by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"The purpose of freedom is to create it for others. Levin wanted friendship and got friendliness; he wanted steak and they offered spam."... ... Bernard Malamud.
Commentary of the Day - September 5, 2005: The Back-to-School Email Blues (or the Need for a Provost In Absentia). Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.
I still get email from the college where I spent the better part of 37 years as a professor in the English department. Now I tell people who try to stump me with posers about some fine point of grammar or who ask whether I ever got around to reading The Da Vinci Code that I'm "off the clock." I'm a civilian. I don't punch in to make sure that Johnny recognizes his comma faults and agrees to go forth and sin no more or that Billy, poor Billy, hasn't lifted his latest paper on "The Hermeneutics of Suspicion in Henry James's The Beast in the Jungle" from some outpost in cyberspace. I still care, all right, but from a careful distance.
That's why the email I get this time of year as so fascinating. For example, the blue ribbon committee currently searching for a new provost keeps me informed about the meetings scheduled during September, October, and November and hopes I'll attend at least some of them. Even the lure of "light refreshments" isn't enough to make that happen, but I did offer up what I thought was a wonderful alternative; namely, what I call a "provost in absentia," somebody who wouldn't actually reside on campus but who is available whenever one of those sticky wickets that pop up from time to time actually pops up.
In short, the provost in absentia would handle the tough calls and make the controversial decisions. Suppose the curriculum committee was at loggerheads about whether or not to add a major in Gay and Lesbian Studies because some members wanted the new major to include the transgendered. Under our current system of governance the provost would call for a series of faculty meetings and would preside as debate raged on until the wee hours. By contrast, a provost in absentia could resolve the matter with a quick and decisive "No!" Not only a no to a major in Gay, Lesbian, and Transgendered Studies, but also an equally quick no to a major in Entrepreneurial Studies. No doubt there are those who will disagree with one or another of the decisions that the Provost in absentia might make but at least faculty members would be spared lots of time in boring meetings, listening to blood pressure-raising speeches.
By now you've probably figured out that I advanced myself as the perfect candidate for the new job description I had fashioned. Like my colleagues in literary theory, I've learned that you first invent a kingdom and then declare yourself the king. Imagine my surprise when the chairperson of the committee (and a dear old friend to boot) said that the committee would give my suggestion the same careful consideration it gave to other ideas. I know a blow-off when I see one, and this was definitely a blow-off, rather like the president's refusal to address my series of complaints when I discovered that, after full retirement, I no longer received regular paychecks. How, I asked him, was I supposed to enjoy my retirement without a big screen plasma TV set when the new season of NFL games was about to kick off? My wife, a patient, eminently pragmatic soul, tells me that, in the absence of regular paychecks, lots of my plans for luxury travel and the newest electronic gadgets will have to be curtailed. I asked the president, in an email he deigned not to answer, if he thought this state of affairs was fair. . . was just. . . was what I deserved?
That's why I'm going to skip this year's commencement exercises, and why I paid little attention (in truth, no attention) to the email missives telling me where I should line up for the procession and outlining the "light lunch" that will be served to the incoming students, their parents, and us. At $40,000 a pop it might be fun to count the students as they file into the outdoor stadium and figure out what sort of luncheon all those zeros could buy. But the college is apparently saving that dough for other things, although certainly not for sending retired professors regular paychecks.
So be it, but that's why my offer to be provost in absentia is such an intriguing idea. The same college that serves "light" (read: cheap) refreshments and equally "light" (read: even cheaper) lunches is exactly the place that could save big money by sending the provost's checks to Florida. I even promise to forego raises and health benefits to sweeten the deal. I'm quite sure that no live-in provost will do that.
If the college sends me an email announcing that I'm the first provost in absentia, you can be sure that I'll open it. Otherwise, I plan to hit the delete button every time some dean or other wants to know about my committee preferences (as always, none!) -- that is, when I don't cut through the crap and call most college email by its rightful name: spam.
©2005 Sanford Pinsker
Sanford Pinsker, who retired not too long ago from the faculty of Franklin & Marshall College, divides his time between New Jersey and Florida all the while keeping a sharp eye on academic foibles.
The IP comments: The neat think about computers and the Internet is that as long as the power doesn't fail, even the most curmudgeonly among us continues to receive a never ending stream of messages. The IP also has it on good authority that Sanford is managing even though Franklin & Marshall no longer sends him regular paychecks.