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June 23, 2011

What makes a professor distinguished?

What’s in a name? Among Pitt’s three distinguished professorship designations, the differences are subtle but important, according to a senior administrator involved with the recommendation process.

The University established policies for honoring its most distinguished faculty members in 1994. Distinguished professorships, the highest honor accorded a faculty member, currently come in three forms: Distinguished Professor, Distinguished University Professor and Distinguished Service Professor.

Sixty-three active Pitt faculty members (out of approximately 1,250 tenured faculty University-wide) hold one of the three designations, including the five new appointments announced by the chancellor last week.

“Initially, we had two categories: University Professor and University Service Professor,” said Andrew Blair, vice provost for Faculty Affairs who staffs the provost’s faculty committee charged with reviewing nominations.

“In 2000, the chancellor approved adding the Distinguished Professor in a discipline category; for example, Distinguished Professor of Physics,” Blair explained.

In 2009, the modifier “Distinguished” was added to the category University Professor in order to avoid confusion with a generic term, he noted.

“Some places in academia, particularly in Europe, didn’t understand that University Professor meant anything special, believing instead that all faculty are university professors,” he said.

“We view all three as co-equal designations; the differences reflect the faculty member’s career track, rather than one being considered higher in any sense than another,” Blair added.

A 10-person faculty committee that recommends nominees for appointment meets at least twice a year, Blair said.

“Nominations are made by deans or campus presidents typically by Sept. 15, so the committee meets in the fall to discuss which nominations should continue on in the process. The nominating dean is alerted and then has to assemble a dossier on behalf of the individual. There’s a lot of work involved putting those materials together.”

In addition to personal statements from the candidate on his or her research, teaching and service activities, supporting materials are expected to include a statement of the nominee’s predicted productivity and directions for the future, as well as letters of recommendation from 10-12 non-Pitt affiliates, the majority of whom are to be scholars at distinguished ranks who are not former advisers, colleagues or collaborators of the nominee, Blair noted.

The dossiers and supporting materials are reviewed by the committee in the spring, he said.

The faculty committee comprises six Provost-area designees and four Health Sciences representatives — a breakdown that reflects roughly the same proportion of tenured faculty University-wide, Blair said. Committee members serve three-year terms, with three or four members annually rotating off the committee. The chair is chosen from among members in their third year of service, and chairs alternate annually between a Provost-area and Health Sciences-area representative.

The three distinguished professor categories share similar eligibility criteria, which include:

• Prior tenure status.

• Performance requirements and expectations for the distinguished ranks as established by the department chair and the dean of the school in which the professor holds tenure, in consultation with appropriate departmental faculty.

• Demonstrated “accomplishments and contributions beyond the authoritative knowledge, stature and service expected of a full professor in any school.”

The three ranks focus on somewhat different aspects of a faculty member’s attainment:

—Distinguished Professor. This designation specifically recognizes extraordinary, internationally acknowledged scholarly attainment in an individual discipline or field. By nature of their appointment as Distinguished Professors, individuals are expected to make special contributions to the intellectual advancement of their home departments and schools, as well as to the institution as a whole.

—Distinguished University Professor. This designation recognizes eminence in several fields of study, transcending contributions to a single discipline. National and, where appropriate, international recognition in at least one field is required.

In addition to the expectation that the individual make special contributions to the advancement of his or her home department, school and to the institution, expectations include promoting the intellectual advancement of other departments or schools within the University.

—Distinguished Service Professor. This designation recognizes distinctive contributions and outstanding service (e.g., professional, regional, national, international) to the University community in support of its multi-faceted teaching/research/service mission, as well as performance excellence in the faculty member’s department or school and national stature in his or her discipline or field. The designation normally is reserved for senior faculty who have established a record of distinguished service within the University.

Other factors common to the three ranks include:

• Each appointment is limited to the school in which the faculty member holds tenure.

• Appointments most often are made for an indefinite term. However, there may be instances where a limited term, with or without the possibility of renewal, may be desirable.

• All appointments are made with the expectation that professional performance will be maintained at a level appropriate for the distinguished appointment.

• The advancement to one of these appointments does not alter the manner in which salaries, teaching assignments or academic matters are determined in the faculty member’s department. However, a separate salary adjustment, over and above what is available in the annual salary increase pool, is determined by the appropriate dean consistent with the appointment.

In addition, an annual allocation of funds by the appropriate dean typically is made to support the faculty member’s professional activities.

To mark the occasion of the appointment, the distinguished faculty member is expected to present an inaugural lecture at which time he or she will be presented with a special medallion commemorating the occasion.

—Peter Hart

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