college professor writing on white board

Professor—What’s in a title?

November 27, 2019

This is the first in a series of articles about academic terms—what they mean, how they came about, and why they matter. We are hoping to demystify certain words students come across during their educational endeavors.

The word professor comes from the latin prefix pro-, meaning forth or forward, and frateri, meaning acknowledge or confess. In academic life, a professor is simply a teacher, ostensibly once who professes a certain opinion.

Francisco Conejo, PhD, who teaches in the School of Business and researches marketing and psychology, explains that the notion of professors advancing their own points of view “is rarely something we see in academia today.” That’s because professors are expected to give their students the information they need to reach competency in a certain subject. Except for teaching upper-level courses or supervising graduate students, professors are now doing less professing and more relaying. “In many ways, modern education has distorted what the academy used to be,” said Conejo, which was “to develop inquiring minds.”

Regardless of what a professor used to do versus what a professor now does, the term professor is more complicated by its various incarnations. The basic order is as follows: Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, Professor. “Like any other profession, you move through the ranks. Most academics see it as a career path,” said Conejo. If you want to remember whether an assistant professor comes before or after an associate professor, think about it this way: assistant is first alphabetically and it’s the lowest rank.

Students might not be aware of professorial status at all. “Students don’t really pay attention to titles,” said Conejo. “For example, they won’t schedule their courses based on whether their teachers are full professors or instructors.” On the other hand, the professors themselves are very aware of rank—their own and their colleagues.

The university titles for professor in the United States are relatively standard, but there are exceptions—and these tend to be interesting. Some of the more colorful terms include Bicentennial Preceptor, Extraordinary Faculty, Convertible Lecturer, Jubilee Professor, and Senior Investigator (not a detective, by the way).

There it is in a nutshell: A professor is one who imparts knowledge or professes ideas. As for the particular ranks, they go from Assistant to Associate to Professor, although perhaps it shouldn’t matter. “In an ideal world, the academic pursuit is truth … not a job,” said Conejo.