Free agent professor

If you’re a college or university teacher, whom do you work for ?”
Thus begins Stanley Fish‘s latest New York Times editorial on the subject of academia. Here are a few excerpts:
Academics […] want […] to work in an organization and enjoy its benefits and at the same time be their own bosses.”

The way they rationalize this condition of privilege […] is to say that they work for no one or for everyone: they work for [a] common good […] not recognizable by just anyone. Only academics […] are capable of understanding what the enterprise requires; the public should keep its hands off the good the academy is producing for it.
So while academics don’t work for the dean or the president or the board of trustees, none of whom has the right to tell them what to do […], the public for whom they do work is not enlightened enough to appreciate their efforts and can’t tell them what to do either. What a deal !

You would think that such opening remarks, not exactly friendly to my category, would be followed by a heartfelt exhortation to society to do whatever it takes to bring things back to sanity, to rein in academics — ostensibly a bunch of egomaniacs enjoying unusual and unjustifiable perks — and subject each and every one of us to the same scrutiny that every other worker must endure, at the hand of a “person or body” unambiguously identifiable as the “boss” — something that academics must have somehow managed to escape, while no one was watching.
Instead, Fish goes on to say that such a situation, “bizarre as this may sound to the layman […] does make sense in the context of the doctrine of academic freedom …”. He poses however the question: “how far does this go ?“.

I am not going to discuss the editorial in detail. I generally find it disingenuous, and I cannot help seeing an agenda behind it, one that has little to do with education or scholarly research, and a lot more with right-wing ideology [0].
Still, reading it got me thinking a bit about academia. I have always wanted to be an academic for a number of reasons, and there is no question that “being my own boss” is an important part of it, although intellectual ownership of what I do is the most important to me.
But is it really true that the working conditions of academics, who get to be (largely) their own bosses without the risk of entrepreneurship, are so anomalous, unheard of and irreproducible in any other professional field, unparalleled by those of any other category of (non self-employed) workers ? And it is really necessary to invoke a somewhat abstract, and relatively obscure concept as academic freedom to make sense of something like that ?

Academia like the NBA, or NFL ?
Professional team sports…. Now, that is something to which many, most of us can relate. So many of us have grown up supporting a team, whether that be one playing professional soccer, football, basketball, baseball, what have you.
We spend ungodly amounts of money purchasing season tickets, jerseys, memorabilia, sport papers, pay-TV subscriptions, and sizeable portions of our waking time going to the games, watching them on TV (multiple times), talking about them for years with friends and strangers, listening to sport commentary on the radio, television and the internet.
I think that most people who find academia “bizarre”, have little or no trouble understanding the dynamics of the relationship between team players, the coach, the manager, the head of the franchise, the president of the club. And, are they really that different than in academia ?

Trivia time: Who was Emmit Smith‘s “boss”?
a) Troy Aitkman
b) Jimmy Johnson
c) Jerry Jones
d) the Dallas Cowboys‘ fans
e) None of the above

According to Fish, “The identification of who[m] you work for would also be the identification of the person or body responsible for setting the conditions of your labor, assessing your performance and deciding on compensation and promotions“.
Very well. Let us therefore think, for example, of a professional footballer playing in the National Football League. Who is this person’s “boss” ?

The coach ?
Hardly. The coach can expect players to follow his recommended training and practice schedules, assign each player a role on the pitch, demand that a player play according to a specific game strategy and so on… players, though (especially the good ones), will often do things their own way, and the coach will just put up and shut up [1]. And, a coach cannot fire nor give a raise to anyone — only make recommendations to that effect, which may or may not be received.
In some sense, there are similarities between the role of a coach and that of a department chair, who can hand out specific duties such teaching assignments, committee work and additional tasks, and who gets to submit an independent evaluation of each faculty’s scholarly performance to the administration. While the recommendations of a department chair to the administration carry significant weight, no one familiar with academia would regard the chair of the department as the “boss” of all the professors in that department.

The owner ?
Well…. yes and no. For some things, sure. Owners can and should demand that players act decorously on and off the pitch, that no one create tension in the locker room with bullying or annoying behaviour (well, except if we are talking a really good player, in which case owners will look the other way). The owner will call the shot when it comes to compensation and bonuses, whether or not to renew someone’s contract, whether to invest on young talents and give them a chance to mature, or choose instead more experienced players …
But, there exist lines that owners ought not cross either, and no single sport fan or commentator out there would dispute that assertion. Owners who succumb to their ego or narcissism, and stick their nose in technical matters where they do not belong (because they lack the qualifications and the knowledge), inevitably do more harm than good. They alienate coaches and players, and always end up the laughingstock of both fans and commentators [2].
University administrators at all levels — deans, provosts, presidents, all enjoy some of the perks of a sport franchise owner. For them too, there exist well-defined areas of responsibility in which they can and should exert significant influence. Curriculum development, teaching methodology, scholarly research are all examples of areas in which administrators ought not be involved.

The fans ?
I can hardly think of a bigger sucker than a sport fan (being one, I know what I am talking about). A sport fan is expected to display undivided loyalty, pay outrageous amounts of money to purchase season tickets every year, scream out of his lungs to support the team at the stadium, ice rink, ballpark, etc. Each fan worthy of this name has his or her own ideas, of course, as to which players to field, which strategy to adopt — and hey, statistically speaking, among the fans is likely to hide the next Vince Lombardi, just like a student taking issue with my teaching style or with something I say in class may well be right.
However, while college students at least get to fill out a course evaluation form at the end of the term, one that may even be taken seriously, it is a simple fact that fans (for whose exclusive enjoyment the whole sport circus exists in the first place) will never have an input on anything related to teams, games, calendars, rules — nothing. Not. A. Thing.
No player, coach, owner, commissioner will ever listen to anything that a fan, or a multitude thereof, say — at the stadium, on the web, on graffiti walls. And the funny thing is, no sensible person finds this state of affairs odd [3]. Fans themselves (i.e., the “greater public for whom the good is produced”) agree that that is how it should be. If anything, any attempt on the part of players, coaches or owners at “crowd pleasing”, at the expense of doing what is right, would be widely regarded as unprofessional, cheap and spineless demagoguery.
The only way fans can make their collective voice heard, is by not supporting the team anymore — not going to the stadium, not purchasing season tickets or TV subscriptions, and so on — but it does not happen often, and only on long time scales.

Well… who’s in charge, then ?
So, it would appear as if, for a player in a professional sport team, there is no single “person or body” clearly, unambiguously identifiable as “the boss”. To be sure, there are people who have some power, but that power is limited, and typically circumscribed to the person’s immediate area of competence and responsibility. But, if no one is “in charge” (not always and not entirely, anyway), how does such an organization function ? How does it not fall into anarchy, chaos ? We know from daily experience that that is not the case. What is their secret ?
And, why is it that a modus operandi that society as a whole accepts and embraces in professional sports, becomes “bizarre” if applied to academia ?

In order to attempt to answer the above question, it is important to understand clearly the goals of the enterprise as a whole, namely the sport franchise, as well as those of the individuals who form it, namely the players, the coaches, the managers and the owners. They are not necessarily the same, but the successful franchise is that which comes closest to achieving all of them simultaneously.

It is all about winning… right ?
The goal of the enterprise is simple: winning — that is what the fans want. Winning individual games, tournaments, championships at the national and international levels, and so on.
On the other hand, players, coaches, managers, and in some cases even owners, are essentially mercenaries — professionals mostly looking out for themselves. A player, for example, will usually pick a team not out of love for the fans, the city or the franchise logo, but largely to play in a strong team in some Major League, thereby maximizing his exposure to the greater public, and with it his chance to become famous, with the ensuing lucrative contracts (possibly with another team), endorsements, trophies, career awards and so on.

A sport team (much like a university) is at the core an agreement among individuals who are first and foremost self-motivated, and see the pursuit of a “common good” (e.g., the championship win, or the surge of the university to international prominence) as a way to achieve their own individual objectives. Conversely, the failure of the enterprise as a whole will almost always spell the demise, or a serious setback dealt to individual careers.
Each person participating into the agreement is essentially a “free agent”, has a well-defined task, and the expertise to carry it out with only minimal input from others; while ultimately pursuing his own best interest, he must always be mindful of the success of the operation as a whole, and provide his contribution toward that aim.
The key, then, is to establish a gregarious environment that can foster the required, productive collaboration — one in which no contributor should feel hampered in the pursuit of his own individual success.

Shared governance
Let’s imagine the following hypothetical (but, realistic) scenario: the owner of a football team can no longer afford to rent the training facility that the team has been using, and is looking to switch to a less expensive one. Could he simply say:
“I am the owner, I am the one who puts in the money, the present facility is financially too burdensome for me, so I make the executive decision that the team will from now on train some place else, at a different facility picked by me and my associates — possibly one of the free ones across town. It may not be their favorite arrangement, the coach and the players may object, it may inconvenience them a bit, but it will have to do — it is what I can provide at this time, and after all a practice field is a practice field is a practice field. Those who don’t like my choice are free to go and work/play for some other team”.
Of course he could. No one disputes that. But would that be the sensible thing to do ?
Would this kind of approach foster trust and collaboration, and be consistent with the more important goal of keeping everyone on board ? Would it really serve the owner’s best interest ? Would it not be better to discuss the problem with the coach and the players, make clear to them what the issue is, and seek their input and participation, in order to arrive at a decision that may not be optimal but at least will not leave anyone with the feeling that their needs were ignored ?

In order to keep everyone on board and ensure a successful operation, it is crucial that each one of the players involved (on and off the pitch) support the long-term plan of the franchise, the vision of the owner and the managers. But that they will only do if they are reasonably confident that it is compatible with the pursuit of their own individual goals as well — it is simply the nature of the beast.
Owners (or managers, presumably with the support of the owner) keen on making decisions without prior consultation with all parties involved (and ultimately affected by them), will sooner or later face the suspicion, hostility and opposition of the team — not because of arrogance, pettiness or territoriality on the part of coaches, players (or faculty, if we were talking abut a university), but because policies adopted in ostensible disregard for their input are likely to tread with their own long-term goals.

This is what “shared governance” is all about. It is an expression used in the context of universities, but as we have seen above, it really is nothing different from what goes on in team sport franchises, and in fact in many other human endeavours in which the notion of “boss” issuing orders and employees carrying them out is too narrow, or inapplicable. There is nothing “bizarre” about it, and it has nothing to do with “academic freedom” and a lot to do with simple common sense.
Defending it against any ideological attack [5] is a good thing [6].


[0] A person not familiar with academia, reading this editorial, may easily acquire the impression that for university professors showing up to teach their classes is optional, that no accepted productivity standards exist, that no service work is expected, that there is no mechanism in place for periodic evaluations of teaching and research performances, and that they cannot be administratively let go (yes, even with tenure) — in short, that this category gets away with murder on a daily basis and no one, no one can tell them anything; the rest of the world can only watch all of that, helpless. Scary, eh ?
Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth, as Fish himself could easily ascertain by experimenting on his own (if he did not already know that full well, being himself an academic, for decades).

[1] The players who are most valuable to the team, most effective on the pitch, the ones possessing unusual talent, charisma or personality (the “stars”), are typically the hardest to manage. A coach may impart orders, but very often will simply watch from the bench as players do as they please. And if in the end the team wins, the coach will get only a minuscule part of the credit, whereas if the team loses consistently, the coach is typically the first to go.
In a contention between coach and players, the owner will normally side with players and fire the coach, especially if players are popular with fans and/or have been brought in at a huge cost for the franchise.

[2] No sane owner is ever going to want to lose the support of the fans, and the fans bond with the players, not with the ownership (very much in the same way students remembers their professors at the end of their college experience, not the university’s president or provost). Interfering with the job of a coach, undermining the coach’s authority with the players, pretending to make technical calls that belong with none other than the coach, letting go players who are popular with the crowd, or successful coaches, just because they refuse to bow down to the owner’s authority, are dumb things to do. The fact that some owners do them anyway only means one thing: that they are dumb.

[3] I am sure that, if asked, most fans would say something which, while it may not sound like “Only individuals highly versed in the complex techniques of baseball are capable of understanding what the enterprise requires; the public should keep its hands off the good that the American League is producing for it”, it would express very much the same concept, in a more succinct and understandable fashion.

[4] Anyone following professional football, or soccer, or any team sport, has seen many a time a player on the pitch playing for himself rather than the team, i.e., consistently trying to show off his own ability and skills, even in game situations calling for a simple, “lean and mean” play, not spectacular but effective. Those players are typically not interested in helping their team win; rather, they want to be noticed by recruiters from better teams…

[5] They are always ideological, even if those spearheading them claim to be “seeking greater efficiency”, to be motivated by the need of providing a “better service for the customers”, curbing abuse or restoring proper balance. All of that is a bunch of baloney — establishing a hierarchy and taking away academic freedom are the real goals.

[6] Naturally, Fish (and others, to be sure) may argue “yeah, but a sport franchise is private…”. And that may be the not-so-hidden message here. Maybe Fish really does not have any problem with how academia is structured, maybe he fully understands that there is really no other way for it to be run — all he wishes to see is less public, more private.

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One Response to “Free agent professor”

  1. Al Says:

    thanks for a well-written and interesting post.

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