Friday, March 5, 2004

Make 'Em Cry

In defending academe, administrators have been diplomatic and reasonable -- now it's time to be blunt.

In The past few months I have been saying nasty things in these columns (and also on radio and television) about members of Congress, Illinois state representatives and senators, the governor of Illinois, the governor's budget director, and the governor-appointed Illinois Board of Higher Education. I have called these people ignorant, misinformed, demagogic, dishonest, slipshod, and have repeatedly suggested that when it comes to colleges and universities either they don't know what they're talking about or (and this is worse) they do know and are deliberately setting out to destroy public higher education.

In response they have sent me nice notes, trekked across the state to visit me in my office, invited me to talk with their colleagues, gone out and bought my books (and actually read them), taken me to lunch, and promised to arrange a dinner with the governor. (Not likely to happen, for, as far I can see, there's nothing in it for him.)

What's going on here? Why have people of whom I have been unfailingly (and acerbically) critical responded by being unfailingly nice and even, on occasion, deferential?

I got the hint of an answer from the first state representative who came to see me. As she walked through the door, she said, "Well, I managed to find your office, so we all can't be as dumb as you say we are." Two things were obvious: She had certainly gotten the message. And it was the message -- harsh, accusatory, scornful -- that had gotten her to come.

The conclusion I drew from this and other interactions was not that public life is full of masochists looking for a chance to be beaten again, but that senior university administrators and lobbyists have been talking to legislators and governors (and, yes, trustees) in the wrong way.

That is, campus administrators have been diplomatic, respectful, conciliatory, reasonable, sometimes apologetic, and always defensive, and they would have done much better, I think, if they had been aggressive, blunt, mildly confrontational, and just a bit arrogant. When I've talked to university officials and suggested that they go on the offensive when faced with budget cuts, threats of new control, baseless accusations of waste, etc., they have demurred and said, "It wouldn't be good to irritate them."

Well "irritate" is not quite what I had in mind. "Get their attention" is more in the right direction, "make them uncomfortable" would be better, and "cause them pain" would hit the mark.

It was Ronald Reagan who first figured out that a university system offers the perfect target for making political (and sometimes financial) hay because it is at once visible and populated by persons who, although (or because) they are the bearers of many advanced degrees, are unlikely to fight back. Or, if they do fight back, it will be with tools that are spectacularly ineffectual.

Those will be, not surprisingly, the tools of their trade -- fact, reason, argument, theory, never anything ad hoc or ad hominem. So when, for the ten-thousandth time, the charge is made that faculty members only teach 6 or 9 or 12 hours a week and spend the rest of their time doing pointless research or sitting on the beach, the university community will respond with mind-numbing statistics, with elaborate (and largely unpersuasive) accounts of how the state will ultimately benefit from a study of gender reversal in Shakespeare or from a mathematical proof that only five people in the world understand, and (although it doesn't follow at all) with a resolution to do better. And then next year or next month when the same things are said, it will have to be done all over again, and with as little effect.

In general, there are two things that won't work, and they are the only two things universities ever try.

First of all, it won't work to explain the academic world to nonacademics while standing on one foot. That is, you can't in a short time teach people to value activities they have never engaged in, or persuade them that if research into the ways and byways of Byzantine art is not supported, the world will be poorer. Remember, it takes four or more years to initiate students into the pleasures of the academic life, and in most cases the effort is not successful. Why should anyone think that the lessons could be taught and accepted in 20 minutes?

If telling our story in the hope that its terms will be adopted by those who have never lived it won't work, neither will the attempt to translate it into their terms by retelling it in the vocabulary of business or venture capitalism.

Colleges and universities surely must observe good business practices in the relevant areas (purchasing, service contracts, construction, maintenance), but colleges are not businesses. They do not drop product lines that have lost market share. They do not dismiss employees who cease to be productive or run into a bad patch. They do not monitor every moment of every working day. They will wait years for a research program to pan out and won't consider it a breach of contract if it doesn't.

To be sure, sometimes a faculty project will pay off (with a patent, a large grant, a Nobel Prize), but more often it will not even pay its own way. If a bottom-line criterion is applied to the academy, 90 percent of what goes on will fail the test, and, therefore, defending the academy in bottom-line terms is a losing proposition unless you want to reach the conclusion that most of what you do should be abandoned.

But what's left? If explaining what we do won't work, and redescribing the enterprise in the vocabulary of what they do won't work, what will work?

Well, maybe nothing. Maybe we'll just have to learn to live (and perhaps die) in this brave new world where money is withdrawn from public higher education at the same time that ever more strict controls are imposed. But my experience suggests that it might just be worth a try to stand up for ourselves unapologetically, and to comport ourselves as if we were formidable adversaries rather than easy marks.

This would mean allowing no false statement by a public official to pass uncorrected and unrebuked. (Not only must the record be set straight; those who have gotten it wrong must be made to feel bad if only so that they will think twice before doing it again.) It would mean embracing the fact that few nonacademics understand what we do and why we do it, and turning it into a weapon. Instead of saying, "Let me tell you what we do so that you'll love us," or "Let me explain how your values are our values too," say, "We do what we do, we've been doing it for a long time, it has its own history, and until you learn it or join it, your opinions are not worth listening to."

Instead of defending classics or French literature or sociology, ask those who think they need defending what they know about them, and if the answer is "not much" (on the model of "don't know much about the Middle Ages"), suggest, ever so politely, that they might want to go back to school. Instead of trying to justify your values (always a weak position), assume them and assume too your right to define and protect them. And when you are invited to explain, defend, or justify, just say no.

But again, will it work? It just might (I offer no guarantees), and for two reasons. First, it will be surprising, and, because surprising, disconcerting: Legislators, governors, and trustees don't expect academics to hit back or (even better) hit first, and at the least you will have gotten them off balance. Second, they quite possibly will like it, will like being challenged rather than toadied to, will like being taken seriously enough to engage with, will like being party to a conversation of the kind that fills our days, will like, in short, being spoken to as if they were academics.

The attraction that bashing the academy has for politicians and others has a source in the anti-intellectualism that has always been a part of American life. It is our version of the no-nonsense empiricism and distrust of eloquence bequeathed to us by the British and refined into an art in the "a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do" spirit of Western expansion.

But that same anti-intellectualism has its flip side in an abiding fascination with those who devote themselves to what is called (I despise the phrase, but it is sometimes useful) the life of the mind. Nonacademics either want to beat us up or have dinner with us. If we don't let them do the first -- if we fight back with all we have and all we are -- we'll have more chances to do the second; and a familiarity not rooted in contempt might in time pay off.

Will it happen? I doubt it. A few months ago I found myself sitting in a doctor's waiting room, and sitting next to me was one of the university's lobbyists. We talked and commiserated about budgetary woes, new demands and restrictions, recycled misconceptions, and the like. As one of us (I forgot which) got called into the inner sanctum, I said, "The next time you go before some committee in the legislature, take me with you." He said, "Will you behave?"

Some people never learn.

Stanley Fish, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, writes a monthly column for the Career Network on campus politics and academic careers. <>

Copyright 2004
The Chronicle of Higher Education
March 5, 2004
Careers Section
Page C1