In Defense of the Term “Professor”

Dr. Brian C. Mitchell is the retired president of Bucknell University and former president of Washington & Jefferson College. He is the president of Brian Mitchell Associates and director of the Edvance Foundation. He can be reached at:

A great number of us within the higher ed community are watching with interest the developments in the national political debate on who will be sent to Washington as our elected representatives in November. Those of us interested in policy look at the implications to the tax code that forms the basis for the comprehensive campaigns that fund established priorities and can become transformative moments for our institutions. Others are more interested on the impact on our students and concentrate on Pell grants, student loans, interest rates, and a commitment to access. And still other higher education leaders worry about the impact on America’s great research universities where so much of what keeps America at the cutting edge in new technologies is incubated and spun out into broader society.

At the state and local level, states like California, North Carolina, Texas, Michigan, Wisconsin, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Massachusetts monitor trends because so much of their economies and sense of self are tied to the synergy between local industry and the great educational and non profit communities that have shaped what they have become.

There’s a lot at stake. One positive impact perhaps is that practicality has replaced ideology, to a degree, as the basis for political critiques of American higher education, at least in this election year. The new outcry — fueled by the great recession, the inability and perceived unresponsiveness of higher education institutions to adjust their budgets to new economic realities, and consumer polling that translates into political rhetoric — is outrage over tuition and fee increases. Separated from the heated political dialogue, there is room for reasonable discussion. But the winds swirling around higher education suggest that there is recognition that higher education is one of the last unique, idiosyncratic, and exportable commodities in America. It shapes by what it does where the economy will head. Higher education educates citizens, prepares the workforce, adapts American workers to technological change, and creates entirely new industries that are reshaping cities like Austin, San Francisco, Washington, New York, Boston and Pittsburgh.

So, here’s a thought. Let’s have our political debate and a healthy and rational discussion on how to pay for college. But let’s take care to appreciate the work done by the millions of American educators.

It’s been interesting to watch the approach, and especially, the tone during various state and national debates lately. Words matter. In Massachusetts, for example, Scott Brown referred to Elizabeth Warren as “the professor,” a little like the language used to describe the hapless, loveable egghead on Gilligan’s Island. The listeners were left with the impression of someone who will never be a “regular guy” to whom they can relate. While I have worked as a professor, I’m also from Lowell and understand that the language, and especially the tone used when the word is spoken, is meant as code. She is not one of “us.” National pundits referred to a disappointing initial Obama debate performance as too “professorial” in tone. Since when did professorial become a synonym for boring and long-winded? Is there a more accurate word out there?

Apart from my parents and in-laws, the greatest figures and the ones I will always most admire were the educators at all levels who touched my life. It’s true for most of us. They are the ones who challenged me beyond my comfort zone, to think rather than repeat, be inspired and inspire, and remember that there are those beyond my family for whom I have a responsibility.

It may be that what will keep America strong is the fresh collection of “big ideas” that come from individuals like the idealistic professors who articulate them in Washington and elsewhere. It is likely time to recognize  in word, tone and action that there is much to learn from the professor. So from the Howells, Marianne, Ginger, and millions of other Americans, thanks professor for all that you did for us before we became clever adults. We are honored by your presence among us. I just wish sometimes that we learned our lessons better.

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