Document Type

Article

Publication Date

2-2015

Abstract

Message from President: An ivy-league legend holds that early twentieth-century literary scholar George Lyman Kittredge once passed a doctoral student who had flubbed his dissertation defense when, upon asking the candidate about his smoking preferences, Kittredge discovered that the lad had a keen eye for quality cigars. Although we can thank our lucky stars that Kittredge’s kind of benevolent autocracy—his readiness to use unchecked authority to show off his combined power and tastefulness—is a thing of the past, we can also at least minimally mourn the passing of eccentricity and of the mix of moxie and eagerness that induces acts of inventive individualism. We can ask whatever happened to academic character. Thumbing through the pages of an educational insider’s publication such as The Chronicle of Higher Education will reveal a remarkable uniformity, both in appearance and utterance, among the academic leadership caste. The plurality of leaders reiterate the “thin man” theme: male persons neither too large nor too small without much of a physical presence who apparel themselves in shades of grey. Perhaps thirty percent of the pictured figures explore a female version of this same picture, although, among women leaders, a small, minimally colored accessory is permitted. The remaining ten percent of the persons pictured follow the aforementioned norms but also present some contextual sign or wearable emblem of their diversity, perhaps by being photographed near a relevant government agency or donning a lapel pin associated with a group-affiliated institution. The utterances of the reputed leaders in all the aforementioned categories are carefully scripted to play down even the minor variations that the pictures carefully conjure. To some extent, the uniformity in leader behavior arises from the influence of executive search firms, which carefully craft “leadership profiles” for every position. These profiles seem to call for a universality and immensity of talent but, in their relentless demand for someone who allegedly knows a little bit about everything but knows nothing to so great an extent as to seem unbalanced, favor candidates who have long cultivated caution. Another factor is the enlargement of selection committees. The more people a candidate sees, the more that applicant will learn to not to make striking or original statements, but to trim, balance, and dodge. A striking assertion about astronomy, after all, might seem like a lack of equilibrium to someone working in the payroll or budget areas. Self-protective faculty members, too, approach the candidate evaluation process in a spirit of caution rather than experimentation. Worrying about “what might happen if,” they look for candidates with recognizable sorts of experience rather than those who have explored new fields or veered from the standard routes to administrative advancement. The increased competition today for even beginning academic jobs has also encouraged the selection of non-threatening candidates who will surely make tenure and quickly achieve “productivity” without the vacillations attending excellent if offbeat appointees. It is easy enough and also probably accurate to blame the Louisiana public, with its unrealistic faith that more can be done with less and with its suspicion of book learning, for the dire financial straits in which Louisiana higher education now finds itself. It would, however, also be helpful to remember that the collective downplaying, by many if not most academic professionals, of characteristics such as daring, wit, irreverence, novelty, and even eccentricity has contributed to the present leadership crisis by signaling that academic constituencies value conformity. Academic leaders today, whether in Louisiana or Nebraska or Vermont, are fond of citing “the new normal” and of calling on academic professionals to find some way to adapt to it. That reflex to reflect rather than to change—to tackle the “new normal” by shaping oneself to it—results from a drive to compromise, conformity, caution, and plain old copying that has become the norm in an academic culture that is desperately trying to defend, justify, and otherwise sustain itself amidst an assortment of threats. The next time that you are on a hiring committee and might be tempted to go for the safe candidate, think about the limits of “the new normal” and then reconsider the value of eccentricity and plain old courage.

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