In Austria, what is the difference between a university professor and mere professor?

Professor or University Professor? (photo by – CC-BY, drawing by P S Foresman – PD)

In Austria, a university professor teaches and does research at a university, of course, just like everywhere else in the world. So why do these Austrian professors need “university” added to their title? You guessed it: there are professors in Austria who are not related to a university in any professional way.

A couple of them whom non-German speakers may recognize are the singer Udo Jürgens and the mountaineer Heinrich Harrer, who escaped from the British in India during WW II and fled to Tibet, the hero of the film, Seven Years in Tibet.

In Austria, professor is the most prestigious of almost twenty professional titles that can be awarded by the country’s president. In other countries, such recognition is shown by giving people medals or membership in orders of merit, and that is also done in Austria where there are more than a dozen different types of national orders that award medals, six of them with different levels, a total of 40 positions on the ranking list[1]. And the Austrian states also have their own orders and medals.

That is all very nice, and the holders can wear a little button in their lapel to let others know they have been awarded the medal. But the Austrians love titles, a tradition since the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, when etiquette called for addressing persons by their military or noble title or that of the person’s government position. Even the wives were addressed with their husband’s title, e.g., “Frau Kommerzialrat.”

World War I was not kind to this. When the Austrian Republic was established, use of noble titles was forbidden but, of course, not forgotten or neglected in society by those who cared. After WW II, Austria was occupied by American and Russian forces until 1955, accepting neutrality as a condition for independence. But professional titles were still used, if not so generously as before.

The nice thing about an honorific professional title is that it can be used: added to one’s name on a letterhead, used when addressing the person in writing or in conversation. Of course, the title must be appropriate to the person’s professional life, but the long list of titles[2] provides one for almost anyone worthy of recognition: Schulrat and Oberschulrat for school teachers, Veterinärrat for veterinarians, Kammersänger for persons deserving recognition for their musical talent as a performer or teacher, and so forth to professor.

Naturally, this all circumscribed by law: the person must be 50 years of age; if a government employee, for at least 15 years. If a person already has one title, a better one can only be awarded after five years; and no pecuniary award is involved.

Now there are about as many professors as university professors, a situation the latter do not like. And just to confuse matters, the Austrian president can also award the honorific title of university professor to persons active in universities who are not in a professorial position.


[1] Wikipedia – Liste_der_Verdienstorden_der_Republik_Österreich (in German)

[2] Wikipedia – Mögliche_Berufstitel_nach_Berufsgruppen (in German)

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