Academics have no more human frailties, I suppose, than are rampant in any other occupation. But those frailties are far more repellent, and far funnier, in a profession ostensibly dedicated to the disinterested search for truth.

1. The pettiness of the stage.

Backstabbing and politicking in the Executive Suite to obtain a million-dollar post as head of a corporation has a certain grandeur, or at least it sets the stakes high enough to make the poltroonery understandable. But how about similar knifing and backstabbing to get a five-hundred dollar “merit” increase in salary? Or a thousand-dollar research grant?

2. The meeting.

There is nothing on this earth as boring, as stupefying, as a typical departmental or faculty meeting. The intensity of discussion and debate is inversely proportional to the importance of the topic, and since academic meetings almost always dwell on trivial issues, the boredom is intense. Often professors use these trivial occasions to inflict “self-expression” upon their colleagues—with extensive soundings off on their philosophy of teaching, their views on the meaning of life, and on and on. Once, at the importuning of colleagues, I was elected to the seemingly august and all-powerful Executive Committee of the Faculty Senate. At last: a peek into the corridors of power! I found that the committee met diligently for several hours each week, at which the chairman would lovingly read a chapter from the by-laws (treated with the reverence due the Bible, but scarcely as poetic or instructive). We were engaged in a multi-year process of suggested revision of this set of meaningless gabble, after which the administration would solemnly take this nonsense under advisement. Needless to say, I quit after one meeting.

3. Busywork.

I once taught at an institution where the only, and I mean only, concern of the administration was do-re-mi. Instead of professors being monetarily rewarded according to merit, their “merit” consisted entirely of bringing research funds into the university, preferably grants that used the labs so that the university could get a rake-off for so-called “overhead.” Social scientists or historians, who didn’t use labs, were therefore necessarily at the low end of the totem pole. One year, our social science department was cursed with a determinedly gung-ho chairman who had a bizarre view of faculty grants. Since it was implicitly recognized that there was precious little chance of getting any, he focused on writing grant proposals—”Hooray! Jim has written four grant proposals this term!” Applause. This was a demented version of the Marxian labor theory of value.

The president of this installation, by the way, was a native of Europe, and on his summer trips abroad, he would find that I had a considerable reputation in his native country. (A prophet honored everywhere but at home?) Did this make him think better of me, and give me more “merit points” in his eyes? Quite the contrary. He became increasingly mad: if I was such a big shot, why wasn’t I bringing money into the school? Sort of if you’re so smart, why aren’t you making me rich?

4. The unacknowledged class struggle: the nonpublishing Old Guard vs. the young hotshots.

This class conflict has been going on for the over forty years that I have been in academia. My first job was at a prestigious business-oriented college at which the tenured Old Guard all had Ph.D.’s all right, but none of them in economics. One professor had a Ph.D. in industrial engineering, another in German literature, another in philosophy, and so on. How did they wind up in economics? Who knows? But they did, and their ignorance of the field was cosmic. Naturally, they had published nothing on economics, as well as nothing, so far as I could make out, on any other subject. The only professors who knew anything about economics were the few younger ones, who predictably went on to publish and make a mark in the profession. The tension between the two groups was profound. University administrators (except for the benighted case I’ve mentioned) generally like to build up the prestige of the university and therefore the scholarly reputation of the professors. The professors themselves, however, are ambivalent; while enjoying the “externalities” of the prestige of colleagues, how do they (the Old Guard) look, and what happens to their own “merit” (invariably gauged in relative terms, since only a limited amount of merit funds are available)?

One favorite memory is of the edifying sight of the Old Guardsmen sitting around with their canned multiplechoice questions, to the elementary courses they were teaching, trying to puzzle out the answers a bit before their students were to be subjected to the tests. The chairman said, “We’ll have to teach them something about this guy Ky-ness” (Keynes).

5. The New Left Episode.

Since many conservative academics seem to have been permanently traumatized by the New Left revolution on campus, I should say that I found the experience far more amusing than traumatizing. During that period, I was hired by a largely Marxist (and at the same time highly productive) social science department, which functioned as a left-wing island in a fairly conservative sea of engineers. Why was I hired? Three reasons: (1) I, like them, was strongly opposed to the war in Vietnam, and we had mutual friends such as the historian William Appleman Williams and his disciples; (2) I could be used as an ultra right-wing offset to the charge of the department being commie (Absurd! We’ve got Rothbard in our department!); and (3) I had long had ties with a right-wing foundation, and they were expecting me to bring them some right-wing money (the do-re-mi factor again). Little did they know that it was precisely because my ties with right-wing foundations had been abruptly severed that I was trying to get back into academia.

The New Left revolution was pretty mild on our campus; the only left-wing students were the handful of social science majors. The peak was an ugly incident about an attempt to blow up the ROTC building, and there were some anti-Vietnam War resolutions passed by the faculty, but the big fight was over a Student Power attempt to add two student representatives to the sainted Curriculum Committee. The university then had on its faculty one of the leading Ayn Rand academics, who, sounding very much like a character in Alison Lurie’s The War Between the Tates, got up and made an impassioned speech to the effect that having any student reps on the Curriculum Committee would spell the end of Western Civilization, a surrender to the barbarians at the gates, and all the rest. The outcome was very different. When the student reps finally gained the inner sanctum of this mighty committee, and they saw for themselves the bog of boredom and triviality in which the committee was mired, they quickly and quite sensibly disappeared, never to exercise their “empowerment” again.

The department itself was a little more troublesome. The New Leftists among the Marxists insisted, for a brief span, that we teachers should not inflict content on the students, that we should only “rap about their feelings,” etc. This did not get very far, since the chairman was a cantankerous oldfashioned Marxist concerned about good cigars and fine wines, who would no more get down and dirty with hippie students to rap about their feelings than he would join the SS. One of my colleagues was the nation’s outstanding Trotskyite economist (for what that’s worth), and he was highly touted by his acolytes in the department as the “finest mind of our time.” Unfortunately, the Finest Mind was already in the process of being blown by hallucinogenic drugs, followed rapidly by faux-Buddhism or Hinduism. This fellow astonished the distinguished Marxist Isaac Deutscher at a socialist scholars’ conference. Expecting to meet a brilliant American Trotskyite, poor Deutscher was confronted by LSD and Hindu gibberish; this might well have contributed to Deutscher’s death shortly thereafter. The Trotskyite-Hindu shared an office with a female pro-Cuban revolutionary, and the smell of incense emerging from that office was matched by side-by-side posters of Che with a rifle and the multi-armed Hindu goddess. To the sobs of the department, the brilliant young Trotskyite-Hindu didn’t get tenure, not having published anything; in later years he left academia to become an itinerant Velikovskyite.

The female revolutionary was an interesting case. Coming to the department as a graduate student in political science, she flounced into her interview in a micro-mini (those were the glorious first days of the mini revolution), leggy, gorgeous, and flirtatious. For some reason, the males in the department suddenly developed an intense interest in their department’s hiring practices. I’m afraid that some of their scholarly acumen was lost in the process. Suffice it to say that six months or so after she was hired, she was swept up in the feminist revolution. Gone for all time were the miniskirts and the flirtatious and suggestive behavior, to be replaced by grim and bitter attacks on the evils of oppressive maledom. Not only was she an employee of the Cuban government; she announced, when her time for tenure was at hand, that she was not going to finish her Ph.D., publish in scholarly journals, or all the rest of that bourgeois claptrap. Yet the rest of the department indulgently recommended her for tenure, with the exception of myself, who calmly pointed out that since academia was inextricably linked with such alleged claptrap, she should, on her own terms, be happy to leave such an uncongenial institution. Neither she nor the rest of my beloved colleagues appreciated my position, but it turned out the university was not nearly as indulgent as the department, and the lady now flourishes as a Cuban employee outside the confines of the hated bourgeois world.

At any rate, New Left student activity on the campus collapsed with Mr. Nixon’s brilliant masterstroke of repealing the draft. Suddenly all the young idealists lost their reason for protesting the war or much of anything else; and in our engineering university, why would anyone, not fearful of the draft, linger on as a social science major, for heaven’s sake?

In conclusion, I would submit that much of the antics of academia is systematic and institutional; there is no reality check. Universities are nonprofit institutions, which means they are inefficient, for their main source of revenue is not their students, but donors, whether government, corporations, or besotted alumni. As a result, responsibility and accountability are weak if not nonexistent, and kooky/petty/dysfunctional behavior is given its head.