Academic Clowns Who Harm Higher Education

I’m sure that the term “academic clowns” has been used by others, but I don’t claim originality anyway. By “academic clowns” I refer to college and university professors who harm their students in various ways and who lack the professionalism–and the simple decency–to change their behavior. I am NOT referring to sexual harrassment but rather to other, less familiar forms of the mistreatment of students.

Let me be clear that, in my twenty-seven years of teaching History at UMaine, I’ve met few such academic clowns, though even one is too many. Nearly all UMaine faculty are hardworking and decent persons. Many of my UMaine colleagues deservedly enjoy national if not international reputations in their respective fields. Too bad, of course, that the UME System top administrators and Trustees who hold the purse strings don’t share those sentiments as they relentlessly deny any modest pay raises (save for newly tenured and/or promoted faculty and for post-tenure reviews every four years) and relish maintaining the pay freeze for nearly all System faculty that has been in place since July 1, 2009.

Back to academic clowns. Three examples will suffice. First are the handful of professors who violate academic freedom in the classroom by trying to impose their political views and ideological agendas on their vulnerable students. Rather than grant their students the sacred right to express their own opinions and to reach their own conclusions,  these usually sanctimonious “experts” demonstrate an often unacknowledged inability to engage in respectful give and take if the course lends itself to that. Obviously many courses are utterly apolitical, but many are not. Too bad that such professors could not be reprimanded in some fashion.

My second example are the professors who make life miserable for their students by refusing to expand a course with limited enrollment by one or two seats so that upper level undergraduate students needing to take the course in order to graduate could do so without having to stay on for–and pay for– another semester. I know of one senior professor in another department who, while serving as chair, would not contact his/her  department colleagues in such cases–as if another student or two were in his/her own class! To be sure, as in the first case, so again here, this professor prides himself/herself in being politically correct but is instead professionally disgraceful.

My third and last example is that of the professors who, for whatever reasons, bar students from his/her classes  if someone is as much as a minute late. It makes no difference to these academic clowns if the students had car problems or child-care needs or, as in the case of last year’s outstanding undergraduate in another department in my college, a physical disability requiring the use of elevators and of crutches. (I suspect that this violates ADA regulations, but I’m not a lawyer.) No, these petty tyrants enjoy refusing entry to their classes regardless of the circumstances. One might think that they are stars of their respective professions, but that is usually not the case. Even the late Harvard geologist Stephen Jay Gould, whose Harvard Gen Ed course on “The Nature of Life” I audited years ago, reluctantly allowed latecomers to attend his world-famous lectures.  I don’t appreciate students coming late to my classes, but I much prefer to have those students be present for some of my classes rather than miss entire classes. I do seek excuses for lateness, but these can be provided after the class.

I’m sure that there are other examples of academic clowns, but as UMaine’s commencement nears,  I hope that at least some of these pathetic souls who are still teaching will soon be retiring. Professors who abuse their students in these ways do not deserve the privilege and the honor of the classroom.