Public Comment

Absurdity at the Top

By Marvin Chachere
Thursday July 10, 2008 - 09:50:00 AM

In 1955 the late Jacques Barzun put his teaching and research on hold to be dean and then provost at Columbia University. He wanted, among other things, to learn first hand just what a top university administrator had to do. Not surprisingly he did not like the job and after a decade or so he eagerly returned to his former position on the faculty.  

Professor Barzun recorded what he learned in The American University: How it Runs, Where it is Going (1968), in which he identified with a scholar’s touch the problems of university administration. One overarching difficulty, he noted, was that while other professions help entrants with a body of literature and training protocols—for example, in science, law and religion—university administrators have no such help; one day they’re teaching and doing research and the next day they’re managing colleagues who do those things. As much admired for his wit as for his scholarship Professor Barzun quipped that in western culture only two professions provide no performance standard forcing rookies to acquire their skills as best they can on the job: university administration and prostitution. 

The job of university president (or chancellor) is not among the tens of hundreds of occupations listed by the Department of Labor, perhaps because the Standard Occupation Classifications (SOC) does not extend to the stratospheric region where unfettered intellectual agility reigns supreme.  

Everyone has heard stories about the absent minded professor—mismatched socks, taking the bus home having forgotten that he parked his car on campus. The life of the mind seems prone to hiding life’s mundane demands and nowhere is this more in evidence than in administration in the ivory tower. Examples abound. 

As with top jobs in all big organizations, much of what a university president does happens behind the scenes. But at least once a year at Commencement university presidents take the stage and for this brief climax to the academic year they are the public face of their university. Accordingly, John L. Hennessy, professor of engineering and current president of Stanford University, introduced Oprah Winfrey to the graduating class at Stanford Stadium on Sunday, June 15. 

President Hennessy said he wanted Oprah because he could “think of few people who…” could better encourage graduates to use their education for the public good (San Francisco Chronicle, June 11, 2008, E1). Given that President Hennessey has at his beck and call almost two thousand faculty members, including 16 Nobel Laureates, 23 MacArthur Fellows, and a couple of hundred others holding assorted prestigious awards his position is disingenuous, at best, and absurd at worse.  

In the mid 1960s, when demonstrations against the Vietnam War were merging with the Civil Rights Movement, implacable protests broke out at the University of California, Berkeley. On Dec. 3, 1964 a prolonged sit-in of administration offices in Sproul Hall resulted in eight hundred arrests. University President Clark Kerr, away at the time, was asked about the extraordinary number of arrests and his answer put the blame on “outside agitators,” the very same ephemeral class blamed by white supremacists for the freedom rides and lunch counter sit-ins. In the event, it turned out that almost 90 percent of those taken into custody were registered students. In high office it seems you have to act as if you know what’s going on even though you don’t.  

Last winter UC Berkeley announced that future applicants would have 23 racial/ethnic categories from which to identify themselves. (The Contra Costa Times, Nov. 20). Being a vaguely non-white alumnus living on retirement benefits earned as a UCB administrator, the item naturally attracted my attention and although I anticipated nonsense—the title hinted at new accommodation of non-white applicants—I was not ready for such a potent dosage. 

Forget the idiocy of offering a mere two dozen categories to a couple of billion people residing in a region associated with the earth’s largest ocean. Forget the disingenuous assurance that an applicant’s racial/ethnic category “…will not figure into admissions decisions…” What hurt most were the words Matt Krupnick, the reporter, attributed to an unnamed brainless “special assistant”, to wit: “We don’t know what we don’t know” and with more information “…students, faculty and administrators all win.”  

It is absurd that winning should be an important objective sought by university administrators, as if they engaged in a three-way competition with students and faculty.  

Finally, a particularly egregious spurt of ivory tower absurdity pops up in the belief, as pervasive as it is unquestioned, that racial/ethnic diversity is essential to learning. A prime example involves Lee Bollinger who entered academia as a professor of law and rose to be president of the University of Michigan (1996) then of Columbia University (2002).  

While Bollinger was at the helm in Ann Arbor he approved an aggressive affirmative action policy titled “Strategic Initiative on Diversity” that provoked a sequence of judicial challenges, made front page news, and eventually, on April 1, 2003, reached the Supreme Court. Bollinger defended the policy before the court and before media journalists. He argued that diversity is “…as essential as the study of the Middle Ages, of international politics and of Shakespeare” and that the goal of the policy was to achieve a “critical mass” of minority students (Barbara Grutter vs Lee Bollinger, et al.).  

The notion that learning requires racial/ethnic diversity is doubly absurd.  

One: Since each racial/ethnic category has no well-defined boundary the influence it may exert on learning cannot be traced with any reasonable degree of certainty.  

Two: In a discussion of the Middle Ages, say, the contribution made by a person categorized as African American is not necessarily what another so classified might offer. The absurdity here is to assume that a single individual carries all the attributes of the category. Sure, a Honda Civic carries all the attributes of every other Honda Civics but a human being is inherently different from all others. Diversity of mind transcends all other kinds.  

We look to the top of the ivory tower for astuteness but too often what we get is absurdity. 


Marvin Chachere is a San Pablo resident.