Occasionally a university gives a famous professor a job title individually designed for that one person only. Thus:

  • Donald Knuth is "Professor Emeritus of the Art of Computer Programming" at Stanford.
  • Gian-Carlo Rota was "Professor of Applied Mathematics and Philosophy" at M.I.T., although he had an appointment only in the mathematics department.

Is there a common noun referring to such custom-designed job titles for rare famous professors?

PS inspired by things written below: This is not the same as an endowed chair or a distinguished professorship. Some universities use the titled of "Distinguished Professor" and have rules saying only a limited number of professors can have that title; some universitites call the appointees "University Professors"; M.I.T. calls them "Institute Professors" (Isadore Singer in the math department is an Institute Professor). But with Distinguished Professors there is some codified rule saying these can exist and setting forth certain criteria for granting such a title. Similarly for endowed chairs. Knuth's title was based on the name of an influential and famous three-volume work on computer programming that Knuth had written; it would be absurd to promulgate a rule saying who might be appointed to this position in the future and according to which criteria, since it's a title that can fit only one person. Nor could it have been contemplated in Rota's case that others might some day have that title; it was awarded only because of the unique circumstances of Rota's life.

  • 4
    Often these are called "chairs" or endowed chairs.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Nov 28, 2015 at 1:44
  • 2
    Named Chairs, for positions named after a person. Commented Nov 28, 2015 at 1:57
  • 3
    Rota's position looks like a generic full professor with appointments in two departments: (1) applied mathematics and (2) philosophy. I often sign my official correspondence "Professor of Computer Science", but that just means I'm a full professor with an appointment in the computer science department; it's not an actual job title.
    – JeffE
    Commented Nov 28, 2015 at 2:21
  • I'm not sure Rota is a good example of the phenomenon you are interested in. It sounds like he simply had a joint appointment in two departments. I know of many professors whose title is "Professor of Mathematics and X" because they have a joint appointment in math and X (usually a science or engineering discipline like CS, statistics, physics etc.). I wouldn't call this a "custom-designed" job title, but please clarify if you meant to include all such cases, which are quite common.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Nov 28, 2015 at 2:24
  • @StrongBad : I don't think what I'm referring to is the same as an endowed chair, although the incumbent may also have an endowed chair. Commented Nov 28, 2015 at 3:41

1 Answer 1


In the United States, these types of "one-off" titles are typically given as a stage of promotion beyond full professorship. The typical generic name would be "chaired professor," "distinguished professor," or "titled professor." This is a rank that many faculty never reach, and typically the highest rank that a professor can achieve in the university as a professor---any further "promotion" is actually a change of position into management, e.g., dean, provost, president.

Such positions often come with a set of funds dedicated to support them, giving the faculty promoted to the position additional freedom of operation. Often the exact title is set by the person or organization that endows support for the position. For example, my thesis advisor is the "Panasonic Professor of Electrical Engineering" at MIT, meaning that his particular "one-off" position was endowed by the Panasonic corporation. Such ties, however, typically mean little besides the name.

  • But "chaired professor" and "distinguished professor" are not the same thing. Some universities have a position called "Distinguished Professor", and that is something that exists under codified rules, sometimes specifying that only a small number of professors can hold that title at any time. At some universities the title of "University Professor" is used. At M.I.T., the title is "Institute Professor", and I think only 12 professors can have that title at any time. Isadore Singer in the math department is one of those. That is not an uncodified title created for just one professor. Commented Nov 28, 2015 at 16:08
  • 1
    It's more than just the name, usually endowed chairs come with endowed chair funds for additional salary or research. These can be quite considerable -- tens of thousands to low six digits more.
    – RoboKaren
    Commented Nov 28, 2015 at 17:07
  • so your thesis advisor was Gerald Jay Sussman?
    – darethas
    Commented Feb 25, 2019 at 2:28
  • @darethas Indeed, as can be readily confirmed by anybody who feels like looking up my thesis. :-)
    – jakebeal
    Commented Feb 25, 2019 at 2:51

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