Four theses on university presidents’ speech

Recently I got an interesting email from my university’s communications department with a link to a speech recently given by the university’s current president, Robert Zimmer. They said they had appreciated my prior comments on academic freedom and were curious to hear my comments on this speech.

Never having been asked to comment on anything on this blog, I felt a little puzzled, but eventually thought, why not? So here, if you like, are some theses on understanding this instance of a presidential speech.

(1) A presidential speech is a balancing act, a diplomatic performance; and as such, it is almost inevitably produced under severe institutional and diplomatic constraints. One might put it like this: university presidents enjoy no right to free speech. Or at least, no free speech without the threat of retribution from any of numerous quarters. If you read Dean Dad’s wonderful blog about his life as a community college dean, the first thing you find out is that university management (call them leadership or administrators if you prefer) operates in a state of constant compromise and constraint. In a great recent post, he explains something about the constraints on what one can say in his role: “When I spoke only for myself, it didn’t really matter what I said. But as a leader in the institution, comments that once would have been merely snarky were suddenly taken as indications of larger directions.” Just think of Larry Summers. As president, one is heavily vetted to begin with, continuously accountable to multiple constituencies, and under pressure not to rock the boat. And as Dean Dad points out, “front-room talk” isn’t the same as “back-room talk”: even if presidents may be frank in private, they are seldom unguarded when acting in their ceremonial role. First thesis: presidents are not free agents. Corollary: a presidential speech on academic freedom invokes a value that it cannot practice.

(2) The presidential speech is a kind of self-instituting, self-authorizing ceremonial language that functions to assure or reassure the continued dignity of the institution. And a presidential speech is hence less an empirical report on an institution than a moment in the reproduction of an institutional self-image. As in commercial advertising or a political campaign, one puts one’s best foot forward. It’s less that what is said is false as that campus life is glossed with the veneer of an institutional fantasy. This fantasy — one can see it in Zimmer’s speech — implicitly embodies its own criteria of evaluation, which are essentially aesthetic. In such a speech, institutional reality vanishes into the self-satisfied ether of institutional desires for beautiful self-representations.

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Nietzsche’s Niche: Kirp on the University of Chicago

I was just reading Christopher Newfield’s interesting 2003 book review on university-industry relations when I noticed that he mentioned a chapter by Kirp on the University of Chicago. The following rather florid (occasionally insulting) prose is interesting — at least to me — because it proceeds from remarking that the university is a bastion of self-congratulatory self-reflexive discourse to commenting on a major contradiction in the university’s labor relations. In other words, it points out the conundrum of a university that bills itself as deeply devoted to rigorous education while also having faculty who are primarily hired for research and who teach as little as possible. This means, as Graduate Students United knows well, that there are a lot of underpaid grad student and adjuncts who depend on teaching while being written out of the institutional self-image.

But I’m getting ahead of the textual excerpt I wanted to present. Although it doesn’t always manage to be an accurate description of the university, it compensates by being entertaining and at times outrageous. (Outrageousness being nothing to sneeze at when it comes to desanctifying institutional self-images.)

The University of Chicago is more self-absorbed—more precisely, self-obsessed—than any other institution of higher learning in America. Its animating myth was manufactured by Robert Maynard Hutchins, the institution’s pivotal president and promoter non pareil. “It’s not a very good university,” Hutchins declared, “it’s only the best there is.” Never mind Oxford or Berkeley. Harvard and Yale may fill the corridors of power, loyalists say; in the domain of ideas, Chicago rules. Nowhere else is the “Ivy League” a term of derision—the land of academic “Jay Leno-ism,” it is called, a reference to its veneration of big-name professors derided at Chicago as “dying elephants.” A passing remark made long ago by the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead is recycled as if it were gospel: “I think the one place where I have been that is most like ancient Athens is the University of Chicago.”

Three-quarters of the faculty live within a mile of the campus in the enclave of Hyde Park, a hothouse of learned chatter and salacious gossip set apart, by design, from the bombed-out inner-city landscape, peopled mainly by dirt-poor blacks, which surrounds it. The fact of isolation, it is said half-jokingly, is why the university’s athletic teams are known as the Maroons. The Chicago tribe takes pleasure in furious disputations about everything from monetarism to metaphysics. While Harvard preens, Chicago navel-gazes, turning out bookshelves’-worth of histories and biographies, faculty committee reports, student newspapers, broadsheets, and websites devoted to itself. There are several hundred listings in the “introductory” bibliography of the university’s history that the campus librarians have prepared.

Seemingly everyone is an amateur historian, mining the past for ammunition that can be used in the present. “No episode was more important in shaping the outlook and expectations [of higher education in the decade following the Civil War] than the founding of the University of Chicago,” writes Frederick Rudolph in his benchmark history of American higher education. It is “one of those events in American history that brought into focus the spirit of an age.” When John D. Rockefeller launched the university with a gift of $2.3 million, he expressed the hope that an institution situated far from the tradition-bound East Coast would “strike out upon lines in full sympathy with the spirit of the age.” Although Chicago is a great school, in this respect Rockefeller would be disappointed. The dominant trope, observes Dennis Hutchinson, professors of law and longtime dean of the undergraduate college, is that “at Chicago we’ve always done ‘X,'” meaning whatever is being advocated at the moment.

There is another, less frequently acknowledged tradition in Hyde Park, a willingness on the part of the university’s leaders, including Hutchins and William Rainey Harper, the founding president, to do whatever has been necessary to raise money for a chronically cash-starved school. Among its past ventures are a junior college and the nation’s biggest correspondence school; in 1998 it attached itself to, a for-profit business school.

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The “first man” and the pragmatic life of academic gender

I’ve been casting around for a place to start thinking about the workings of masculinity in universities. Ron Baenninger has come to the  rescue, having just published “Confessions of a male presidential spouse” in Inside Higher Ed. Baenninger was a professor at Temple U., and his spouse, MaryAnn Baenninger, is now president at the College of St. Benedict in Minnesota.

It’s quite a long piece, this confession. But it has a recurring image that seems deeply suggestive: the male husband polishing the woman president’s shoes.

If they could see me now. I am sitting on the floor of the president’s house, polishing the president’s shoes for her. My wife is now a lot busier than I am, and has a sizeable staff. Her importance on and off campus is a lot greater than mine, so I suppose it makes sense that I polish the presidential shoes – which are smaller and easier to polish than my own shoes (which rarely need to be shiny). I have sometimes seen people polish the shoes of other people, but only when they were paid for it. And the polishers were always male, as were the polishees. Shoe-polishing used to occur in railroad stations, or in old-fashioned barber shops that were bastions of maleness – quiet places, with discreet sounds of snipping and stropping of razors, with a ballgame on the radio, and smells of witch hazel, shaving lather, and shoe polish. So here I sit polishing a woman’s shoes and not even getting paid for it.

So when he polishes shoes, it seems, he finds himself in a moment of gendered abjection. He’s down on the floor, not even getting paid, polishing shoes which are symbols of power and sometimes sexuality and are themselves down on the ground, protecting the foot from the grime of the world; he’s in a position of no (relative) importance on campus so it’s pragmatically sensible for him to devote his time to polishing the shoes, for him to be doing this traditionally feminine work of the care of the working spouse’s appearance.

Alongside the structural sexism of this whole outlook, there’s something slightly poignant about the fact that what this man has to do is hard for him and takes re-learning and is symbolically dissonant for him. The echoes of his 50s upbringing are loud, as if he’s judging his life against the gender norms of the past even as he knows the world has changed, gender norms have blurred, roles have reversed. He feels like he’s just not completely ready for the task of taking care of the household while his wife works long presidential days. He seems happiest when he gets to take care of the car, when he drives his wife around, when he cooks dinner.

As boys, most men of my generation never learned to do “girl things”. As a consequence we are not very good at the practical or aesthetic details of maintaining an elegant home, or paying attention to all the important minutiae that underlie the public lives of presidents and their spouses. Things like making sure the silver is polished, as well as the shoes, and checking that napkins and table cloths are ironed and matching. Before her dinner parties I can recall my Mum putting out ashtrays and placing cigarettes in elegant silver receptacles from which smokers (a majority back in those days) would extract their smokes. The most she expected me to do was tidy up my own room. Surveys have shown that the only task husbands do almost universally is taking out the trash. In recent decades some of us also learned to do cooking, cleaning, shopping, looking after the kids, etc., but we reminded many people of the chimpanzee who typed out a novel — nobody expected us to do such things well, and it was remarkable if we could do them at all.

And he seems sad that some things he might be doing – making the house elegant, polishing the silver, doing the ashtrays – are things that boys just weren’t taught. Masculinity here is a practical predicament. Masculinity here is not just a gender identity but a set of quotidian competences and another set of lacking competences, of practical incapacities. Gender as point of pride, as product of socialization, as disability, as occasion for solidarity with other men who like to work on cars. Gender would seem to be a contradictory situation that causes many things to happen at once. He seems half sad that he can’t do some things and half accepting, with an almost traumatized calmness, that he probably won’t do and wouldn’t entirely be expected to do women’s work that still, in the crevices of the language of this text, seems to appear to him as abject.

Structure here is the man’s incapacity to see shoe-shining as not abject. Structure is this unexplained incapacity to shift contexts. Since shoeshining used to be something just done among men, accepted as an odd form of masculine care labor a bit like a pedicure. Shoeshining started to feel bad to him when it was an uncompensated service to a woman.

Someone in the comments section of the article asked if she (I think she) could drop her shoes off outside the man’s office door. But she was joking.

Jokes show us that something real is at stake.

Masculine consciousness here is so deeply about shame and managing shame. As if what underlay this whole system of masculine values was a systemic fear of women and a phobic hatred of being in their shoes. Over which humanistic values are overlaid, like upholstery for a lethal structure.