(Mike Wanous, our chair, was attending to a family situation as we went to press, so I am taking on this issue’s “Welcome” message.)
If you’re like me, you probably get a lot of emails that refer to you as “the Dean.” For example, someone in the university emails someone else and there will be a line that reads, “I am copying the Dean.”
There is no need to capitalize the word dean in that sentence but people do it all the time. Reader, when I see it in a sentence where I am the referent, it ratchets my baseline anger level up a micrometer. That is admittedly not much of a bump, but considering that I receive, on average, about 200 emails a day, it is potentially bad for my blood pressure. I notice that people also do it when they refer to the president or the provost.
What is the problem with these seemingly random acts of capitalization? For one, they are an affront to my inner grammar nerd. Everyone knows—or should know, and therein lies the essence of the problem—that common nouns do not get capitalized. You don’t write, for example, “Which came first, the Chicken or the Egg?” That is wrong. Clearly. But hang on, Del, you’ll say, it’s not common and proper nouns that are the problem here. It’s titles that trip people up. And I think that is indeed a source of confusion. I have no problem when someone refers to me as “Dean Doughty,” as in “We invited Dean Doughty to join our meeting.” That is the right way to do it. But not this: “We invited Dr. Doughty, the Dean of the college, to join us.” No, no, no, and a thousand times more no! I am indeed Dean Doughty and I am the dean of the college but I am not the Dean of the college.
The rule is simple: capitalize titles preceding names (e.g., Dean Wormer) or after the name when the title is formally given (Dr. Vernon Wormer, the Dean of Faber College) but never when the office is referred to generically (John Blutarsky is on his way to see the dean again).
Beyond the breach of grammatical principle here, there is another reason that I am bothered by the capitalization of dean when it is capitalized as a common noun: it is honorific and it unnecessarily elevates the importance of the office to a degree that it separates the dean, and the person who is currently playing the role of the dean, from others in the college. In other words it widens the gulf, which is already large enough. The work of a dean is important and has dignity. The office of the dean sits high up on the org chart of every institution. We all know this. Well, perhaps not everyone: there are some among the faculty who think that we are hopeless fools of ill intent. We all know this, too. And I suspect the reason that those folks hold that opinion is that when they see the word Dean they think to themselves, “Hmph. What is so Special about the administration?”
They are not wrong to ask this question. I think seeing my job referred to in such a way has a potentially toxic effect on the way that I see myself in my role. If people apply the same rules of capitalization to me as the Dean the way that they do when they write about God, I might well begin to think that I am indeed Special. I might think maybe I am Different. Maybe I am Above the others. And that will lead you right down the path to the proverbial Dark Side. When faculty tease you about that, they are telling you not to forget where you came from. Because that is what “the dark side” means: you have forgotten your faculty origins.
Am I making too much of this? I might be. It might be nothing. But I think that words matter and that letters matter. And I suppose this probably explains why I am editing the Leader.
Let’s agree that our work is noble but not Noble. I’ll close with an appeal for you to join me in the lower case and in a commitment to operate from that place. I am confident that we’ll all be happier in our roles for it, as will our colleagues.