The President and the Professors

Less lugubriousness wouldn’t necessarily buy him a health-care bill. But in the long run, Americans might find it easier to root for or with Obama if he’d show us, despite everything, that he’s happy we hired him.

Above is the concluding paragraph of a fascinating essay, “Obama’s Happiness Deficit,” in Monday’s on-line Washington Post. Its author, Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt, spends most of his column musing about the reasons President Obama seems, well, so miserable these days. Until that devastating final paragraph, only almost in passing does Hiatt reference that Obama’s malaise and what the electorate is feeling about the president these days is mutual: “Still, I think Americans want a president who seems, despite everything, to relish the challenge. They don’t want to have to feel grateful to him for taking on the burden.” Hiatt wisely, or unwittingly, leaves that job to readers, who at last count as I write, have logged 992 comments, all of them variations on sample comments from

“Rank1”: “Happy? [President Obama] is simply in way over his head!”

“Jarbo1”: “Obama is just frustrated because the American people are even dumber than he thought. He knows what’s best for us and we just don’t get it.”

And “senatorgoofy”: “A suggestion for [Obama]….RESIGN!
Go write a book, travel, whatever….just do us all a favor and leave.”

To sum up, a Washington Post editorialist suggests the president is unhappy; readers flood the paper’s website to with comments that make three points: 1) the president isn’t up to the demands of his job; 2) the president doesn’t listen to us; and 3) the president should just go away. Virtually none of the commenters expresses sympathy for Hiatt’s point of view or for the president’s sad situation.

Far be it for me to pile it on, but we all know that it’s lonely at the top, so a certain amount of Obama’s ennui is to be expected. And while the biliousness of many of the negative comments about the president, not to mention the sheer volume of them, especially in the resolutely liberal Washington Post, is somewhat surprising, what really grabbed my attention is the commonality the writers’ critiques share with what a faculty might say when it threatens or carries out a “vote of no confidence” in a college president, the kiss of death for an academic CEO.

For all their obsessive inflation of the everyday workplace irritants that the most of us shrug off, because the number of hours we work precludes our having time to indulge in our obsessions, faculty members nevertheless are in the main all bark—vicious yelps, to be sure—and only toothless bite when it comes to going after administrators they don’t like. For many faculty, griping about the administration is a recreational activity, complete with wholesome competition for who can hurl the snidest insult or invent the most lurid rumor. That they get away with these jejeune hi-jinks goes without saying, because they think, erroneously, that academic freedom means never having to keep their mouths shut. Woe to the person who tries to set them straight.

But I digress. Occasionally, on two or three campuses a year, perhaps, faculties will stop playing games long enough to declare that they’ve had it with the president or chancellor who heads their college or university. Much ink will flow at Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education as academics everywhere follow the insurrections with avid attention and scorecards at the ready. If the campus civil war is particularly bloody, the mainstream press might enter the fray, but this generally only happens if the president is stupid enough to spend well upwards of six figures on interior decoration fees for his office or college-owned home, or is brazen enough to put his honey on the payroll. Neither of these examples is made-up, by the way.

So what makes a usually oblivious faculty rise up as one and take notice of a rogue administrator? Sad to say, the number one reason is always and inevitably one of self-interest: the budget is so hopelessly in the red that firing secretaries, custodians and middle managers can no longer stop the bleeding. Keep in mind that in this scenario the library hasn’t made a purchase in two years, and buckets are strategically placed in corridors to catch the drips when it rains. Until this point, the faculty, their raises, and their “development” money have been carefully preserved, for the logical reason of maintaining the product, the academic program.

The head of the Faculty Senate delivers 99 no-confidence votes to the door of the president's office.

But there does come that awful day when the size of the faculty must be trimmed. The first, and usually only, to go are those without tenure. But the howls that will ensue from the anointed ones with jobs-for-life will be blood-curdling, so terrified are they when they have a close brush with the workplace reality of those who labor without the privilege of tenure. So, like threatened pack animals, they plan and execute their attack, which will come in the form of a no-confidence vote accompanied by a somber, sorrowful letter to the board of trustees. The letter will make three points: 1) the president isn’t up to the demands of his job [translation: he isn’t raising enough money]; 2) the president doesn’t listen to us [translation: he doesn’t agree with us]; and 3) the president should just go away [translation: so we can keep our jobs]. Sound familiar?

Portrait of President Hubris, after the faculty's vote of no confidence.

Cheer up, President Obama. So far no one’s complained about how you decorated the Oval Office.

One thought on “The President and the Professors

  1. Nice toast photo, almost as good as the kick-a** photo of Moe in an earlier posting. Oh, and I too would like to see our president go on a cruise, a safari, a journey of discovery, a pilgrimage, really just so it takes place far, far away and takes a really long time. There I’ve come out of the closet. I’m a rebel.

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