The asylum has a new provost who may at heart be a very nice man and is making the academic rounds to introduce himself and—ahem—to get to know us. Provost means the chief academic officer, although in all fairness the “academic” should provost3.jpgfall in third place, being a CYA or even better a fig leaf to hide the shame of such pupenda as grade inflation, poor teaching skills, worse learning skills, and the fact that we accept fully 25% of students who have no business taking university courses in the first place. But I digress…

In a large department like ours by the time we’re done introducing ourselves, the meeting is pretty much over. Nothing of course is truly exchanged in an exercise in futility. The Head and the Provost indulge in triumphalism (“we being a first-class research institution and rated number 253 by US World and Weekly Coupons”) and a menacing exordium (“but we have GOT to do better”), and then the P for Provost looking at his watch asks if any of us have a concern or two he can address in three-point-two seconds. An instructor invariably speaks up saying she has taught in this department for nigh on thirty years now, OK? and it seems to me having been here that long, that students in general—now I’m not talking about your majors and your minors, OK? some of whom I am told are just fabulous—but being an instructor I teach the required first-year courses exclusively, so I cannot speak personally to the performance of students at the higher level, OK?—but in my almost thirty years of service to this department and to this university, I have never seen a sorrier group of individuals than my 101 students this semester and I—

This, says the P, is a concern that I’m sure we all share. And whether it’s that Generation X has now given way to Generation Me… the one thing to remember is that the world has changed since you and I were students… for the good and for the bad, I suppose… which is one reason technology has become so important in the classroom, so important… but the students and their families want to know, for example, what are we doing to keep up with the times? They see themselves now as consumers and us as offering a service, and the old subject matter doesn’t cut it anymore… they’re not interested in all that… what one student once told me was a bunch of dead white guys. So if we are to remain diverse and on the cutting edge, we’ve GOT to do better, people. We have got to do better…

One time I had the good fortune of sitting at the Twin Oaks with a pork chop sandwich when a church group piled in for barbecue, Disciples of Christ, I think, or maybe Nazarenes. I didn’t know but one or two by name, the point being that here comes Slick Weems who’d been in the legislature since God was young, and leaving his long black Cadillac in the shade he shook hands with everybody before plopping down at one of the picnic tables with the Nazarenes, or maybe they were Foursquare Gospel. It turned out to be some kind of more or less official visit arranged ahead of time by somebody, and Slick shoveled down the barbecue and beans and made the chit and the chat with the folks at his table, managed to squeeze the waitress by the wrist from time to time and call her darlin, and eventually they church group prevailed upon him for a speech. Up he went on his toes before rocking back on his heels, one thumb hooked in his shirt pocket, which was sky blue, and staring at the remains of the dead pig on his plate, he was thinking what to say, you could tell. He smoothed his red-white-and-blue American flag necktie and began to orate like I had never heard before. Every phrase had been honed to perfection, and every phrase had been set like a jewel into its sentence, and there was not one sentence that unrolled through the Twin Oaks without a gulp or a nod from the audience. Slick Weems knew how to say all the right things. Trouble was, the longer he orated, the more it struck me that none of those right things had much to do with all the other right things. He was just reaching way deep into his oratory pocket and pulling out handfuls of lint. And if I had interrupted my pork chop sandwich saying, Scuse me, Slick?—because everyone called him Slick, you had to—what is it exactly that you stand for? He would have bowed his head again, breathed mightily, looked up through his bushy eyebrows, and said with conviction: Absolutely!

I have marveled at such a strange and wonderful gift, and not talking Hitler here hypnotizing the masses or whatever, but the Babbitting of platitudes. And yet Babbitting sounds so pedestrian, so Sunday School and Rotary lunch. Slick did you proud, at least at first. But somewhere between Babbitt and Slick, there is a kind of academese I discovered the other day. And its name is Provosting.


One Response to “Provosting”

  1. It’s the same here. The university survives on political correctness, and the whole trick of political correctness is to offend no one. Now the only sure way to offend no one is to say nothing. Those who rise to administrative offices like the dean and the provost are those who have learned to say nothing in the most inoffensive way. That’s why they get paid so much more than the rest of us. When our new provost made the rounds he sat with the department of German, Russian and everything else. At the end he asked if anyone had a concern he might address. (They must follow a script.) A colleague of mine said she had a concern: parking. Why do we need to pay some $300 a year to park at work? He dropped his Mr. Nice Guy manner and looked her straight in the eye. “Do you know any other university that pays for employee parking?” She was speechless, expecting some bromide and receiving a slap-down.

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