
This is one reason why I and so many others across the nation reacted negatively to the writer of the op-ed in the Wall Street Journal criticizing Jill Biden’s use of the title “Dr.” She earned the degree; it was not given to her.
The article was not just insensitive. It was stunningly ignorant and patronizing to Dr. Biden. It was arrogant, built on the presumption that the author, not Dr. Biden or her credentials, should define her public relationships and professional stature.
Everyone should be given the respect of their accomplishments. It’s not for others, particularly pundits, to determine their quality or relevance.
Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D., is director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University. He manages a diverse full- and part-time staff of 25, and his current senior leadership team is all female.
The feature image is from Wikipedia.