You can support our engineering library auditorium…or you can turn the page

I was eating dinner the other night, and the phone rang. It was an undergraduate classmate noting that I had yet to contribute to our class’s annual giving. She’s a nice person. I also have warm feelings towards Princeton, which opened valuable opportunities and treated me well. So I gave seventy-five bucks.

I gave, not entirely happily. My electronic and snail mail boxes are stuffed with fundraising missives presented with an urgency more appropriate to Oxfam than for one of America’s very wealthiest nonprofit institutions—one that educates some of the most privileged young people in the world. (My favorite: “Great news! If you are making a concerted effort to not pay your $50 class dues, you are well on your way to success!”)

Last year, my own undergraduate class donated $5,101,985 to Princeton’s annual giving. It was a big reunion year. And I don’t begrudge anyone’s charitable giving. Still, this is out of proportion. As of June 30, 2010, Princeton’s endowment totaled $14.4 billion. That’s almost $3 million for every enrolled student. Princeton is a great university, a national treasure. It just doesn’t need the money. Continue reading “You can support our engineering library auditorium…or you can turn the page”

Harvard Sure Can Pick ’em: Congratulations to Dr. Alan Garber

One of the nation’s most important jobs in higher education will be ably filled by Dr. Alan Garber, who is leaving Stanford to become Provost of Harvard. Alan is a world-class physician, economist and health policy guru rolled into one and as much as it pains me to lose him as a colleague, there is no disputing Harvard’s wisdom in stealing him away from us. He will be an outstanding leader for Harvard and for higher education as a whole. Congratulations and good luck to Alan.

Administrators vs. faculty: It depends what the meaning of “action” is.

Yet another reason administrators and ordinary faculty fail to understand each other: what administrators think is the essence of innovation, ordinary faculty think is the enemy of innovation.

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.

Everyone’s a Victim: The Coulterization of Middle East Discourse

Why do so many people take so many opportunities to talk about how they are being silenced?

Yesterday, I attended two public events on the UCLA campus, one of which I participated in.

The first was a lunchtime event with Sarah Leah Whitson, the North Africa/Middle East Director of Human Rights Watch, who went through the standard litany of accusations against Israel, some of which may be true and some of which are clearly not. Then, she rehearsed the standard complaint of human rights activists who comment on the Middle East: one cannot criticize Israel in American public discourse, that HRW has been threatened, that whenever you criticize Israel you are labeled anti-Semitic, etc. etc. It’s the standard Steve Walt, Tony Judt, William Fulbright argument: look how brave we are to speak out when no one else can because the immense power of the Israel Lobby will destroy their careers.

The second was a faculty panel discussion at UCLA Hillel concerning the Middle East peace process after Gaza, with me, David Myers, and Judea Pearl as the panelists. Judea, whose son Daniel was, of course, brutally murdered by Islamic terrorists, rehearsed his own complaints about the culture of fear, which he had earlier written about in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal:

Colleagues told me about lecturers whose appointments were terminated, professors whose promotion committees received “incriminating” letters, and about the impossibility of revealing one’s pro-Israel convictions without losing grants, editorial board membership, or invitation to panels and conferences. And all, literally all, swore me into strict secrecy — we have entered the era of “the new Maranos.”

I suppose that both sides could be right: Israel’s defenders are intimidated on campuses and Israel’s critics are intimidated in political circles.

But maybe there is a culture of victimization in the whole discourse. Is everyone being pushed into the shadows? And if so, how come everyone is yelling at each other? Why do so many people take so many opportunities to talk about how they are being silenced?

One might call this the “Coulterization” phenomenon. Ann Coulter, of course, appears on national television several times a week and writes a syndicated column that appears in dozens of newspapers. She uses these media venues to talk about how she is being silenced and ignored by the national electronic and print media.

So here’s the takeaway advice:

If you write or talk about the Middle East conflict, prepare to be insulted. You’re a racist, anti-Semite, colonialist, imperialist, terrorist sympathizer who draws dangerous moral equivalences in service of brutal US hegemony. Now that you’ve gotten that into your head, just say what you are going to say and have done with it.

Obviously, if someone is denied a position because of their political positions, that is very serious, but it’s better to point to specific examples and have actual evidence before making accusations. But this is contested ground — both literally and figuratively. Be prepared for some emotion.

Dude–er–Professor?

A NYT fluff piece today cast a glowing light on how many professors are getting more personal with students. No, not in a get-yourself-a-lawyer kind of way. Instead, many of my academic colleagues are posting pictures of their pets, Facebooking with undergrads, sharing their bad taste in music and otherwise showing that—gasp!—professors are real people, too.

Call me old school, but being a real person is overrated.

Continue reading “Dude–er–Professor?”