The Discussion Around Epstein’s Obnoxious WSJ Piece is Ignoring an Important Issue

The Wall Street Journal recently published an opinion piece titled, “Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an M.D.” Commentators across the ideological spectrum have all had a great deal to say about the piece – with comments ranging from agreement to lividity. Northwestern University stripped the author, Joseph Epstein (a former lecturer at the university), of his emeritus status due to the article’s backlash.

I found Epstein’s op-ed to be condescending, sexist, mean-spirited, and ultimately quite obnoxious. In my opinion, if he was aiming for humor, he whiffed big time. I loathe cancel culture as much as anyone, but I do empathize with much of the anger being directed at the author and the publication. Some have argued that Epstein’s criticism is a result of academic elitism, not misogyny. I could be wrong, but I doubt that Epstein would have penned the same piece if the President-Elect were a woman and the First Gentlemen wished to be addressed as “Dr.”

The article has ignited discussions regarding three separate issues:

(a) Does Dr. Jill Biden deserve the right to use the honorific title of “Dr.”

(b) Is Dr. Jill Biden’s dissertation an example of rigorous academic research?

(c) Is Dr. Jill Biden’s dissertation an example of a decades-long decline in the quality of academic research in the field of education?

The vast majority of conversations in the media are centered around (a), which I will only discuss briefly. 

Joseph Epstein

Some commentators on both the populist left and populist right felt that much of the media controversy was cosmetic in nature; it was a way to distract public attention away from Congress’ failure to pass a COVID-19 stimulus package in the midst of widespread unemployment, rising death rates, and other more consequential issues. Furthermore, some have described Dr. Biden’s insistence on using the honorific as an example of “class signaling.” 

(a) Does Dr. Jill Biden deserve the right to use the honorific title of “Dr.”

I believe the answer is yes.

If someone has a doctorate, I always address them as “Dr.” unless told otherwise (with the exception of lawyers since, for a reason I’m not aware of, they’re never referred to as “Dr.” despite having a Juris Doctorate, AND chiropractors because their discipline is second only to scientology, in terms of a lack of scientific validity).

My disposition in a NON-PROFESSIONAL situation is to address people with a doctorate in the manner that they prefer. My disposition in a PROFESSIONAL setting is to always address people with a doctorate as “Dr.” – except in a healthcare situation where medical doctors and non-medical doctors are both present. 

Personally, I find it a tad pretentious, elitist, and suggestive of an inferiority complex when any professional (regardless of gender) with a doctorate demands to be called “Dr.” in a context outside of their professional environment. For example, if a surgeon demanded to be called “Dr.” while in church or at a friendly barbecue, I would roll my eyes in his direction. 

There is also some hypocrisy being practiced by corporate liberal elites who are outraged about Epstein’s op-ed. Sebastian Gorka, a former Trump advisor, is another example of an individual who faced criticism about his academic credentials and is adamant that people address him with the honorific title. Θ Gorka has been criticized by national security academics – both for his outlandish, heterodox opinions and for the academically dubious content of his Ph.D. dissertation (and the committee that oversaw it). ℑ Many progressive commentators demanded that Gorka NOT be referred to as “Dr.” λ I imagine that many of the individuals who are upset about Epstein’s message to Dr. Biden had no problem NOT referring to Sebastian Gorka as “Dr. Gorka.”

I believe “Dr.” should automatically be used in professional contexts. For example, I think it is imperative that any medical doctor (regardless of gender) be called “Dr.” in any healthcare setting AND I also believe that it is imperative that non-medical doctors (physical therapists, PhD RNs/administrators, medical physicists, etc.) NOT be called “Dr.” in any healthcare setting to avoid patient confusion. Likewise, in an educational setting, I always address my professors (regardless of gender) as “Dr.” or “Professor” until told otherwise. If I had an instructor with an Ed.D. (Dr. Biden’s degree), I would automatically refer to him or her as “Dr.” or “Professor.” Dr. Jill Biden has a doctorate in education and wants to be called “Dr.” Therefore, I believe people should refer to her as doctor unless instructed otherwise. Her imminent role as First Lady should have no bearing on the validity of her title.

(b) Is Dr. Jill Biden’s dissertation an example of rigorous academic research?

To (b), I believe the answer is NO. Not even close. My opinion here has nothing to do with whether the incoming First Lady should be called Dr. Biden. I believe she should be called Dr. Biden.

Dr. Biden’s full dissertation can be found hereI recommend that you take a look at the dissertation and form your own opinion. 

The purpose of academic research, including dissertations, is to create new knowledge. Doctoral dissertations deal with highly specific topics that are analyzed in a technically exhaustive manner. Some commentators have noted that Dr. Biden’s dissertation is beautifully written and engaging to read. However, those qualities are not indicative of arduous scholarship; the opposite is closer to the truth. Ground-breaking research (which IS new knowledge) is not accessible to laypeople – even if they have a bachelors, masters, or doctoral degree in a different field. I have an undergraduate minor in philosophy and I find the vast majority of philosophy doctoral dissertations to be utterly impenetrable. 

Jason Brennan, the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at Georgetown University, articulates this notion well in his recent book, “Good Work If You Can Get It: How to Succeed in Academia”. ρ In chapter one, he lists several articles published in Physical Review Letters, an elite peer-reviewed journal of academic physics. The titles include:

• Predictive Simulations of Ionization Energies of Solvated Halide Ions with Relativistic Embedded Equation of Coupled Cluster Theory.

• Interface-Governed Deformation of Nanobubbles and Nanotents Formed by Two-Dimensional Materials.

Brennan states, “…you might notice that these papers are on narrow, highly specialized topics. Most highly educated people, let alone most laypeople, wouldn’t understand what these papers say, let alone whether what they say is significant.”

He goes on to say, “In short, doing good research usually means studying a topic so narrow that you can do extremely rigorous work but also so narrow that most people, including other experts, don’t and won’t care in the slightest what you have to say.”

Compare those previous titles to Dr. Biden’s dissertation title, “Student Retention at the Community College: Meeting Students’ Needs.” I have never taken an education course and have never read an article in an education scholarly journal. Despite the total absence of familiarity with this academic field, I have no trouble predicting the precise content of Dr. Biden’s dissertation. However, the impenetrability (or lack thereof) of a dissertation or article’s title is a crude approximator of academic rigor (and can easily be faked). For a valid assessment, we need to consult the dissertation itself. 

The dissertation’s “methodology,” which is described on pg. 38, consists of Dr. Biden sending three surveys to Delaware Technical Community College students and staff – Pre-Tech writing students, Pre-Tech Reading students, and teaching faculty (including counselors). The questionnaires gather personal (14 questions), academic (7 questions), social (5 questions), financial (4 questions), psychological (3 questions), and physical (4 questions) information. 

Dr. Biden reports percentage breakdowns from the survey (as in what percentage of respondents utilized a tutor, felt that they might benefit from a mentor, etc.) and then comments on how closely the small sample reflects national trends. There are no hypothesis tests, no p-values, no regressions, no predictive models, no experiments, etc. There are no applications of any discernible theory (from organizational behavior, social psychology, sociology of education, etc.) to solve the (important) problem at the heart of the research question – how to improve student retention at community colleges. This dissertation literally consists of reading the results of three small sample polls. Qualitative research has often been unfairly (though sometimes fairly) maligned, but this dissertation certainly doesn’t help the reputation of non-quantitative analysis.

Throughout the dissertation, Dr. Biden provides “analysis” on how the survey results should be interpreted, such as “Retention literature strongly supports faculty mentoring; 55 percent of students agree that mentoring would be helpful to them.” Who would’ve thought that mentoring would be helpful to students?

The final question of the survey was open-ended and asked respondents to provide information not prompted by the survey. Dr. Biden literally says, “Students provided some thought provoking answers,” and then provides this gem of a graphic:

Graph found on pg. 49

“More recreational activities,” “Wider range of sports,” “Lower tuition,” and “Reducing course loads” seem more like the campaign promises of a student government candidate than “thought-provoking” solutions to the research problem. The remainder of the dissertation consists of several one-on-one interviews with students and faculty (some from other schools) that reveal self-evident pieces of information, such as tutoring is helpful, students lack study skills, and the cafeteria should be open in the evening.

My favorite recommendation comes on page 57: “The student retention committee should formulate a plan to increase retention.” I must ask, what else would the student retention committee do?

Dr. Biden summarizes her recommendations in a few pages (pgs. 74-79). Her suggestions resemble a student’s wish list, not scholarly solutions. Many of them are vague. The obviousness of most borders on parody. Here are the ten recommendations that she offers:

1) pg. 74: “In the area of academia, the student must be valued and made to feel a part of the college even before the school year begins. Orientation plays an important role in how students perceive their institution… it is imperative that orientation be held several times throughout the week.”

2) pg. 75: “To improve the relationship and the effectiveness of advising, advisors should set up meetings with prospective students to help plan schedules, listen to their concerns, and find answers to their questions. The advisor/advisee relationship should continue through college email or direct personal contact. Advisors should try to connect with students on a continual basis.”

3) pg. 75: Offer a one-hour course to help students develop study/life skills.

4) pg. 76: Make sure that students know about the services of the Writing Center.

5) pg. 76: “An educational diagnostician should be employed to help address the disabilities of the developmental population.”

6) pg. 76: Implement a faculty mentoring program.

7) pg. 77: “Delaware Tech, through its scholarship committee, needs to do a better job advertising scholarships opportunities so that more students apply for them.”

8) pg. 78: “Delaware Tech needs to provide a student center when the new biotech building is built in 2007.”

9) pg. 79: Hire a student psychologist for students’ counseling/wellness needs, and to identify, and assist with, student learning disabilities.

10) pg. 79: Build a wellness center for students.

This is simply not rigorous academic research. It is not even a competent policy package, much less a robust doctoral dissertation. Dr. Biden has provided a wish list without any tangible specifics.

In a tweet, Mark Perry, Professor of Economics at the University of Michigan-Flint, provided a similarly critical description of Dr. Biden’s doctoral dissertation: “…if you check out Jill Biden’s dissertation you’ll see that it’s written at about the level of an advanced high school term paper or maybe a freshman/sophomore level term paper. Or maybe at the level of a Wikipedia post.”

While perhaps unnecessarily unkind, I’m afraid I have to agree with Professor Perry’s assessment. Dr. Biden does not propose any leading indicators for her recommendations to track progress once they are implemented. For example, what metrics or methodologies should be used to determine whether building a wellness center moves the needle in the right direction on student retention? What is the return on investment for each of her recommendations and how is the ROI measured (net present value, internal rate of return, payback period, etc.)? What are the costs? How should funding be secured? What type of cost/benefit analysis should be employed to rank the recommendations? Which recommendations should be pursued first? What does “do a better job advertising scholarship opportunities” mean exactly?

Dr. Biden is only partially to blame for the lack of intellectual rigor. Her dissertation committee, which consisted of men, and academic advisors are also responsible for not asking these questions (and many more). Unfortunately, education administrators seem to measure success by inputs (dollars spent, scholarships offered, hours added to cafeteria schedule, etc.) instead of by outputs/outcomes (retention rates, test scores, graduation rates, etc.).

It is unfair and sexist that Dr. Biden be singled out because she is a woman; male doctors of education don’t seem to face the same scrutiny. However, the critiques of her dissertation are valid. 

(c) Is Dr. Jill Biden’s dissertation an example of a decades-long decline in the quality of academic research in the field of education?

I believe the answer to this question is DEFINITELY.

This is a much bigger issue, of which Dr. Biden’s subpar dissertation is just a drop in the bucket. Lyell Asher, Associate Professor of English at Lewis & Clark College, penned a great 2018 piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, which can be found here. ð

I recommend reading Professor Asher’s article for a brief introduction to this topic; she states, “Ed schools have long been notorious for ideological orthodoxy and low academic standards.”

Professor Asher also mentions an interesting study that provides an opportunity for a deeper dive into the issue. In 2006, Arthur Levine, former President of Teachers College at Columbia University, authored a report on the state of education programs in universities across America. The report stated that most ed schools’ programs “range from inadequate to appalling, even at some of the country’s leading universities.”
You can find that report here. Λ 

The criticism of schools of education has nothing to do with Dr. Jill Biden, and it is independent of gender prejudices. This is a systemic issue in higher education. Dr. Biden earned a doctorate. Therefore, she’s earned the right to be called “Dr.” 

Θ Borchers, Callum. (2017). “Sebastian Gorka likes to be called ‘Dr. Gorka.’ He gets his way only in conservative media.” The Washington Post.

ℑ Devine, Curt., Griffin, Drew., Bronstein, Scott. (2017). “Sebastian Gorka’s PhD adviser: ‘I would not call him an expert in terrorism’” CNN.

λ Reynolds, Andrew. (2017). “Stop Calling Him ‘Dr.’: The Academic Fraud of Sebastian Gorka, Trump’s Terrorism ‘Expert’.” Haaretz.

ρ Brennan, Jason. (2020). “Good Work If You Can Get It: How to Succeed in Academia.” John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore.

ð Asher, Lyell. (2018). “How Ed Schools Became a Menace:
They trained an army of bureaucrats who are pushing the academy toward ideological fundamentalism.” The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Λ Levine, Arthur. (2006). “Educating School Teachers.” The Education Schools Project.

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