An Irishman's Diary


I HEARD an academic introduced on radio recently as “a junked professor”, and at first it seemed a bit harsh. Surely they could have allowed the poor man to retire with dignity, I thought. Whatever faults he had, he should have been eased out with an honorary title, for example “professor emeritus”. As for casting him on the scrap-heap, there was no excuse for doing that to any human being, never mind a man with a degree.

Then the wool fell out of my ears and I realised that the adjective was – yes, readers – “adjunct”. Far from being a reject, the man was still a professor, albeit a part-time or contracted one. The downgrading of academics to junk status is not a problem in this country, it seems. Au contraire, if this month’s British Medical Journalis to be believed, something like the opposite scenario exists.

In an article appearing under the headline “Quantitive Easing – the Academic Version”, Dr Desmond O’Neill writes about a major realignment of academic grades that took place recently in Trinity College Dublin. The rationale was to bring titles there into line with the US system. To which end, at the drop of a (mortar-board) hat, “lecturers have been renamed assistant professors, senior lecturers as associate professors, and associate professors as full professors”.

This would be fair enough, says Dr O’Neill, if those nominally elevated were as restrained about using their titles as is the norm in the US, where even full professors rarely introduce themselves as such, but settle for the term “Doctor”, as earned by their PhDs.

No such modesty applies in Ireland, however. And what Dr O’Neill (a professor himself, although he doesn’t shout about it) calls a “rash of rebranding” has taken place. The problem is especially acute in the Irish hospital system, he adds, where “the use of the title professor has spread more rapidly than a viral pandemic, to the point that exclusivity is now beginning to lie with those without a professorial prefix”.

“Does it really matter?” he asks, and in the context of the annoyance caused to those who have earned titles “the hard way” answers no. Worrying about the undeserved gains of others is a waste of time and psychological energy, Dr O’Neill cautions, prescribing reflection on the parables of the prodigal son and the labourers in the vineyard for anyone so affected.

The real problem, he argues, is the loss of public confidence, and indeed the mockery, invited when “titular advancement” is pursued at the expense of actual achievement. As a witness for the prosecution, he calls Molière, the great French satirist whose own specialities included treating hubris and the other complications arising from professional vanity.

Thus, in his last play, Le Malade Imaginaire (The Hypochondriac), Molière has the eponymous character advised by those around him that the only way he can be cured is to become a doctor himself, something they assure him can be achieved by means of a simple but absurd ceremony. He duly performs the ritual and dies in the middle of it. Which is the ultimate cure, of course.

VIRAL OR OTHERWISE,titles can indeed be infectious. I’m reminded of an exchange a few years ago between a modern-day satirist, the journalist Craig Brown, and a worthy of the British theatre. The latter’s name now escapes me and it also escapes any search engines in which I’ve tried locating the story. But I remember his general complaint, which concerned the crudeness of star rating systems, as used in newspaper reviews.

It was a fair point. Much as readers in a hurry like them, the reduction of all the nuances in a film or play to three stars (“ho-hum”) or two (“below average”) must be very frustrating when you’ve worked on something for weeks or months, especially if you think it has subtle qualities that will grow on people if given the chance.

But the problem was that the man in question had been knighted for his achievements in theatre and he had seen fit to use his title when making the complaint. This provoked a sparkling riposte from Brown, who pointed out that the British honours system was itself essentially a form of star rating. “Sir” meant you were “not to be missed”; an MBE meant you came “highly recommended”; and so on. The nuances of your personality were just as crudely overridden.

Getting back Dr O’Neill’s point about Molière, however, I would add a note of caution for anyone planning to poke fun at their hospital consultants’ titles, earned or otherwise.

The reason Le Malade Imaginairewas Molière’s last play is that, while performing the main role himself in 1673, he took ill for real during a performance and expired soon afterwards. He was already very sick beforehand and I understand foul play was not suspected. Even so, the moral of the story may be: if you’re mocking your doctor’s qualifications, make sure he or she can’t hear you.