The Other Doctor Is In

Multi-titled Sharon Webb has an unusual doctorate.


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I have a thing about calling people "doctor."

By that, I mean medical doctors. My knee surgeon is Dr. Morris. My dentist is Dr. Wills. I've known both of them quite awhile, but when I see them, it's still doctor or doc, not Tom or Gordon, not that either of them would mind. As a rule, anyone who can put me under anesthesia and ease my pain deserves a professional title in my book.

Others will have to do with Mr. or Mrs. I'm at an advanced age and low station where I don't have to flatter anyone. That includes my squash partners, who have doctorates in political science and physics and are professors at Rhodes. It includes Mayor Willie Herenton, who has a doctorate in education and is "Doc" to close friends but is fine with "Mayor" from the rest of us. And it includes former Memphis City Schools superintendent Carol Johnson, another education doctor, whom I resisted interviewing partly because everyone made a fuss about calling her Dr. Johnson.

So it's partly me, but Memphis has a case of "doctoritis." Nothing too serious, but the disease tends to flare up when unchecked during election campaigns and most often afflicts political candidates and consultants seeking to inflate their stature.

The new doctor in the house this summer is Sharon Webb, a political newcomer one year ago who is now a member of the school board and Charter Commission and a candidate for mayor. She also submitted her name for interim superintendent but didn't make the cut. Make that her name and her title, Dr. Sharon Webb.

Webb is not a medical doctor like her colleague on the school board, Jeff Warren, is. She is not a doctor of education like Carol Johnson, Willie Herenton, or Robert Schiller, one of the two finalists for the interim superintendent job, are.

She has a dual doctorate in Religious Arts in Christian Education and Religious Arts in Theology from Jacksonville Theological Seminary, a Bible school that charges $50 per credit for a bachelor's, master's, or doctorate and currently delivers its services online. She earned a bachelor of science in Organizational Management from Crichton College in 2000, three years after her second doctorate. Jacksonville Theological Seminary, as it discloses on its Web site, is not accredited by any agency or association recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. But its "graduates" are free to claim the same honorary title as Ph.D. and M.D. from Vanderbilt and the University of Tennessee school of medicine.

They can claim it, but reporters, colleagues, and voters don't have to go along. Unfortunately, some of them do. The Commercial Appeal, the political action group New Path, and the MCS Web site refer to "Dr. Sharon Webb" without examining her credentials.

Doctoritis is less of an indulgence than the divine calling claimed by both Webb and the mayoral incumbent. It is akin to grade inflation and watered-down standardized tests. But it's a bad example for people who make policy, hire superintendents, and influence 115,000 students who get report cards and fill out applications for no-nonsense jobs and competitive colleges. If Webb, who is founder and pastor of Life Changing Word Ministries, wants an honorary title, then what's the matter with pastor or reverend? "I don't think it is a reach," Webb said of her doctorate.

Webb said she took four years of course work at Christ the Rock Metropolitan Church in Memphis, including five Jacksonville Seminary courses on cassette tapes for each degree, as well as additional classes, one of which she designed and taught. "I worked very, very hard," she said. "They didn't give me anything. I earned it."

There is scant evidence that higher education correlates with political success anyway. Dick Hackett, who was mayor for nine years before losing to Willie Herenton, didn't have a college degree. The issue of their comparative education never came up. Herman Morris and Carol Chumney, who are also running for mayor, are both lawyers, but neither uses a courtesy title. Jane Walters, a standout high school principal from Memphis who became state commissioner of education, was just plain Jane.

The worst case of doctoritis I ever saw was several years ago. A Memphis city councilman, Talib Muhammad, claimed a doctorate that my employer at the time steadfastly refused to recognize in print. The editor and the councilman were each adamant. Finally, Muhammad solved the problem by legally changing his name to Doctor.

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