Professors need to come down from their ivory towers

Dr. Jim Giermanski Former Professor
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We often hear from those in business, medicine, law, and other pragmatic professions that college professors live in an ivory tower, don’t know what a day’s work really is, and are fundamentally spoiled by their positions of influence and their academic degrees. As a former professor who worked at state universities and smaller private colleges for 30 years, I agree. Moreover, I think it is time that we treated professors in different teaching areas differently.

If a business professor has never been a businessman or been involved in business consulting or in some way participated in business activities, how does she know what doing business demands? Other than reading about business, she has no real experience in business. She has never met a payroll, hasn’t had to fire personnel, and has never had to compete in a business atmosphere. If a medical or dental-school professor has never had to perform a type of surgery he is teaching, how does he know the best way to teach it? If sociologists have never been actively involved in real social issues or consulted in different areas of sociology practice, how do they know what should be taught and what is important for the field? What about a law professor who never practiced law, should she be teaching it? Or the economics professor who continually fails to predict economic trends, or perhaps can’t even balance the family budget?

Common sense suggests that in the pragmatic fields of study, real experience is needed in order to genuinely understand the intellectual needs of those disciplines and the real value the field brings to students and ultimately to society. Professors in these fields who don’t have experience don’t bring to students the academic value they should. And in many cases they look foolish when they attempt to interject themselves into real-world issues.

Professors in the theoretical and thought-centered areas of academia such as art, literature, philosophy, and history readily admit that their work often doesn’t translate into the pragmatic areas of life, nor should it have to. However, by studying the significance of these thought-focused disciplines, and the importance of knowledge itself, these professors can bring incredible substance to the learning experience of their students who, in turn, by their intellectual development can serve to advance society and its common good.

The atmosphere on college campuses is evidence of the disconnect between the non-professional world and the academic one. Most professors don’t work 40-hour weeks, and being a professor is easy and pleasurable work, with minimum demands and maximum benefits, such as good salaries, tenure, deference, and the historic use of ornate regalia and titles. This academic atmosphere makes it hard for professors to understand the difficult work requirements of those in the fields about which they teach.

Finally, one has to look at the intellectual contributions of professors. Often, especially in the more emotive, artistic disciplines, professors contribute to their profession by writing. They will write stories, plays, criticisms, opinions, and books, but more often than not, they write for those in their disciplines not for those outside of them. In the pragmatic disciplines, professors tend to write for their colleagues’ evaluation within their fields and in academic journals that only other professors and graduate students read. Unfortunately, few professors in the pragmatic fields like business and psychology write for magazines or journals in the real world of their disciplines. I suspect that either most of them have nothing to contribute to the real world of practitioners, or it is simply too risky for them to present their ideas or findings to non-academic journals since the editors and readers of those magazines, who actually practice business principles, as an example, may respond negatively to a professor’s contributions to the field. Writing in academic journals for colleagues and graduate students is self-serving, safer, and without the risk of criticism from real-world practitioners, since professors rarely criticize the writings of their colleagues, and when they do, the criticism usually has no practical impact, especially given the tenure system in higher education, which often protects professors who have lost their academic competence. To the contrary, when one writes for real-world practitioners, there will certainly be responses, and perhaps not very pleasant ones.

It’s time to demand that professors be active components of any real-world practices existing within their disciplines. I’m tired of the inane statements and actions of some professors who seem to believe that their studies have automatically qualified them for acceptance by their real-world counterparts or the general public. In those intellectual disciples grounded in action and pragmatic achievement, professors contribute to their students’ development by doing more than merely helping students understand the contents of a textbook. College and university faculty must be directly associated with those actually practicing in their fields so the faculty and their students can continue to learn and develop state-of-the-art competencies.

Without that, we could end up with a college professor who taught law at the University of Chicago but never argued a case in front of a judge becoming the president of the United States and lecturing the Supreme Court. What’s worse is that my former colleagues would vote for him.

Dr. Giermanski is the chairman of Powers Global Holdings, Inc. and president of Powers International, LLC, an international transportation security company. He served as Regents Professor at Texas A&M International University, and as an adjunct graduate faculty member at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He was director of Transportation and Logistics Studies, Center for the Study of Western Hemispheric Trade at Texas A&M International University.