John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

The American People Want a President Not a Professor

John N. Gardner

As all my readers know I am sure that in just several days will be the first of the 2012 presidential debates. In one press report I read of the candidates’ debate coaches’ strategies, it was reported that one of the President’s handlers opined that the President was being coached to give shorter answers because “the American people want a President not a professor.” I understood that sentiment but my feelings were hurt a bit.

It would take me more than a succinct blog posting to recount all the classic stereotypes of professors, many of them not complimentary. Here are just a few.

– we are “eggheads”
– we “live in an ivory tower”
– we don’t live in the “real world”
– we are badly dressed
– we are underworked and overpaid (after all we teach (work) only 12 hours a week (or some of us lucky full professors less)
– we are all leftist weirdo’s

I am not going to go on in that vein. You get the point.

I look back on my 32.5 years as a professor on the public payroll and think about what my public expected of me.

No, they didn’t expect me to be “President.”

But they did expect me to:

– be a leader—especially in my field (I became THE leader of my field)
– know what I was talking about (I did that and became an international expert on at least one subject and probably several more)
– be studious (which is why I read books in the little league baseball parks and my kids’ parents thought I was strange)
– honor my employer (the state of South Carolina) but still be a bit unconventional—I met those expectations
– discover and contribute new knowledge and practices for the improvement of higher education in their state (which – I did by developing first-year programs to help more of their children/citizens be successful in college and more likely to be retained)
– help retain varsity athletes (I did that, including one Heisman trophy winner)
– be an outstanding teacher—better than their kids experienced in high school (I did win the University’s outstanding teaching award early in my career and it was the apex of my career!)
– be interested in their children and give them good advice, help them get jobs, write them recommendations (I delivered on all of those)
– be more productive than other “state employees” which was a very negative stereotype
– open up their kids to new possibilities (I did that in ways that I am sure did not always please the parents—I had one father tell me angrily that I had “radicalized” his daughter!
– provide their kids with a memorable experience (when I run into my former students, oh they do tell me they remember me—what do they remember? That I made them read newspapers they had never read before, like The New York Times; that I exposed them to ideas and perspectives like they had never heard before –especially during the Vietnam War–, and that I was very giving personally of my time, concern, interest, compassion)
– take special care of politicians’ and other powerful peoples’ children (I did that especially in special assignments I got of privileged advisees!)
– be more liberal than the general populace (I really delivered on that)
– be an exemplary representative of my university (I was conscious of the need to do this every day of my 32.5 years of service) 

I knew I was not expected to be President but was expected to be other things in return for the privilege of being a professor and public servant. As I told my students, for example in my most recent commencement address, there are many ways to be “leaders.” And I am confident that professors are some of the finest leaders in our country.

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