Professors: Advisers to the royalty

In Olden Times, kings and queens and emperor types had advisers. Well, maybe; I don’t know–I’m not a historian. But what matters for this particular piece is that we have stories about them having advisers. We apparently like to believe they did. We have stories about kings and queens listening to their wise advisers, being used by malicious advisers, being made foolish by foolish advisers, and so on. I’ve been interested, since I was a kid, in the stories of royalty trying to use their power and authority to guarantee a certain kind of advice. They fired (or beheaded) advisers who didn’t tell them things they wanted to hear, or only selected advisers who were lickspittles in the first place, or used threats and bribes to try to ensure royalty-favorable answers to all questions. We understand that these kings and queens were letting their short-term, selfish desires override more important long-term concerns. We can watch, in the stories, as the kings and queens shoot themselves (and, of course, their subjects) in the foot when they refuse to make a place in their court for the advisers with the unpleasant messages. We want to scream at them that they need to hear–and even bankroll–the kind of thinking that makes them feel uncomfortable or guilty or confused. But they don’t listen to the audience. They fire the advisers, they burn them, they throw them in prisons, they threaten their families.

And this brings us to university faculty. Professors are (or can be) the advisers to the royalty (so can journalists and clergy, yeah, but I’m talking about faculty). The royalty, of course, are our democratic leaders, but more fundamentally are us. We are the royalty, and we have an army of advisers. Arguably, these include the best-informed advisers in the history of the world. We have advisers on philosophical and moral issues, on technical and theoretical concerns, and on social science and policy. These advisers regularly annoy us and make us feel guilty and confused. Philosophers highlight our moral inconsistencies. Social scientists point out our wrongheaded ideas about how groups and people work. Physical, and life scientists show us that our ideas about the physical world–the ideas we use to justify our social and political policies–are often wrong. Engineers and mathematicians make it clear how bad we can be at solving basic problems.

So we tell them to shut up. We tell them they’d better remember that they work for us, or they’ll find themselves without a job. We vote candidates into office who promise to get rid of the kind of crazy professors who say those crazy things that make us feel bad about ourselves, the kind who spend their time thinking their confusing thoughts in the Ivory Tower (never mind that such a place doesn’t seem to exist, much, and maybe never did). We vote to weaken faculty job protections because, hey, why should they be the only people whose career stability hasn’t been destroyed by income inequality and resurgent oligarchies, especially when they don’t even do their jobs the way we want them to? We believe pundits telling us faculty make tons of money (and we ignore evidence that this isn’t true) because those professors keep saying things that bother us. We approve of policies putting increasingly-powerful layers of middle management over the professors, to keep them in charge and tie those crazy ideas to the purse strings. Middle management. Business. Now there’s a profession you want running things. Money makes you honest, right? And it makes you wise. People who know how to make money with money–those are the people you want in charge, especially in charge of those troublesome professor types.

We don’t like some of those professors. They tell our children we’re prejudiced. They tell our leaders we’re destroying the planet. They tell our mayors and governors we’re wasting the state’s dollars on public projects that won’t work as well as we think they will. They tell us our brave soldiers might be dying in wars that should never have been waged. They tell us our government has problems. They tell us our society has problems. Who wants to hear that? There oughta be a law or something.

So we cheer when politicians promise to take away tenure, that golden ticket to job security that nobody else has, anymore… and we try not to think about why nobody else has any job security, anymore. We feel righteous satisfaction when we hear a political candidate promise to tie those professors’ salaries and career prospects to saying the right things. We listen when politicians and CEOs ask why should we put up with–let alone bankroll–these advisers when they continue to tell us things that make us feel so uncomfortable? We can’t hear what the audience is yelling at us, and, frankly, we don’t want to know.