Jill Biden and the problem of default authority

A silly person named Joseph Epstein has apparently written an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (that is behind their paywall) saying that Jill Biden should not use the ‘Dr.’ when referring to herself because it is unseemly to do so. He seems to think that only those with medical degrees should refer to themselves as ‘Dr.’ To add further insult, he compared her earned 2007 PhD degree in education, which she received after submitting a dissertation on student retention in community colleges, to an honorary degree and apparently even referred to her as ‘kiddo’.

There was of course a backlash, which is no doubt what he was looking for because that is the only way obscure people can get their 15 minutes of fame, though why a major newspaper like the WSJ would want to waste valuable editorial space on this garbage is beyond me. Many of the responders were women and members of minority groups who said that they were forced to emphasize their credentials because otherwise people did not take them seriously. They pointed out that when men (Henry Kissinger always used it) used it, it passed unnoticed.

This issue of using academic credentials is a tricky one. When I was director of the university’s teaching center, I would run the annual orientation for new faculty members and I addressed this issue with them. I said that as an older man, I had what I called ‘default authority’ in that when I walked into class on the first day, students would assume that I was knowledgeable about the subject I was teaching. The fact that I was an Asian also added authority in the sciences. But there were three factors that worked against being granted this default authority: being young, female, and a person of color. The more of those boxes you checked off, the more likely students might assume that you were not that knowledgeable or a teaching assistant filling in for an absent professor.

I told new faculty that while I could walk in on the first day of class dressed casually and tell my students that they could call me by my first name, they may want to be more circumspect. I said that they may want to dress more formally (at least for the first week or so) and let it be known that they were serious and accomplished scholars who had doctorates in the field and were highly knowledgeable about the course that they were going to teach. I suggested ways to do this casually and in passing so that they did not come off as boastful and arrogant.

Was it unfair that they had to do these extra things just to get the respect that someone like me could take for granted? Absolutely! And I hated having to talk about these things at all. I said that each faculty member had to decide what battles they wanted to fight and when. There would be new faculty who said the hell with it, they were not going to conform to these expectations and would instead work to destroy them. That is great because that is how barriers and stereotypes get broken. But being a new faculty member is a very stressful time where they are trying to gain the respect and acceptance of their faculty peers and students, and some new faculty may not want to add this particular battle to the things they already had to deal with. I told them that it had to be a personal choice on their part and that our teaching center would support them either way. I was just alerting them to what they faced so that they could make an informed decision and not stumble into a situation that they had not prepared for.

Because I have default authority, I almost never used the title ‘Dr.’, except when I was writing letters of recommendation for my students because on paper my default authority characteristics are not apparent. But I can well understand why Jill Biden uses it.


  1. sqlrob says

    Let me expand on one of your statements and it may become clearer

    though why a major Murdoch owned newspaper like the WSJ would want to waste valuable editorial space

  2. DrVanNostrand says

    I strongly oppose the title ‘Dr’ outside of academic/professional contexts. Students calling professors ‘Doctor’ or ‘professor’ makes sense. Addressing my physician as ‘Doctor’ similarly makes sense. But it annoys the hell out of me when people try to insist on that outside of those relevant professional settings. That said, using Jill Biden to make that point in the WSJ is so insanely tone deaf, I can’t even fathom what is wrong with that guy.

  3. billseymour says

    I’m curious:  would Doctor or Professor be the better way to address someone who is both when I first meet them?

    I’m an old fart, so I try to be polite. 😎

  4. billseymour says

    I think sqlrob @1 has a pretty good guess as to why they went after Jill Biden.  And I note that they couldn’t think of anything else.

  5. sonofrojblake says

    A good friend of mine is a PhD who teaches epidemiology to medical students. He makes it very clear to them that he is DOCTOR xxxxx, that he is a *proper* doctor, and that IF they get their medical degree they may be *permitted* to use the title as a courtesy, even though they haven’t got the qualification.

    I bought him a shirt once that juat had on it the words “not that kind of doctor”.

    A schoolfriend did her PhD before she finished her undergrad medical degree, so she was a proper doctor *first *… but then she was the smartest person I’ve ever met.

  6. Mano Singham says

    billseymour @#3,

    I think addressing people as simply Ms. or Mr. is perfectly polite even if they have all manner of degrees. If someone insists that I call them professor or doctor, then I would do so but I would think less of them.

    As I used to advise faculty, respect is most valuable when it is freely given. Don’t confuse what title students use for you with the level of respect. It is quite possible for students to use your first name with a lot of respect and ‘professor’ in a tone dripping with sarcasm.

  7. DrVanNostrand says


    Following on what Mano said, in my many, many years in college and grad school, I never ran into a professor who was emphatic about the distinction between ‘professor’ and ‘doctor’. I have run into many who insist that everyone call them by an honorific title, but none that cared about that particular distinction. My own graduate program was 100% on a first name basis. However, as an undergrad, I worked for a professor who insisted on everyone calling him doctor or professor. He was a particularly rare case in that he even insisted that his own former students, who subsequently became professors, continue to call him doctor. He was an interesting character, and mostly a pretty good guy, but that always struck me as petty.

  8. brucegee1962 says

    I also have a Ph.D., but I prefer it if students call me “Professor” — that seems to me to be a higher title.

    However, for those who are no longer teaching like Jill Biden, “Doctor” is perfectly acceptable. The president of our college is usually referred to by that title, and I don’t think anyone has ever given him a hard time.

  9. Richard Simons says

    When I was a student in the late 60s I spent the summer at an agricultural college in Germany. The head of the department expected to be called Herr Professor Dr. h.c. Dr. h.c. Stottelmeyer and his wife was Frau Herr Professor, but the younger staff thought that was all rather odd.
    For a while I was teaching courses at fly-in locations in northern Canada. When I was able to fly out a day early because of a reserve-wide event, I was told there was no space on the plane. My local contact told me I should have used ‘Dr’, he phoned saying ‘Dr Simons would like to fly out today’ and in about 20 seconds had it all arranged! I have once or twice used it when I wanted action, but rarely otherwise. I have never expressed a preference to students regarding what they should call me. On the other hand, I am a white male who was quite a bit older when I started teaching and can quite understand why non-white or female lecturers, especially if they are young, might feel they need to convince students that indeed they do have the credentials to be up there teaching.

  10. sonofrojblake says

    Another good friend rarely uses the title, but has more than once responded to the question “is it Miss, or Mrs.?” with a withering look and “it’s DOCTOR.” Wish I’d seen it -- she’s very good at withering.

  11. says

    I think addressing people as simply Ms. or Mr. is perfectly polite even if they have all manner of degrees.

    Unfortunately, those are gendered. I cannot use Dr., because I only got a master’s degree, but if I had that title, I’d definitely use it. I loathe Ms., most people don’t perceive me as Mr., thus I’d be willing to use literally anything else. Of course, I don’t particularly like Dr., but I hate gendered titles much more.

    Our society really needs a gender neutral title that isn’t limited to those with university degrees.

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