Superintendent Chris Richardson: He’s not a real doctor!

Superintendent Chris RichardsonIn a town with a thousand PhD’s, nobody refers to or addresses any of them with ‘Dr.’ or ‘Doctor.’ 

But for some reason, KYMN (example here) and the League of Women Voters of Northfield (example here) use it with the superintendent of schools. The Northfield News used to do it (2008 example here) but appears to have discontinued it.  I was glad to see that Northfield Patch did NOT do this last week in its first district-related story. Not even the school district itself does it, sticking instead to "Superintendent Richardson" in its minutes, though some school board members have a tendency to address him as ‘Doctor’ during the course of a board meeting.

I have nothing against Chris Richardson or the previous Northfield District superintendents, but IMHO, only medical physicians should be addressed as ‘Doctor’ or have the ‘Dr.’ in front of their names. Why treat superintendents as if they’re somehow special?

Our local college presidents (one has a Doctor of Philosophy/PhD, the other a Juris Doctor/JD) don’t get the Doctor/Dr. treatment from KYMN (example here). Not even former school superintendent Charlie Kyte (example here) does. So if they don’t, then neither should Richardson.

How about it, Jeff? How about it, Jessica?


  1. Jessica Peterson White said:

    Hi Griff,

    Interesting question you’ve raised – not a hot political issue, but a fun one for a style-and-grammar geek such as myself.

    Your headline claim that Scott Richardson is not a real doctor is a little baffling. Why the need to narrow the definition of doctor so much further than the rest of the world seems to? My personal experience in academic settings is that most people with any kind of doctorate are referred to as Dr. Professorson, not Mr. or Ms., though they may not (out of humility or a desire not to intimidate) refer to themselves that way.

    It’s true that we all know a lot of PhDs with whom we do not use this title, but it may have to do with whether the context is social or professional. Dr. Richardson is, in the cases you cite, being referred to in his professional role. In any case, he isn’t the only person in Northfield to whom this title is applied. I can think of a couple of local clergy who are referred to as Dr. Minister, as well as any number of faculty members.

    The Chicago Manual of Style suggests that using Dr. is a courtesy, used to show respect, though it “may be omitted without any loss of respect.” I’m not sure where your conviction that only medical doctors should use this honorific is coming from, but if there is some new standard on this point I’d be interested to see it.

    Also, to be clear about the League material that you’re referring to: at LWVNCF’s website, I publish reports written by our observer corps members, which they write. I edit for typos and post, but you can find the name of the author in each post. I’m proud to represent their work, though, and am happy to answer any questions about it.

    – Jessica

    November 28, 2010
  2. Curt Benson said:

    Jeez Griff, in the pantheon of annoyances, this must be one of the most trivial.

    If you google “Dr. Superintendent” you’ll get 9 million returns referring to superintendents as “Dr”. KYMN and the LWV are hardly alone.

    I’m guessing you’re also annoyed at “The Rug Doctor” and “Dr. Pepper”.

    November 28, 2010
  3. Griff Wigley said:


    I probably should have explained that I stole the “he’s not a real doctor” line from the radio sketch, Ask Dr. Science:

    As for the title of Dr. being applied to PhD’s, I just find it weird that the ONLY time it’s done by KYMN and the LWV is for the superintendent of schools, as if that position deserve extra status of the title over college presidents, professors emeritus, etc.

    November 28, 2010
  4. Griff Wigley said:

    Curt, my petty annoyances know no boundaries but I usually try to cook up ways to rationalize the time I spend whining about them.

    In this case, I do think applying the title of Dr. to a superintendent makes the position more elevated in the eyes of the public. And if that makes the public more reluctant to challenge his or her opinions or policies, then that might not always be a good thing.

    I’m all for showing respect to people in positions of authority and responsibility. I just don’t think a school superintendent with a PhD deserves more than those who run cities, hospitals, non-profits, and businesses who also have PhD’s.

    November 28, 2010
  5. Griff Wigley said:

    Well, there you go, Curt. Mugabe’s not a real doctor, either. See what can happen if this isn’t nipped in the bud? It’s time we took a stand. Right here in River City!

    November 28, 2010
  6. Curt Benson said:

    As you wish, Griff. But if I encounter Zimbabwe’s Potentate, I will refer to him respectfully as Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Mugabe.

    November 29, 2010
  7. Patrick Enders said:

    A Ph.D. friend of mine argues that the only “real doctors” in America are those with Ph.D.’s, or (select) foreign medical degrees.

    In many countries, medical students are required to research, write, and defend a doctoral dissertation. American medical schools have no such requirement. As a result, my friend argues that the American medical degree is not a doctoral degree at all. Rather, he asserts, it is merely a “glorified baccalaureate.”

    I know enough about doctoral dissertations to be very glad that I have never had to complete one – and I have high regard for anyone who has.

    So I tip my (virtual) hat to the good Doctor Richardson!

    November 29, 2010
  8. Jan Hill said:

    I will toss in Associated Press guidelines–in my journalism class we recently went over this very issue. AP suggests Dr. be used on first reference only, and only for those with medical or dental degrees, reminding us that “the public frequently identifies Dr. only with physicians.” If, however, the reporter feels it “appropriate in the context” to use Dr., “care should be taken to ensure that the individual’s specialty is stated in first or second reference.”
    Just sayin’ . . .

    November 29, 2010
  9. Tracy Davis said:

    Traditional etiquette (e.g. Emily Post, Letitia Baldridge, Miss Manners) has always held that only medical doctors should use the title or need be addressed as “Dr.” socially; Ph.Ds et al should be addressed as “Dr.” in a professional context.

    The complication in Northfield comes about in part because it’s not always clear in which context the person is being addressed. In a newspaper article about Chris Richardson in his role of Superintendent, “Dr. Richardson” seems appropriate. If the article was about his hobby of rescuing orphaned squirrels or whatever, it doesn’t seem warranted after perhaps an introductory paragraph referring to him as Superintendent.

    December 1, 2010
  10. kiffi summa said:

    Only in Northfield… discussion of the etiquette in addressing those with Ph.Ds…

    December 1, 2010
  11. Griff Wigley said:

    Tracy, my point was also about the inconsistency. KYMN never refers to any other PhD’s as Doctor. Only the superintendent. For example, why not the college presidents when they’re on the radio “in a professional context”? Why not Charlie Kyte? Why not all the college professors who end up on their shows?

    December 6, 2010
  12. When board member-elect Rob Hardy officially takes his seat at the table (the district doesn’t have a dias) and I need to reference him, I will not refer to him as Dr. Rob Hardy. However, I will refer to him as Nurse Rob Hardy.

    November 16, 2012

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