A prof by any other name

Sara Purvis

For those who have wondered what the true meaning of those titles held by Iowa State professors are, don’t feel alone in your confusion.

The system of academic rank has confused students across the world since the 1400s, when universities in Italy first developed it.

The system of assistant, associate, adjunct and full professors isn’t that confusing for faculty or those who are familiar with the system. However, for others, it can be baffling.

Faculty Senate President Bill Woodman, a professor of sociology, said students need not be concerned with a professor’s exact title.

“We use the blanket term ‘professor.’ Rank is not a measure of how good a class will be, it is merely an overall evaluation of the work one has done in their field,” Woodman said.

The academic rank system includes two main subdivisions, the tenure and non-tenure tracks, he said.

Non-tenure track

The less familiar, non-tenure track includes adjunct, temporary and collaborating professors. These professors are not tenured, Woodman said, probably don’t plan on being tenured and will most likely not be on the faculty for a long period of time.

The collaborating professor is a professor who works for an outside agency and isn’t employed by the university. This is common in areas where a researcher is needed from an outside agency to teach a specialized area of study, he said.

Woodman said a temporary professor, as the name suggests, is not a long-term member of the faculty. They are usually hired semester-to-semester in emergency situations when a professor is needed to teach a class.

Most temporary professors are Ph.D. candidates, and their teaching performance is usually evaluated by students and other faculty members.

An adjunct professor is usually at the university for a number of years either teaching, researching or holding a university position. However, an adjunct professor does not have tenure and has no real job security.

Woodman described the adjunct professor as a “historical oddity” since Iowa State no longer creates new adjunct positions.

“The adjunct term comes from a system of terminology used 10-20 years ago and really creates a lot of problems,” Woodman said.

He said the current adjunct professors at Iowa State should be given the opportunity to enter the tenure track of promotion.

Tenure track

The more common subdivision, the tenure track including assistant, associate and full professors, is somewhat more complicated.

A professor entering the job market with a Ph.D. is usually hired by a university as an assistant professor. This is a probationary time for the professor.

They will have a contract for a few years but can be let go for almost any reason.

Through a five- or six-year evaluation process, an assistant professor may be granted tenure and then promoted to associate professor. However, Associate Provost Edwin Lewis said there is always the possibility of an exception or two.

“The promotion to associate professor and the granting of tenure usually go hand-in-hand, but that isn’t the law. There have been instances where an assistant professor is tenured or an associate professor isn’t,” Lewis said.

When an associate professor has achieved excellence in either teaching or research and has earned a national reputation for excellence in this area, then he or she may be promoted to full professor, the highest academic rank. Woodman said this promotion isn’t a necessity for all professors.

“There are many very respectable educators who have retired with the title of associate professor. That doesn’t mean that they weren’t valuable to the university or knowledgeable in their field,” Woodman said.

He said the promotion from associate to full professor is the most difficult to achieve, as more is expected of a full professor. He said the idea of a professor no longer being productive after reaching the rank of professor is a misconception held by many students.

“A full professor is expected to give more service to the department and the university. They are expected to take on larger roles and to be leaders in their departments. Annual evaluations ensure this,” Woodman said.

A final step for a professor is that of emeritus status. This is a retired professor who maintains an office, does research and occasionally teaches a class.

Every promotion in rank provides a salary increase. This increase varies among departments, but it always means that within a given department, those with the highest rank also have the highest salary.

Student reaction

Some students don’t seem to be interested in the academic rank system. For many, it is just too confusing. Scott Grimes, a sophomore in computer science, said a professor’s knowledge is the most important aspect.

“As long as they are a competent teacher, their exact title doesn’t matter to me,” Grimes said.

Adam Wiechman, a sophomore in landscape architecture, said the rank system provides students with a better idea of the professor’s experience.

“I tend to feel a little more confident in someone I know is a full professor, because I know that they have extensive research and are respected by their colleagues,” Wiechman said.

Karen Malmberg, a junior in graphic arts, agrees that the classification of professors is helpful to students as it speaks for the reputation of the department.

“When one chooses a college to attend, the experience and knowledge of the professor from whom they will be learning should be considered and students use the classification to do so,” Malmberg said.