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20 October, 2012
ON BEING CALLED ‘DR’ AND/OR ‘PROFESSOR’
ON BEING CALLED ‘DR’ AND/OR ‘PROFESSOR’ By Ismail Ali Ismail (Geeldoon)
On 15 October 2012 Mr. Guuled Siddi published in these pages an interesting and topical article under the title ‘Dr. Who?’ on a new phenomenon in Mogadishu whereby every political aspirant to high office is called either ‘Dr.’ or ‘professor’ or both. Few of them have genuinely earned these titles while the majority has only spurious claims to them or had the titles thrust upon them by promoters, supporters and well-wishers through no fault of theirs. In this context, there is something of value to be drawn from a Shakespearean line, which says: “ Some men are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them”. In like manner, I would say that, in so far as titles are concerned, some persons are born with titles (e.g. Royal titles, nobility, etc.), some achieve titles through hard work, and some have titles thrust upon them because they are persons of means and connections.
But I have yet to see a person born with the title of Dr. or professor because these titles are not inherited. I have seen, however, persons who received honorary doctorates in recognition of what they had achieved in life. On the other hand, honorary doctorates have been undeservedly bestowed on dictators because they are in positions of power from which they can dispense great favors and instill terrible fear. The names of many of our African Presidents come readily to mind. Those are in a separate class and their titles carry no weight with anyone but themselves. There are those others who brandish unashamedly titles they have not earned. Obviously, they should be rejected because by so doing they bring public opprobrium to themselves while also devaluing the status of the real achievers. By contrast, those who have earned academic or professional titles through hard work have every reason to be proud of themselves and we should give them due respect.
However, one may be forced to accept, by dint of circumstances, to be called ‘Dr.’ or ‘Professor’ or ‘Dr./Professor’ (as in some countries). I furnish an example from my own experience, which the reader may find interesting. I was sent in 1975 whilst in the service of the Somali government to the Sudan and Egypt for a two-month tour to study their local government systems and institutions. My guide in Cairo was in the habit of introducing me as ‘UN Envoy, Dr. Ismail’ (the UN was paying for the tour, but I was not its ‘envoy’). I blushed out of embarrassment every time he did so, although a black man’s blush is not so obvious as a white man’s, and I told him twice that I was neither a Dr. nor an envoy of the UN, and so not to introduce me as such. He ignored my request, but at the third time he looked at me and said, ‘Look Mr. Ismail if you want to meet high-level people, as you must, leave my job to me. If I don’t call you Dr. Ismail no one will even open any doors for us’. It was a sobering statement. I was embarrassed more, however, when we visited a hospital run by one of the Cairo councils, and he introduced me, as usual, as ‘Dr. Ismail’. The hospital doctors started explaining everything in medical terms, which were unintelligible to me. I interjected by saying that I was not a doctor, but my guide jumped in immediately to say that I had a doctorate in hospital management, not in medicine.
I have often met and still meet non-Somali interlocutors who wrongly address me as ‘Dr. Ismail’. However, I have learnt to develop thick skin to such passing but undeserved compliments. I have never gone beyond the master degree and have not therefore earned a doctorate. Frankly, I felt no need for it. In the UN where I retired from after 26 years of service the Ph.D. is equivalent to two years’ post-graduate work experience provided you have a master degree (an ‘advanced’ degree is always required, plus years of experience in order to work for the UN at the professional level). In similar vein Oxbridge universities in the UK used to upgrade their bachelor degrees to the master level after few years of solid experience, an acceptable essay, and payment of fees. I doubt if they still use it. But their logic was based on the belief that the degree ‘matured’ to the master level after some years of work experience – experience being instructive, and life itself being a larger school, which imparts its lessons everyday.
Furthermore, in the UN only a medical doctor can be called ’Dr.’ and none other. Similarly, no one is addressed as ‘professor’. This is because the UN is a global organization and educational systems in the world vary a great deal, which raises the intricate problem of equivalency. We had a difficult problem of equivalency in Somalia, which we never resolved. An Italian first degree conferred the title of ‘dottore’ (Dr.) on its holder while those who graduated from the US and the UK universities came back with bachelor degrees, while those who returned from the Soviet and German universities were equipped with master degrees because those universities, like the Scottish universities, did not give bachelor degrees. It was much later when all graduates were treated on equal footing and the title of ‘dottore’ was informallyextended to all of them. However, only those from Italy put it before their names. All this, in retrospect, was grossly unfair to Hassan Ali Mirreh who had earned his Ph.D. from Princeton as early as 1962/63. He was the first Somali to earn a Ph.D. Out of disgust, if not modesty, he never put ‘Dr.’ before his name although he was the only non-medical authentic ‘doctor’. I will not be surprised if the current veritable Ph.Ds. similarly discard the title like a robe long worn and faded. But, while one should feel proud of one’s achievement, those who ostentatiously boast such titles must remember that others can sometimes use these very titles as slurs.
In similar vein the title ‘Professor’, although regarded more highly than ‘doctor’, has been given in Somalia to every Tom, Dick and Harry who has been to a post-secondary institution. Granted that in French and Italian an ordinary schoolteacher can rightly be called ‘professore’ or ‘professeur’ this indicates more the profession of the person rather than his or her academic title. Otherwise, ‘Professor’ is the highest academic rank and the title is conferred upon its recipient after years of academic work and research: it is a recognition of one’s authority in a single area, and of course assistant and associate professors are not professors except in general parlance. It appears, however, that for us Somalis, one is a ‘professor’ if one has taught a class in a university even for a short period.
Now, we come to the question of ‘what is in a title’? It is unfortunate that there is a general impression that Ph.Ds. and professors can answer with authority all sorts of questions. It may not surprise me if an ignorant person asks a professor of statistics or agronomy or astronomy to pontificate on questions of governance and administration, but I will be astonished if the professor pretends to speak with authority on these matters. I have criticized in my bookeconomists who have shown their ignorance by pretending to be experts on governance simply because there were lucrative consultancies in that area. We need to understand that specialization means knowing less and less about less and less, and we should all know that every person, including those with the highest educational attainment, is ignorant about one area or another. Of all people Ph.Ds. and professors should know that they should tread with care when stepping outside the purview of their areas. Else, they risk failing.
We are well aware that so many Ph.Ds. and Professors have failed in real life leadership situations. In this connection, you may wish to read my article on the ‘Intellectual Paralysis of the Educated Somali” (WardheerNews.com, August 29, 2005) where I mention, inter alia, the poor performance of Ph.Ds. and Professors in Nimeiri’s government. Practicing in the field what you preach in class is entirely different because so many personal qualities, which have nothing to do with academic preparation, come into play. As Guuled Siddi said there were so many great and some not so great but successful, leaders who never made it to university or college. I can mention so many British prime ministers and so many American presidents. I cannot, to my shame, remember any Ph.D. or Professor who was or is counted among the successful leaders.
It would be ludicrous to argue, however, that high academic preparation is a handicap or an impediment to success in other areas such as politics, but it is a fact of life that one can gain expertise only through practice.
We need Ph.Ds. as well as successful academics in our young and burgeoning universities; not in politics, but where they can produce the intellectual and technical professionals we need for the development of the country. And because we have so few of them we cannot spare any for other areas where they may be less useful. I remember in Siad Barre’s days a number of doctors were appointed as ministers and deputy ministers and were thus removed from their practices. That meant of course fewer doctors in hospitals and other medical facilities. That was unfair, not only to the doctors because they were uprooted from their professions, but also to their patients and to the educated others who were suitably qualified for policy positions and overlooked.
Somalia has not been, for historical reasons, fortunate enough to be led by people who combined advanced education with real political or administrative experience: those who had the degrees were novices in these fields, and those who amassed a lot of experience never managed to rise beyond the routine. Invariably, the latter were always on top although they had only a modicum of education. In the field of administration it was often said, “experts should be on tap, but not on top”. I do not want to repeat here the debate concerning the generalist vs. the specialist. But in our case the specialists, if any, were few, and the generalists were just glorified old clerks who had no background to enable them absorb and use any advice from specialists, foreign or local.
Now that the country has many educated sons and daughters it should seriously pay attention to their utilization guided by the principle of the ‘right person for the right job’. We have a constitution, which spells out a new system of governance and provides for unfamiliar federal structures. There is a lot to learn and to practice. But when peace is truly achieved and the political dust settles there is the stark reality that all will fail without a proper administration led by qualified and trained administrators, not Ph.Ds. and professors. These latter will serve the country well by turning our universities into intellectual powerhouses, and by producing the necessary cadres many of whom should then be trained as administrators.