Another commencement address nobody asked me to give

May 19, 2005
Once again, I thought I would be invited to give a commencement address at a university this year.

I always prepare a speech running counter to the insipid feel-good talks given at these events. But again, no university offered an invitation. So I'll present my address here.

Tap, tap, tap, is the microphone on? Can you hear me in the back? Dr. and Mrs. Pedagogue, esteemed faculty and honored guests, graduating seniors, and parents. It is my unpleasant duty to inform you that academia is undergoing a crisis. I am not talking about illiterate highschool seniors enrolling in college. I am not talking about college freshmen who can't balance a checkbook. I am not talking about soaring tuition costs.

It is worse than that, and please be prepared to gasp. The faculty of Harvard University is demoralized. In fact, the problem is more serious than their having poor morale. They are also dismayed and alienated.

Never mind that they make salaries well north of $100,000 per year. Never mind that they have a teaching load giving them a lot of time to work crossword puzzles and watch Jerry Springer on TV. Never mind that they have lifetime employment, a retirement plan, and medical benefits. Never mind that after six years as tenured professors, they can knock off a year at half pay for something called a sabbatical. And if they don't like half pay, they can shorten the sabbatical to a half year and get full pay. Never mind that their offspring can attend Harvard free of charge.

We might think that with jobs like those I've just described, the Harvard faculty would be as happy as pigs in mud. But no, they are distressed because they think the president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, is "damaging the institution," according to an article in the Boston Globe. What set off many of the faculty is the fact that Mr. Summers, during an off-the-cuff talk, wondered aloud why women faculty members don't advance in science as easily as men do. He then suggested it might be because there are differences between men and women.

His remarks made the oatmeal hit the fan, and they incited a barrage of criticism. Various professors said Mr. Summers' style of leadership had created a crisis, that his autocratic management style stifled debate and struck at the university's core values, and that there is a widening crisis of confidence in his fitness to lead the university.

Understandably surprised by the reaction, Mr. Summers apologized for his remarks about women in science. One professor, however, was inconsolable. She was quoted in the newspaper as saying: "The problem is, you can't take it back."

What is over the heads of the Harvard faculty is that they have jobs most people would kill for. You would think they would suck it up and get on with teaching their 10 hours of class per week if, in fact, their load is that heavy. But they don't know any better. So maybe you will join me in a campaign to cheer them up. I suggest we write letters telling them their situations aren't nearly as bad as those of laid-off factory workers, and that they have it good compared to the unemployed Dilberts of America's cubicle culture. We could even call upon school teachers to make these letters class projects. Perhaps the Harvard professors would be cheered by thousands of letters of support written in crayon by third graders.

With an endowment of $22 billion dollars, Harvard can't let its faculty slip into a blue funk. The university must get them back to work with a spring in their step and whistling a happy tune. Let's do what we can to help.

That concludes my talk, thank you and good evening. Thunderous applause builds to pandemonium until Dr. Pedagogue steps to the podium to announce: "Mr. Khol has left the auditorium."

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