Attempted smear of Jill Biden, Black educators backfires

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Wayne Dawkins is a writer, author and professor at Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism. (Courtesy photo)

By Wayne Dawkins
Special to the AFRO

On Dec. 12, the Wall Street Journal published the commentary by Joseph Epstein, “Is there a doctor in the White House? Not if you need an M.D.” 

Epstein, a former faculty member at an elite Midwestern University, offered condescending advice to Jill Biden, wife of President-elect Joe, because in his opinion, she has a mere doctorate in education. 

Epstein actually did not give advice. He behaved like an eighth grade boy sling-shooting spitballs at the back of a smart girl’s head.

“Dr. Jill Biden” sounds and feels fraudulent, wrote Epstein at the top of his piece, yet duplicitously he ended the op-ed by acknowledging that Jill Biden’s Ed.D was hard earned.

Epstein, you see, was an academic poser. His attack was not only on women scholars, but indirectly, Historically Black College and University (HBCU) educators, too, many of them women of color. 

I’ll explain why Epstein is a poser: after 25 years in daily journalism, I have spent the past 15 years in academia at two campuses, the latter an ascending research university. During my journalism days, the Associated Press Stylebook counseled us to avoid placing “Dr.” in front of people’s names unless they were in the medical field. 

For example, a psychiatrist can prescribe medicine and should be distinguished as a “Dr.” up front, while a psychologist is a social scientist who deserves respect, so Ph.D or Ed. D cited after their name works. Clarity was journalists’ motivation for distinguishing medical doctors from social scientists.

Epstein pretended to educate readers about the workings of academia. He managed to teach for decades at an elite university with only a Bachelor’s degree. Epstein was, however, bestowed with an honorary doctorate. Epstein then applied fake modesty and said he is often called “Dr.” 

I’m often called “Dr.,” too. But because I earned a Master of Science, I often, gently, correct people because I do not want to be accused as a “fraud,” pretending that I earned a doctoral degree. 

However, what I have earned is the rank of associate and full professor at two campuses, and I have vetted doctoral candidates who worked arduously to seek tenure and promotion. 

The ambitious campus where I now work is ranked as a high-productivity research institution because it consistently mints a few dozen doctoral candidates each year. Many of these folks go on to secure millions of dollars in competitive research grants, especially in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.  

Writers such as octogenarian Epstein resent that the dominant White, male faculty of the past is today gender and racially diverse. 

His sexist tripe aimed at the incoming First Lady and scholar included a dig at African-American women scholars: that honorary doctorates are so watered down that good ones are “rarer than a contemporary university honorary degree list not containing an African-American woman.” 

However, instead of injuring professors because they are women or minorities, Epstein debased his institution and himself. Northwestern University has disassociated itself from the former faculty member. 

Meanwhile, 48 hours after Epstein’s opinion piece drew swift backlashes from readers, Paul A. Gigot, editor of the Wall Street Journal opinion pages, doubled down. He asked, why was there such outrage over what Epstein wrote, and then alleged that the protests were coordinated Democratic Party efforts to stifle dissent. 

I have an answer for Gigot: Many people, present company included, returned word fire because Epstein’s instigating blast represented a desperate last gasp of uninformed, White male supremacy that will not go unanswered in the 21st century. 

The writer is a professor of professional practice at Morgan State University School of Global Journalism and Communication.

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