On Saturday, the Wall Street Journal editorial page published an op-ed criticizing incoming First Lady Jill Biden’s use of the title “doctor” — and immediately drew backlash for the article’s open sexism and condescension.
The piece, “Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an M.D.” by Joseph Epstein, an emeritus lecturer of English at Northwestern University, is ostensibly a foray into an ongoing debate over whether only medical doctors can claim the title, or whether it can also be used by PhDs or others with doctorates, such as Biden, who has a doctorate in educational leadership. (Many publications, including Vox, follow the Associated Press stylebook, which reserves “Dr.” for medical doctors.)
Epstein’s op-ed, though, went beyond this argument to specifically belittle Biden’s credentials and her field of study, beginning with addressing Biden — who is 69 — as “kiddo.” In the op-ed, he describes her decision to use the title of doctor as something that “sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic.” He also dismisses her doctoral dissertation, about keeping community college students enrolled, as “unpromising,” though he does not make clear whether he has read it.
Many women in academia struggle to be addressed with the same respect given their male colleagues. And community colleges have long fought a stigma that the education they offer is inferior to their four-year counterparts.
Epstein’s op-ed played into both of those tropes — and struck a justifiable nerve.
Biden’s students call her “Dr.” — but the op-ed insists she doesn’t deserve the title
Biden, according to Politico, has two master’s degrees and earned her doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Delaware in 2007; she was a community college professor in northern Virginia while her husband was vice president. Though she took a leave of absence during the campaign, she has said that she will continue to teach while in the White House. Her students, according to Politico, call her “Dr. B.”
But Epstein suggests that Biden does not deserve to be referred to this way, writing that “a wise man once said that no one should call himself ‘Dr.’ unless he has delivered a child. Think about it, Dr. Jill, and forthwith drop the doc.” For anyone else who has earned the title to use it is “pathetic” to Epstein’s mind, and he claims it is meaningless anyway.
Epstein goes on to argue the value of a doctorate has diminished in recent years in comparison to the olden days at Columbia University, when “a secretary sat outside the room where these [doctoral examinations] were administered, a pitcher of water and a glass on her desk. The water and glass were there for the candidates who fainted.”
Epstein, who has an honorary doctorate himself but lacks one earned by study, also digresses from his critique of Biden to complain about the proliferation of honorary degrees, which recognize noteworthy contributions to scholarship, culture, or society, but don’t imply academic achievement. This is apparently a hobbyhorse of his: According to Epstein, he once sent a “complaining email” to the president of Northwestern University after Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers received honorary doctorates.
As Danielle Keifert, an assistant professor of education at the University of North Texas, succinctly put it on Twitter, “the suggestion that honorary degrees water down the value of an earned doctorate is laughable. This dude thinks because he had one given to him the rest of us didn’t earn it.”
The suggestion that honorary degrees water down the value of an earned doctorate is laughable. This dude thinks because he had one given to him the rest of us didn’t earn it.— Danielle Keifert (@dtothetk) December 12, 2020
Epstein’s claims elicited strong reactions from many who found his tone offensive and his logic lacking — critics, ranging from members of Biden’s team to her fellow academics, repeatedly pointed out that the piece seemed ill-informed, paternalistic, and misogynistic.
Biden’s future communications director Elizabeth Alexander called the piece “sexist and shameful” on Twitter, while Biden’s spokesperson, Michael LaRosa, wrote, “If you had any respect for women at all [the Wall Street Journal] would remove this repugnant display of chauvinism from your paper and apologize to her.”
“Dr. Biden can absolutely use her honorific. It was not bestowed upon her, she earned it,” Dr. Cathleen London tweeted. “Those of us with MD will not suffer for her using it,”
Sarah Parcak, an archeologist with a doctorate, responded with a tweet that reflected the overall response of many women doctors on Twitter, writing, “Dear Joseph Epstein, author of this garbage sexist article, Kiss my ass and go f*ck yourself.”
As Don Moynihan, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University, points out on Twitter, there’s a good reason that doctors outside of the field of medicine, and especially women, make a point of using the title “doctor.”
“This debate comes every so often on twitter,” Moynihan tweeted as part of a longer thread, “so here is the conclusion: PhDs predate MDs, and the medical profession grabbed the title of doctor to make themselves appear more credible [and] Female & POC scholars often [use “doctor”] as a way to insist people ... not overlook their real credentials.”
This debate comes every so often on twitter, so here is the conclusion:— Don Moynihan (@donmoyn) December 12, 2020
*PhDs predate MDs, and the medical profession grabbed the title of doctor to make themselves appear more credible
*Female & POC scholars often as a way to insist people fo not overlook their real credentials
The op-ed also implied that studying community colleges is useless
Epstein, early in his op-ed, described Biden’s dissertation, titled “Student Retention at the Community College Level: Meeting Students’ Needs,” as “unpromising.” That dismissive comment — and again, it’s unclear if Epstein actually read the dissertation, or engaged with it at all beyond sniping at its title — does a grave disservice to an important issue.
According to data from fall 2018, community college students make up about a third of the US undergraduate population — but from 2017 to 2018, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the retention rate for two-year institutions, at about 62 percent, was almost 20 percent lower when compared to four-year institutions.
There is some debate on what this means — as Grace Chen points out for Community College Review, some students transfer from community colleges to four-year institutions without first completing an associate’s degree. But it’s hard to argue that bolstering retention rates for students who might otherwise never complete a degree isn’t a valuable enterprise. And this debate underscores the fact that it is a topic that requires further scholarship — making Biden’s addition to the field all the more germane.
And Biden has made community colleges a priority beyond her dissertation. She has chosen to teach at one, the Northern Virginia Community College, for what the Los Angeles Times reports is less than she might have earned at a state or private institution.
Perhaps none of this should be surprising: Epstein has previously mourned the rise of “inclusive and anti-racist learning spaces” in an August op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, in which he rhapsodizes about the “tough-guy tradition” of his undergraduate days.
And in 2015, in an essay described by New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait as “bizarre” and “rambling,” Epstein wrote that Hillary Clinton would be “not only be the nation’s first woman president but our second affirmative-action president,” after Barack Obama.
“How have we come to the point,” Epstein writes, “where we elect presidents of the United States not on their intrinsic qualities but because of the accidents of their birth: because they are black, or women, or, one day doubtless, gay, or disabled — not, in other words, for themselves but for the causes they seem to embody or represent, for their status as members of a victim group?”
In the present day, Epstein’s final suggestion is every bit as bizarre as the rest of his Saturday op-ed: “As for your Ed.D.,” he writes, “Madame First Lady, hard-earned though it may have been, please consider stowing it, at least in public, at least for now. Forget the small thrill of being Dr. Jill, and settle for the larger thrill of living for the next four years in the best public housing in the world as First Lady Jill Biden.”
It’s not clear why Epstein believes this to be an either-or proposition, but it isn’t. And regardless of what Epstein thinks on the topic, in roughly a month’s time, there will be a First Lady Dr. Jill Biden in the White House.