Defending the doctorate

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Since I teach doctoral classes in community college leadership at two public universities, I was initially taken aback by the comments made by Joseph Epstein on December 11 in the Wall Street Journal and Kyle Smith on December 16 in the National Review. Both Epstein and Smith criticized future First Lady Jill Biden, arguing that only medical doctors should be addressed with the title doctor.  This would leave out other practitioners such as doctors of dentistry, optometry or veterinary medicine, as well as professors, scientists and many others who have earned doctorates. 

Those of us in academia understand that a doctorate is the highest academic degree offered by a college or university, whether it is in medicine or any other discipline. For an educator, like Dr. Biden, the doctorate is recognized as a significant academic achievement. For aspiring academic leaders, a doctorate is virtually a requirement for advancement. In the academy, professionals are commonly accorded the courtesy of being addressed with the title they have earned. College students know that it is expected that they address faculty and administrators who have doctorates with the doctor or professor title.  Colleagues who are close friends usually don’t use titles when addressing each other, but otherwise formal Dr., Mr., Ms., Miss, or Mrs. honorifics are used as appropriate.

Related item: The American Association of Community Colleges responds to Wall Street Journal opinion piece regarding Dr. Jill Biden’s earned doctorate.

Outside of a professional setting, people have many other identities such as family relationships, neighbors, customers, patients and friends, where the use of honorifics and titles would be pretentious. But First Lady of the United States and professor are both professional positions. Why should we call her Mrs. Biden instead of Dr. Biden? Does anyone seriously think she is masquerading as a medical doctor? 

The attacks on Dr. Biden are also seen as misogynistic, since men such as Dr. Henry Kissinger and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were not criticized for being addressed as doctors. Some believe the attacks are politically motivated, given the extreme level of political tension currently in the country. However, there is also a strong thread of elitism in both of these columns. Public universities and community colleges, which enroll America’s middle class, are portrayed as inferior and even fraudulent.  

It is time to speak out against elitist derision of the doctorate in education or Ed.D. degree. Epstein and Smith portray it as “comic “or “unimpressive.” The truth is that the Ed.D. is a degree for practitioners while the Ph.D. is a research degree. If one is interested in a career that focuses on research, the Ph.D. degree is more appropriate. However, if one wants to be a practitioner, like Dr. Biden, the Ed.D. is a good choice.  

Both Smith and Epstein demonstrate how out of touch elitists are with most of America. Epstein derides Biden’s dissertation title, “Student Retention at the Community College Level: Meeting Students’ Needs,” as “unpromising.” Smith criticizes her for teaching English to slow learners in community colleges. Community colleges may not have the prestige of major research universities, but these open-access institutions enroll about 11 million Americans each term in communities across the country. They are the most racially diverse institutions of learning, providing opportunity for higher education and workforce preparedness to students who would not otherwise have a chance.  

Community colleges and their students deserve more respect than this. Higher education is just too important to our country and its people to classify and criticize institutions, departments, degrees and people by perceived status. The work that Dr. Biden is doing to help her students should be admired instead of criticized.  

About the Author

George R. Boggs, Ph.D.
is a former president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges and former superintendent/president of Palomar College in California, receiving emeritus status at both institutions. He teaches in doctoral programs at San Diego State University and Kansas State University.