A year or so ago, Dan Drezner adapted a post from Paul Graham on the difference between “managers” and “makers” to explain why good academics make bad managers (and are bad at being managed): perception of time. Managers take for granted that every hour represents another meeting, so that scheduling and rescheduling only changes the names, not the task. For academics, a one-hour meeting only destroys what could have been a productive afternoon—since true productivity requires several uninterrupted hours.
Chatting before a seminar last year, my students and I hit on a variant of this: university administrators and ordinary academics have totally different ideas of what counts as “action” or “innovation.” We agree that someone who stands pat and never acts to create new things is lazy. But administrators and professors, while using the same words, like “new,” “exciting,” and “creative,” do not mean the same thing.
Administrators see innovation much as businesspeople do. It’s a matter of seizing opportunities, anticipating customer demand, differentiating one’s product, signaling a market niche, and landing big clients: entrepreneurship and marketing. Being active means writing strategic plans, crafting mission statements, thinking of centers to found, and making pitches to donors. In contrast, academics see our “ordinary” teaching and research as tremendously innovative. Our fields are constantly changing, and we read late into the night without ever feeling we’ve caught up. Most people probably think that “American History” is more or less the same subject they learned in high school. They are not even close to being right. As for teaching, it’s true that some academics teach the same courses, from the same notes, year after year. They are lazy. But they are not typical. Most of us change our course lineup drastically from year to year to reflect the changing focuses of our research, and change the content of existing courses to reflect both new knowledge and new insights into what worked in our teaching last year and what didn’t.
So when administrators complain that professors are reluctant to sign on to their initiatives, they sometimes fail to realize that from where professors sit, they don’t seem like real initiatives: they don’t advance either the pursuit of new knowledge or its communication. Billionaires who give lots of money to a university on the condition that professors study their favorite ripped-from-the-headlines social concerns have from the professors’ perspective just produced negative levels of intellectual innovation unless new knowledge relevant to those concerns is currently being created or is likely to be created soon—as judged not by the donor but by those in a position to know how things stand. (I’m not saying that research should never be useful, just that the urgent concerns of donors and legislators are not a good guide to where and when it can be most useful—or even necessarily to the most cogent way of defining a social or technical problem.) Similarly, when professors complain that Deans (or their PR staffs) don’t promote our achievements in teaching and research, we fail to grasp that there are people who sincerely can’t perceive the newness and excitement of keeping up with a scholarly debate and contributing something new to it. What we perceive as radically different from what came before, they perceive as the same: “just professors and their books.”
It would be nice to outline the road to dialogue and cooperation here, but I’m afraid that I think the problem serious. It would be fine if professors and administrators disagreed over what’s valuable. But disagreement over what’s exciting is less tractable. It means that initiatives—by either party—won’t be opposed by the other party so much as sullenly ignored when they’re going on, and never appreciated afterward even when they succeed splendidly. If what I do makes the other person angry, I might be upset. But if it puts the other person to sleep, I’ll be something much worse: insulted. That insult is, I think, responsible for persistent bitterness and mistrust between two groups of very smart people who share buildings but not basic commitments.