Titles in academe can be a tricky issue, raising a host of complicated questions about identity, status, and etiquette.
But in one of the most closely watched Senate races this election season, the question of how to refer to a candidate who is also an academic is inherently a political one.
Elizabeth Warren, a professor at Harvard Law School who is running for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, was asked at a debate on Tuesday night whether she was bothered by the practice of her opponent—Scott Brown, the Republican incumbent—of referring to her by her academic title.
“He always calls you ‘Professor Warren,’” said David Gregory, the NBC News journalist who moderated the debate. “Do you think he’s needling you, trying to cast you as an elitist professor in the eyes of the voters?”
“It doesn’t bother me,” Ms. Warren quickly responded. “I worked hard for this.”
Mr. Brown chimed in, suggesting that he had merely been offering Ms. Warren a customary sign of respect. Besides, he pointed out, it’s an accurate label.
“She’s earned the title,” he said. “She is now a sitting professor at Harvard Law School.”
Mr. Brown also cited a report in that day’s Boston Globe that said Ms. Warren “seemed quite smitten with the title” of professor when she appeared in a 2009 Harvard promotional video.
In the video, Ms. Warren recounts a meeting during her first year of law school in which a professor asked whether she had considered going into teaching.
“I was astonished by the notion that someone would think I could teach at law school,” Ms. Warren says, recounting the meeting. “I got in my little Volkswagen to drive home. I was driving along, and I remember saying, ‘Professor Warren? Professor Warren. Professor Warren.’ And I thought, ‘Damn, that sounds good.’”
However respectful and accurate the title may be, the “professor” label serves as a convenient device for casting Ms. Warren as out of touch with the average voter, especially as Mr. Brown seeks to build his populist image. That image helped propel him to victory in a 2010 special election to replace the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
On Tuesday night Mr. Brown seemed eager to remind viewers that he was running against a professor. During one back and forth over a jobs bill, Mr. Brown said to Ms. Warren: “Excuse me, I’m not a student in your classroom. Let me respond.”
Later in the debate, when asked what he admires about Ms. Warren, Mr. Brown described her as a “hard-working, accomplished professor.”
“As a matter of fact,” he added, “she’s such a good professor—and I’ve heard from parents who have actually had their kids being taught by her, and they say she is wonderful—so I’m going to do everything in my power to ensure that she can continue to be in that position.”
At both Tuesday’s debate and a previous one, Mr. Brown reiterated his criticism of Ms. Warren for describing herself as Native American in a professional directory that many law schools use in hiring. Ms. Warren and several Harvard officials have said that her heritage was not a factor in her landing a job at the university.
On Tuesday, Mr. Brown again called on her to release her personnel records to substantiate that claim, saying she had “failed the test” of “integrity and character and trustworthiness.”
“I consider myself as having a Native American background,” Ms. Warren responded. “That’s what I said. That’s what I am. To try to turn it into something bigger is just wrong.”
Mr. Brown also previously sought to use Ms. Warren’s role as a professor to make a point about college affordability. In a debate last week, he criticized the salary of Ms. Warren and her husband, Bruce Mann, who also teaches at Harvard Law School, citing them as examples of the excesses in “administrative costs and salaries” at universities that are driving up tuition.
“Professor Warren and her husband make almost three-quarters of a million dollars, and Professor Warren teaches one class to make almost $300,000,” he said, adding that she receives “housing and other perks.”
“No wonder costs are high,” Mr. Brown concluded.
For her part, Ms. Warren has not shied away from her academic affiliation throughout the campaign, framing it as an American-dream success story.
In speeches to voters, she has introduced herself as “the daughter of a maintenance man who ended up as a fancy-pants professor at Harvard Law School.”