Misfits in the Corridors of Power

I let myself get talked into becoming chair of the arts division at my school this year. No musician had ever done it before. I get to teach one less course per semester for doing it, so in effect my position is 40 percent administrative for the next three years. This does not come naturally to me at all. What comes naturally to me is being the disgruntled rebel outsider, not the authority figure who’s charged with haranguing his colleagues to live up to their responsibilities. Problem is, that seems to be pretty much true of all the other artists as well, and one of us has to do it. One of us has to pretend to be what we all think of as a corporate suit for awhile. And I agreed to, because – though some of you won’t believe this – I’m a nice guy.

It’s an education, and not one I particularly wanted. I have about five meetings a week with administrators on the average. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to spend that much time in meetings. I’m fully involved in the inner workings of faculty governance. What I’m learning in detail, which I already knew to some extent, is how different artists are from the rest of our fellow professors. There are twelve professors on the faculty senate, three of us from the arts division. Usually these positions get filled by art historians and musicologists, who at least speak the lingo, but by luck of the draw this year, my two divisional colleagues are a jazz drummer and an experimental filmmaker; as a sometime musicologist, I’m by far the most academic of the three.

And we have meetings in which we three artists have no idea what our colleagues are talking about. We spend our time making microscopic changes to the faculty handbook. One day we must have spent twenty-something minutes trying to finesse some rule so that two or three specific faculty members would get access to evaluation files while two or three more very similar faculty members would not. The result we wanted seemed reasonable, but we couldn’t come up with the exact consistent wording that would effect it. It became apparent to us that our fellow faculty and administrators truly believe that if we could just get the faculty handbook worded correctly, that the college would run like clockwork, that no a posteriori judgement or intuition would ever become necessary. Of course, as artists, we reject this on principle. We know that we cannot come up with a verbalizable algorithm that will create a stunning, breathing work of art; why would we think that something as complex as a college could be fully encapsulated by a 100-page document? In our creative experience we know that achieving the result we want involves some measure of logic, but must invariably be completed by an irrational act of will. And so we have very little patience for the picayune distinctions that some of our friends in the sciences and social sciences seem to take vast delight in formulating. As the filmmaker keeps explaining to them on our behalf, “We think with a different side of the brain.”

Periodically we three artists get to meet with the administration alone, and our sense of relief is palpable. It’s our chance to explain why the arts division can’t operate like the rest of the college, why what works for them doesn’t work for us. (For instance, music is criticized for having too many part-time faculty, and told to consolidate positions. I always respond, “Find us someone who can teach voice, jazz saxophone, and double bass, and we’ll hire them!”) We are perennially the disgruntled, rebel, outsider division. And I’ve realized why: a person becomes a history professor because she has a moment in youth at which it suddenly occurs to her, “I’d like to be a history professor!” So she becomes one, with her eyes open, and her life is all of a piece. An artist becomes a professor because it occurs to him one day, “I want to be an artist!” – and then, many years later, a second realization follows: “Uh oh, I need a day job.” And so very few of us artists are there because it’s something we always wanted to do.

For instance, when we need outside tenure evaluators for a psychology professor, we call up a few psych profs at other schools and they agree to do it. When we need outside arts professors, we get turned down over and over again, because all those artists are spending every possible spare moment on their own art, and won’t give up that time to help an unknown colleague. In comparison to the science and social science people, we artist-professors live a somewhat dishonest life, because we reluctantly scrunch academia into the margins of our career wherever we have to. And yet, if we really decided to make academia our central concern, we would cease to be the wild, outside-the-box, creative types that our students need as models. The academic life is, by definition – life inside the box.

When John Knowles Paine convinced Harvard in 1876 to make him the first music professor in America, there was a general feeling on the Harvard faculty that music didn’t belong in a university curriculum. And I have frequently found myself thinking that those mortar-boarded Harvard dons were right – for music’s sake, not just to keep from trivializing the academy. I become more and more convinced that academia has poisoned the composition world, for instance, beyond any possibility of recovery. But, given the current structure of society, I can’t see what the reasonable alternative is.


  1. says

    As a latecomer academic — only my 6th semester now at age 63 — I have been stunned by the avalanche of inconsequentialities. My syllabus, for example, was initially rejected because it did not include various federal guidelines. The force be with you as an administrator. I couldn’t do it.


  2. Amelia says

    There is a middle ground between the artist and professor/administrator described here. A young scholar wakes and says “I want to be an artist!” and in studying art confronts the thing that is art history and its canon. She enters academia not as a last resort but instead to teach herself how to use the tools of history, to pry history open, and to skillfully insert into it important ideas that have been left out (important artists that are working on the periphery). Her practice involves communicating ideas and expressing a challenging notion of contemporaneity within the very towers that stand at the nucleus of the field. By working inside and outside simultaneously, the art historian, critic, and administrator may also be artists if they chose. Art history, criticism, and administration are their media.

    • Sara Haefeli says

      I found myself in academia not only because I wanted to be an artist, and by studying art fell in love with art history and its canon, but also because I have a passion to teach that history and that canon. I think the teaching part gets lost all too often.

  3. lawrencedillon says

    “The corridors of power” is an apt term for the way artists and professors view administration, but as your experience demonstrates, being an administrator, at least in mid-level administration, gives you anything but a feeling of power. Mostly you are struggling to make faceless regulations fit on variegated faces so that everyone can continue doing what they are supposed to do with the least encumbrance. Naturally, most everyone you are trying to assist will view you with suspicion, assuming nefarious agendas. After 20 years in administration, I’m happy to now serve as an interpreter of administrativese to my fellow professors.

    KG replies: Well put. I’ll go further: mostly I’m just nodding my head when looked at.

  4. says

    As an architecture professor who’s been involved in university governance for years (including serving as university senate president), I too have been bewildered by the issues my academic colleagues seem to find essential. (However, I was able to move issues through the senate effectively, as I really didn’t care about most of them personally.)
    I also had a late realization that academia could be a career. At first I saw it as a temporary position to see me through a recession until I could go back into practice, but then I found the teaching to be challenging, worthwhile and enjoyable. I tell my colleagues who are bemused by my trajectory that I’m an “accidental academic”, and that I haven’t been socialized into their recondite worldview by the trauma of acquiring a PhD.
    Perhaps the most difficult aspect is getting them to understand that artists and professionals value other types of production than journal articles. When I mentioned at a committee meeting that most of my colleagues thought it was more important to design a good building than to write a theoretical book, I was greeted with astonished silence.
    In my most self-pitying moments, I think that architects have the hardest time reconciling academia with their avocation. Normal academics are doing what they thought they’d be doing – researching and writing, with some teaching mixed in. And as you say, artists, musicians, composers, etc. are jealous of administrative tasks cutting into their time, as their day jobs of teaching already pull them away from the artistic production they thought would be their life’s work. But at least an artist who can work alone has some chance of completing projects in the limited amount of time left. Architecture requires the coordination of a large cast of players on a tight schedule, as well as access to clients with lots of money. It’s a more than 40-hour-a-week job, as is academia, and you find very few who can undertake both simultaneously. Most of my colleagues have sensibly moved into research and writing instead of design in order to stay productive, but it’s as if a painter had to give up painting and become an art historian, all the while continuing to teach students how to paint.

    KG replies: I’ve thought that architects have the hardest time too, followed by conductors (who need an orchestra) and playwrights (who need actors). Poets are lucky: all they need is pen and paper. And I can make my music by myself when I have to, as I usually do these days.