Call Me Doctora: Why It Matters

Dec 18, 2020
10:10 AM

The Problem

Imagine waking up on a COVID Saturday morning, getting your children ready for another day in this pandemic, thinking about all the grading you have to do, the research you have to complete, and what will be on your weekend menu all while listening to the Bubble Guppies in the background and you hear the following on the news:

“Madame First Lady —Mrs. Biden— Jill— kiddo: a bit of advice on what may seem like a small but I think is a not unimportant matter. Any chance you might drop the ‘Dr.’ before your name? ‘Dr. Jill Biden’ sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic. Your degree is, I believe, an Ed.D., a doctor of education, earned at the University of Delaware through a dissertation with the unpromising title ‘Student Retention at the Community College Level: Meeting Students’ Needs.’ 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.”

This is an excerpt from an opinion piece published by the Wall Street Journal. The author of the essay is Joseph Epstein, who says he taught at Northwestern University for 30 years. I do not believe this opinion piece merits linking back to his work so I will not add it here. While the editor of the Wall Street Journal Opinion segment did defend Mr. Epstein’s right to a published opinion, other educational organizations such as the American Educational Research Association (AERA)  and Northwestern University have denounced this opinion and condemned Epstein’s opinion. In fact, AERA encouraged the following:

AERA strongly supports Dr. Biden’s choice to use the title of “Dr.” We encourage all who have earned doctorates, may they be Ph.D.s, Ed.D.s, or MDs, to proudly do so as well, and to help ensure that women do not continue to bear the brunt of the type of belittling behavior demonstrated in the Journal’s op-ed. 

Normally, I encourage my students to dig deeper and read articles thoroughly. However this opinion, I thought, was a heap of White supremacist, misogynistic, classist, and patriarchal trash. Epstein’s comments are classist, sexist, and full of wrong information. And at best it makes me wonder, how was this piece published? Where are the gatekeepers who hold so many of us back from publishing our opinions and our work in major media  outlets? Yet, the trash published in the Wall Street Journal is consistent with rhetoric that many of us have heard our whole lives as they relate to our accomplishments.

Facts About Doctorates

Let’s put this in perspective:

In the U.S., 4,557,000 people hold doctorate degrees. Four million people out of 330 million United Statesians.

Looking closer at the Latinx population, we find that  243,000 Latinxs have earned doctorates.

Of them, 128,000 are Latina women.

These numbers suggest a huge problem—the path toward the doctorate is elusive, riddled with obstacles for historically oppressed and disenfranchised people, and confusing as hell.

Let’s take the Ed.D. and Ph.D. discourse  as an example: Like Dr. Jill Biden, I earned an Ed.D. An Ed.D. is a Doctor of Education, distinct from the Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy). While many universities make a specific distinction between Ed.D.s and Ph.D.s, the lines are blurry for many institutions and even for some scholars. For some universities, Ed.D.s not only build theory through critical analysis and research of a subject matter, folks who earn Ed.D.s are expected to also apply what they learn to problems in education. Doctors of Education are also thought to prefer and be prepared for leadership positions over the professoriate. However, as you may note, I have earned an Ed.D. and have chosen the professorial route, unlike the perspectives or expectations I just mentioned.

Some institutions like Teachers College, Columbia University (my alma mater) and Harvard do not give students an option to obtain Ph.D.’s in this field. Additionally, fields like education are often stigmatized as a “soft science,” as opposed to fields such as biology and chemistry. This line of thinking has consequences. Take the work of teachers, for example. The preconceived and misdirected notions that “everyone can be a teacher” is one of the most problematic ideologies that has persisted in capitalist societies such as the U.S. This is evident in the ways we treat and pay teachers. Thus, in many ways Epstein was attacking various identities of people who have earned Ed.D.s, those who study problems associated with higher education, and more importantly—professionals who are women.

Obstacles for Latinx Professors

When I first began my position as a professor on the tenure track, one of the aspects of graduate student life at Montclair State University that I was impressed with was students’ respect for professors’ titles. Even the unfriendliest student called me Doctor or Professor Vega. I did not have to ask to be called by my title—it was part of the culture. This is significant, as women and people of color are often taught to be humble when it comes to titles, despite what it took to earn those titles and honors. To not have to explain WHY I prefer to be called by my title was a luxury my colleagues at other institutions did not have.

However, a title does not necessarily mean I am afforded with complete respect of the work I put into my degree and the ways my path toward the doctorate was riddled with obstacles such as microaggressions, structural racism, and economic disadvantages. In many ways, a very few number of graduate students questioned my knowledge of my field —higher education research and administration— often being unhappy with what I was teaching and how I was teaching the subject material. Important to note here is how teaching makes up a great part of a professor’s evaluation toward promotion and tenure. In particular, student evaluations are valued despite critiques that they are biased against women faculty. In some evaluations, I read statements such as “for someone who claims to have earned their degree from Columbia University, she really does not know anything about higher education administration,” even though I worked for 16 years as a higher education professional prior to becoming a professor. In many ways, Epstein’s opinion piece is not just simply some crazy White man’s thoughts about the doctorate and how Dr. Jill Biden chooses to use her title—his thoughts are deeply embedded in our institutions of higher education and U.S. society, a direct and dangerous attack on how I choose to earn my salary and feed my family.

To put this in context, according to Nuñez and Elizabeth Murakami-Ramalho: “Only 4 percent of tenured or tenure-track female faculty members in the United States are Latina (78 percent are white, 7 percent are African American, and 7 percent are Asian American), and only 3 percent of female full professors are Latina.” More generally, USians’ perceptions of intellectuals do not include Latina women. This was starkly noted when Dr. Lorgia García-Peña, the only Latina professor at Harvard was denied tenure. In a post I wrote for my blog and a presentation at the Puerto Rican Studies Association, I wrote and presented on frameworks for the study of Latinx intellectuals, a central tenet being to address anti-Blackness in our communities. While I am still developing this work, I recognize that there is so much work to be done in this area, and very little published about it. We are battling deeply engrained White supremacist perceptions that have long affected People of Color in the U.S., but more specifically, attacked our ability to lead, teach, and even our right to be educated in the U.S.

Call Me Doctora: Why It Matters

There are many ways this little opinion piece by this person who has been discredited before is a reminder that mediocrity is a strong tenet of White supremacy, a tenet that has deep roots in how we treat Women of Color who hold doctorates specifically. In a way, this was a direct attack on the work I put into my field, as well as the work my parents and family members endured to help me achieve my goals in earning one of the highest educational credentials in our society. It was an attack not just on my work, but my identity as well. I am the daughter of immigrants from Ecuador. As my father, a man who is the son of farmers who could not read or write, puts it: “I worked with my hands so you could work with your head.” Using my title is part of my identity. It is what I used to break generations of illiteracy and poverty for incredibly intelligent people who were obstructed from education for many reasons. And now when other Latinas and women of color call me Doctor, they feel they can do the same.

Being called Doctor is part of my identity. It will forever be the legacy that my parents, two immigrant Ecuadorian people who broke their backs trying to get me through an unjust educational system —a White supremacist regime— will leave in me. And it won’t stay with me, even if my own son decides he doesn’t want to attain this degree. This is for those that do want this to be part of their legacy.

In conclusion, my mission here is not to defend credentialing. It is not even to defend Dr. Jill Biden because I believe she has the privileges, resources, and the ability to defend herself. It is to defend my right to education as a second generation, low income, New York City Ecuadorian Woman of Color. It is my defense of using my credentials to then be called by my proper title—Doctor or Professor. My use of it is not only a signal for me, but for many who can see themselves in me, and truly feel that they can earn such an elusive degree. For the many reasons I stated here, the journey is riddled with obstacles—opinions such as the one Epstein was able to publish so widely are deeply embedded all throughout our educational system. But my job now is to make this process less elusive, less difficult, break more gatekeeping habits, and invite others to call themselves Doctora as well.


A native New Yorker, Dr. Blanca Elizabeth Vega is the daughter of Ecuadorian immigrants. Dr. Vega is currently Assistant Professor of Higher Education at Montclair State University. Dr. Vega’s primary area of research situates racism as one of multiple barriers that affects higher education experiences and success—not just for students, but also for administrators and faculty. Twitter: @BlancaVNYC.