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Parting Shot

Boardrooms & Classrooms

Real Profits & Academic Fancy

by Herb London

Samuel Johnson once noted that mankind is never more innocently occupied than when he is engaged in business activity. Having been involved in both academic life and the business world, I can attest to the veracity of this claim. Generalizations are always faulty, so let me first state the obvious: There are malevolent businessmen and well-meaning academics. Now let me get to the real theme of this article.

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 14

The academic who fancies himself an intellectual is eager to reshape the world in the image of his untested ideas. As instruments for this goal, he enlists students whom he has proselytized with his nostrums for a "better world." As innocents, these students often drink in his ideas like thirsty nomads in a desert oasis. They see him as possessing a key that unlocks the secrets of knowledge, like a Rosetta Stone, which he generously shares with those fortunate enough to sit in his classroom. For this, the professor is handsomely compensated and often treated as a hero on campus.

I am talking mainly about academics in the soft disciplines—psychology, sociology, English literature, philosophy. For a mathematics or engineering professor, equations either work or not; the test is right there on the blackboard. But in the soft disciplines subjectivity is valued. Evidence is often scant, and a hypothesis rarely proved or disproved. Opinions count, and in a world of rigid egalitarianism, distinctions aren't made between educated and reflexive opinions.

This profile may seem extreme, particularly to those unacquainted with academia. But the contrast with the business community is stark, indeed overwhelming.

In business, pontificating heroes may exist, but only when success in the form of profit has been attained. Theories are quickly put to the test of the market; a good idea is one that works. Success may be ephemeral; the salesman who surpasses his target in one year may be shown the door in the next if he disappoints. Tenure never caught on in the business world.

At a recent business board meeting I attended, the CEO shamefacedly described the failure of his company to meet its first-quarter goals. The board expected an explanation and wanted to know how he would address that failure. There was an immediate test of his leadership. No rationalizations or excuses were considered; only results counted. You might call this brutal accountability, but it is a world apart from professorial unaccountability.

Moreover, those I have encountered in the business world work long hours. For executives, the 9 to 5 day is a luxury few enjoy. Senior officials may get a month off, but most are still tied to their offices via telecommuting. The financial rewards may be greater in business than in academia, but so are the risks. Even talented business leaders face the unyielding conditions of external factors, which can adversely affect a well-run business.

Results are the sine qua non of business activity; theory is the basis of academic lectures. Profit is the test of business; proselytizing is the (newly found) goal of instruction. Tenure is the academic's aim and expectation; sinecures only exist for the retired businessman.

Yet remarkably, many professors I have known make invidious comparisons of themselves with business leaders. Their complaints take the form of: "I contribute so much to the welfare of mankind; he builds widgets. Yet I only earn a fraction of his salary." Alas, the market economy generates envy in the scholar.

It is clear, I believe, that business is generally a more realistic version of life's conditions than higher education. As Henry Kissinger and others have noted, the vitriol often evident in academic life is so great because there is so little at stake. But rarely, if ever, will you hear this acknowledged by intellectuals who believe they are the catalysts for reinventing society, whether society needs reinventing or not. Most academics cultivate a phantasmagoria behind the walls of ivy, where reality is not permitted to intrude. As a consequence, truth is hidden, and a serious critique of the university system remains unattainable. •

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