Take Off the Bow Tie, Gordon

(July 1992)


An open letter to President Gee:

At about 3:15 p.m. on Friday, you showed that you have no conception of what academic life is like for students at your university.

You mentioned a book called "ProfScam," written by Charles Sykes. You said it was complete nonsense -- an example of the anti-intellectual tide that is threatening to engulf our nation's universities. Your denunciation was passionate and given without reservation.

My curiosity raised, I walked over to the education library and checked "ProfScam" out. I have just finished reading it. President Gee, I agree with almost every word of it. In every biting paragraph I heard the attitude of my fellow students toward Ohio State; in every ridiculous example of professorial vanity and arrogance, I heard the reasons they tell me about why they feel that way.

I can see why you passionately hate the images in the book. Sykes wrote of colleges which have abandoned their mission to teach undergraduates; professors who only teach one class per term (and even that begrudgingly); professors who would rather quit than teach undergraduates; the appalling conditions that teaching assistants are subjected to; and university presidents who watch all this happen and don't have the courage or intellect to stand up to it. No, President Gee, I'm sure you didn't enjoy reading about these things. But the book reflected reality, and sometimes reality is ugly.

Let me tell you about my first two years at Ohio State, President Gee. I spent those years enrolled in a different department than the one I am in now (I can't name the department because it would censor my column). I took five courses from the department; two were taught by tenured professors, and the other three by people without tenure.

The two professors were awful. They were arrogant, unsympathetic, and uninspiring. (Our nickname for one of them was "Heartless.") I learned nothing in their courses. They are both renowed in their specialities; they are both incompetent to teach undergraduates; and they are both still teaching undergraduates.

The three teachers without tenure were wonderful. They were helpful, encouraging, and clear. I learned a lot in their courses. None of them were well-known in academe; none of them were interested in research; none of them are now affiliated with Ohio State.

The only thing this department did for me was destroy my life-long dream of joining the profession it claimed to be teaching. Is this what I was supposed to gain from my university education, President Gee?

What right did you have, President Gee, to stand in front of that auditorium and tell a group of professors about what a great job they do teaching? How in hell would you know? Do you take classes here? Are you an undergraduate who shells out hard-earned money to be ignored and despised by quite a few of the well-paid professors who are supposed to inspire and teach him? If the goal of teaching is for students to learn, then the teacher himself cannot judge his ability to teach. Only the student can judge it. You are not a student. Until you become one, you have no authority to congratulate professors.

President Gee, I've read what you've written about your goals for Ohio State; about your desire for a "university of the American dream." I've seen you mixing with students. It inspired me. It inspired a lot of us. We thought we had a university president who truly understood our concerns and would do something about them.

But if you can look at this poor excuse for a university community, this poor excuse for undergraduate education, and this oft-repeated lie that teaching is more important than research at Ohio State; if you can look at these things and say with passion that all is well and everyone is doing a great job, then I guess you're not any better than the rest.

Take off the bow tie, Gordon. You haven't earned it yet.