Dr. Jill Biden

Why does the Second Lady insist on using the title "Dr."

Dr. Jill Biden

Dr. Jill Biden

LAT has an odd feature under the headline “Jill Biden, doctor of education, is back in class” with the subheads “The vice president’s wife, who holds a doctorate in education and has been teased for going by ‘Dr. Biden,’ is teaching two college classes. Biden is thought to be the first second lady to hold a paying job while her husband is in office.” The nut ‘graph:

In 2007, at 55, Jill Biden did earn a doctorate — in education — from the University of Delaware. Since then, in campaign news releases and now in White House announcements, she is “Dr. Jill Biden.” This strikes some people as perfectly appropriate and others as slightly pompous, a quality often ascribed to her voluble husband.

Media Matters’ Jamison Foser thinks the LAT is taking a “cheap shot” at Biden and does an able job deconstructing the fluff.    Dr. Marcy Wheeler likes to use the title when restaurant hostesses and “fatuous old men” fail to respect her authoritay.   Dr. Duncan Black offers crude suggestions for the articles’s author.

For what it’s worth, the use of the title “Dr.” by academics varies widely by region.   I used it in my teaching because it was the norm in the South.  In some other parts of the country, “Professor” is preferred; in the South “Professor” is generally used to refer to  teaching staff without doctoral degrees.  In some departments, profs eschew titles altogether or use the affectation of having students call them “Mr.” despite their having doctorates.

In Biden’s case, her doctorate is in “educational leadership” and she’s teaching English classes on an adjunct basis at a community college.  In my experience, academics with PhDs in other subjects find education doctorates, especially those in administrative specialties, rather dubious.  That’s doubly so if they’re not college administrators.   Using the title “Dr.,” which connotes a high degree of subject matter expertise, when one is teaching a subject in which one doesn’t have a doctorate, is a bit cheesy.

Still, she’s perfectly entitled to use the title.  It’s a real doctorate from a real school.  Further, the ink’s barely dry on it so she’s more proud of the title than if she’d earned it in her late 20s.   And I’m guessing Joe Biden — who was the first in his family to go to college, and not because they weren’t smart — has something to do with its use in press releases.

For what it’s worth, the previous second lady, Lynne Cheney, had a PhD in English Literature from Wisconsin.  I don’t recall her ever being referred to as “Dr. Cheney” in the press or White House press releases.   But she’d already had a distinguished career in her own right, including a stint as NEH chair.  She was a fellow at AEI while her husband was veep; I don’t know whether she was paid.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. sam says:

    I don’t recall her ever being referred to as “Dr. Cheney” in the press or White House press releases. But she’d already had a distinguished career in her own right, including a stint as NEH chair.

    And don’t forget, she wrote a cheesy novel:

    The women who embraced in the wagon were Adam and Eve crossing a dark cathedral stage — no, Eve and Eve, loving one another as they would not be able to once they ate of the fruit and knew themselves as they truly were. She felt curiously moved, curiously envious of them. She had never to this moment thought Eden a particularly attractive paradise, based as it was on naiveté, but she saw that the women in the cart had a passionate, loving intimacy forever closed to her. How strong it made them. What comfort it gave.

    I particularly like the “once they ate of the fruit” bit. I confess to having not read the novel (so the “cheesy” can be taken as an ill-informed and cheap shot), but I understand that the above scene took place on a dark and stormy night.

  2. ggr says:

    It seems strange to criticize her for what is fairly common practice among Phd’s.

  3. James Joyner says:

    It seems strange to criticize her for what is fairly common practice among Phd’s.

    I think the point is that it’s not. In LA, DC, and New England — the places writing about the story and in which Biden lives — it’s not a common practice.

    Beyond that, it’s unusual for PhDs to insist on being addressed as “Dr.” in other than their academic surroundings. (Then again, I think medical doctors should observe the same practice.)

  4. In my own experience (to bolster James’ post), it is far more common on the West Coast for the title “Professor” to be used (I earned my BA at UCI), although “Dr.” was hardly unheard of.

    Where I teach now (in the Deep South), one rarely ever hears “Professor” except, as James notes, for non-PhD faculty.

    It is worth noting, as many on the Media Matters thread did, that the the academic meaning/usage of the word predates the medical one, as the word “doctor” has it origins in the Latin word “to teach” and in the Middle English denotes an expert or an authority on a subject.

    As such, the notion that PhD’s are stealing the title from MDs is incorrect.

    James it right, btw, that the fact that her doctorate isn’t in the field in which she is teaching dilutes the notion that she is an expert in her field.

    At a minimum, I thought that the LAT piece was overly critical.

  5. markm says:

    ..uh oh…I suddenly feel odd for going by BSME markm….

  6. Franklin says:

    Interesting – I didn’t know the usage varied that much. Of course we’ve heard anecdotes that presume every doctor is a medical doctor, as well.

    But yeah, I hardly think this is the most outrageous problem at the moment.

  7. Triumph says:

    Beyond that, it’s unusual for PhDs to insist on being addressed as “Dr.” in other than their academic surroundings.

    Yeah, except for Condi Rice and Hank Kissinger, who both insisted on the “Dr.” tag.

  8. James Joyner says:

    Yeah, except for Condi Rice and Hank Kissinger, who both insisted on the “Dr.” tag.

    Actually, Rice never insisted on the title — preferring “Ms. Rice” in NYT mentions. Kissinger was “Dr. Kissinger” in a much different era (and he’s German, to boot!).

    In both cases, though, you’re talking about IR PhDs engaged in IR jobs, where their expertise directly correlated with the title. It’s unclear how an EdD in higher ed administration relates to the duties of second lady (if there are any).

  9. Triumph says:

    Actually, Rice never insisted on the title — preferring “Ms. Rice” in NYT mentions.

    I would put more weight on her official page on the White House site, as opposed to the NYT. When she was head of the NSC, the WH page had her listed as Dr.: from Archive.org, http://tinyurl.com/drrice

    It’s unclear how an EdD in higher ed administration relates to the duties of second lady (if there are any).

    The article says that she is teaching college level courses, so it seems quite appropriate for her to use the “Dr.” title. In fact the point of the article is that Biden is the first “second lady” to maintain her normal job–as opposed to simply chilling as the “second lady.”

  10. Triumph says:

    For what it’s worth, the previous second lady, Lynne Cheney, had a PhD in English Literature from Wisconsin. I don’t recall her ever being referred to as “Dr. Cheney” in the press or White House press releases. But she’d already had a distinguished career in her own right, including a stint as NEH chair. She was a fellow at AEI while her husband was veep; I don’t know whether she was paid.

    Interestingly, Cheney was referred to as “Dr.” when old man Bush nominated her to the NEH: http://tinyurl.com/drcheney

    She was referred to as Mrs. when she left the workforce (the LA Times article implies that Dr. C’s time at AEI was gratis)

    So it seems quite appropriate that as a professional, Dr. Biden would use her title.

    The bigger question is why in the hell would she want to be an underpaid adjunct at a second rate community college, when she could sit around the Naval Observatory and get sloshed on Manhattans all day?