Breaking: Where The Professors Are!

TUESDAY, JUNE 18, 2013

At long last, the Times explains: For years, we’ve asked a basic question:

Where the Professor Harold Hill are the nation’s top academics?

We began to ask this question in the mid-1990s. We watched the “press corps” struggle, for two solid years, to answer a rather basic question:

Did Newt Gingrich’s Medicare plan call for “Medicare cuts,” as President Clinton was saying? Or would Gingrich’s plan simply “slow the rate at which the program would grow?”

This question turned out to be much too hard for our professional “press corps.” Night after night, pundits presented the two parties’ talking points on Crossfire.

None of our “journalists” had the smarts to straighten this question out.

Where the heck were the nation’s professors, we began to wonder. Our universities were crawling with so-called logicians. Why didn’t one of them untangle the logic of this mess in a New York Times op-ed?

Back then, the professors didn’t help. Today, the professors stare into space as “journalists” and academics take turns making gross misstatements about the standing of American students on international and domestic tests.

Where are the star professors? This morning, finally, on page one, the New York Times explains! As she starts, Ariel Kaminer sketches the outline of a new feature film—Where The Professors Are:
KAMINER (6/18/13): N.Y.U. Gives Its Stars Loans for Summer Homes

Follow one of Fire Island’s quaint footpaths away from the ferry dock, past modest cottages and better-appointed vacation homes, to an elegant modern beach house that extends across three lots. A composition in bold, unadorned planes, it has a perimeter of green and two separate entrances, each outfitted with the long ramps that are the local custom.

Its most interesting feature, however, is not architectural, but financial. The house, which is owned by John Sexton, the president of New York University, was bought with a $600,000 loan from an N.Y.U. foundation that eventually grew to be $1 million, according to Suffolk County land records. It is one of a number of loans that N.Y.U. has made to executives and star professors for expensive vacation homes in areas like East Hampton, Fire Island and Litchfield County, Conn., in what educational experts call a bold new frontier for lavish university compensation.
If you want to know where the professors are, they seem to be off at their homes in the Hamptons, where they’re exploring “a bold new frontier for lavish university compensation.”

In theory, of course, there’s nothing automatically wrong with overpaying professors. In theory, overpaid professors might be inspired to heighten their public service.

But that’s where our long-standing question comes in: What have these overpaid professors done for us lately? The Times report describes bloated compensation for “star professors” at NYU. But can you name any such professor? Can you name any service these star professors have ever provided the public?

Two Sundays ago, it was a pair of Gotham professors who made a groaningly bogus statement in a front-page report in the Sunday Review. Can you name the star professor from NYU who came forward to correct the manifest groaner authored by their colleagues?

No you can’t—and now we know why. The star professors were all too busy at their summer homes!

Here at THE HOWLER, we know of no group that has failed to serve as visibly as our professors. There is no Standard Misstatement so egregious that a star professor will get off his ass and challenge it in a major newspaper. Lazy, uncaring, unhelpful and dumb, our “star professors” are more likely to invent our Standard Group Nonsense than they are to correct it.

Just think Reinhart and Rogoff! To which we can now add the names Hacker and Dreifus!

In theory, there’s nothing automatically wrong with overpaying these stars. As she continues, Kaminer describes the process by which their compensation has grown at NYU
KAMINER (continuing directly): N.Y.U. has already attracted attention for the multimillion-dollar loans it extends to some top executives and professors buying homes in New York City, a practice it has defended as necessary to attract talent to one of the most expensive cities on earth...

Universities in similar circumstances, like Columbia and Stanford, also have helped professors and executives with home loans. Aid for vacation properties, however, is all but unheard-of in higher education, several experts in university pay packages say.

“That’s getting to be a little too sexy even for me, and I have a good sense of humor about these things,” said Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, a former president of George Washington University who has publicly defended high salaries for professors and university executives. “That is entertaining, actually. I don’t think that’s prudent. I don’t mind paying someone a robust salary, but I think you have to be able to pass a red-face test.”
Why has Trachtenberg defended those “robust salaries?” Perhaps because his own salary stood at $3.7 million when he retired from GWU, according to the foremost authority on such practices.

In theory, there’s nothing wrong with swag like that, but what do these slackers do to earn it? Why did none of these people step forward to explain the legitimate practice of paraphrase when Candidate Gore was being paraphrased to his eventual death? Why have none of these people risen up to present the actual data about American student performance?

Why did none of these useless cash cows explain that Social Security wasn’t actually going “bankrupt” during the thirty years when the public was being aggressively conned about such matters? When will one of these double home-owners explain the massive overspending—the looting—in our American health care?

Almost surely, they never will. The Krugmans are few and far between. Today, though, we can finally say this:

The silence of the rest of the lambs can finally be explained. Where The Professors Are, the film, will feature some long winding lanes.


  1. Amazing, these folks have no sense of decency or shame.

  2. This is silly. "Star professors" of the kind reported on here, along with many overpaid administrators, are resented more by other professors than by anyone else when these stars' earnings outstrip anything they contribute professionally or in the form of public service. Most of the NYU faculty are fed up with the sort of thing reported on here (see their recent vote of no-confidence in the president who has promoted these mortgage programs and related policies).

    Meanwhile, across the country, many professors, star and otherwise, DO contribute their expertise (specific or general) in the form of public service, from working with local elementary and secondary schools and serving on local school boards, finance committees, affordable housing boards (you name it), to writing columns for local papers and doing interviews on local radio stations, to writing columns for national newspapers. Even "stars"! Heard of Paul Krugman? Stanley Fish? As for law professors, heard of Barry Scheck? Or Jeffrey Rosen (who appeared last night on a Stephen Colbert show repeated from last week)? Not to mention the blogs lots of academics maintain, especially the "star" academics, e.g., Marc Lynch on the Middle East. Any reporter should be able to track these blogs down if she is looking for sources of expertise. Most of the time, the reporters, and/or their editors, are not interested in doing so.

    The danger of the kind of screed Bob S. presents here is that it will contribute to the general public's picture of college professors as leading cushy, self-indulgent lives. I was glad to see today's article because, at last, the NYT is giving attention to some negatives of the NYU administration that is bent on destroying Greenwich Village with its massive building programs -- resistance to which expansion has been led by, among others, NYU professors with relevant expertise. (About time the NYT started catching up with events reported on regularly not just by the Village Voice but the likes of The Daily News.)

    1. Not really much chance of this site's affecting "the general public's picture" of much of anything, is there?

    2. Perhaps if they didn't lead cushy, self-indulgent lives, there wouldn't be much of a danger.

      No, the real danger is that these people become disconnected from the cares the rest of the population faces each day -- in other words, the real danger is that they become like Washington journalists and politicians, and corporate honchos. There's more than enough of that already.

    3. til, do you have the faintest idea of the average salary of a tenured professor? of the average professor's teaching load? hours of work? And why assume that even a well-paid professor, who can focus as much on research as on teaching, has no relatives out of work or friends without health insurance? That a liberal-left professor has no family who are "pro-life" zealots? And so forth. This gets so tiresome. My point that Bob S.'s screed might contribute to misapprehensions of professors' lives: made, by you.

  3. Quaker in a BasementJune 18, 2013 at 5:21 PM

    Before you know it, professors will be getting paid like football coaches.

  4. Not just professors. Where were the doctors and lawyers?

  5. The more I think about Bob's complaint, the sillier it becomes. The president himself is a former professor!! Talk about a professor deciding to come down from the ivory tower and get involved in public life . . . and shape the political discourse along the way, obviously. And Somerby implies that Rogoff has been a negative academic presence in public life, but he has done a lot of good work, for example on income inequality and shooting down the Romney's campaign bullshit about how the recovery under Obama had been slow in historical terms. And though Krugman is only one person, he is one of the most influential political commentators in the world right now. And just think of all the academics who served under Clinton, and the ones who worked for Obama, including Austan Goolsbee, Ben Bernanke, and Larry Summers. Also, Somerby has no way of knowing how many op-eds are submitted by academics to newspapers but are never published for whatever reason. Plus, just off the top of my head...there's Brendan Nyhan, Teresa Ghilarducci, George Lakoff, Juan Cole, Brad DeLong, Joseph Stiglitz, Duncan Black, Aaron Edlin, Scott Lemieux and all the other academics writing on his blog, Robert Reich, all of the global warming academics who try to combat misinformation about global warming (people like the brilliant Naomi Oreskes, and the people who run the Skeptical Science website), Simon Johnson, all of the academics who have been featured on Point of Inquiry over the years,.... And Bob, I don't know if you know about it, but your alma mater, which you seem to especially loathe, has a special project called the Scholars Strategy Network, which tries to do the very thing you're calling on academics to do: clarify the facts about various issues important for the public good. The problem is not that there aren't enough academics getting involved, it's that they just aren't all that good at political messaging, may not be as savvy as you when it comes to "narratives" in the media, and/or have too small a platform to influence things.

    1. But...they're all just bloggers, not Real Experts. Real Experts don't have blogs.

      Their problem is not that they aren't savvy about messaging or that their platform is too's that their messages are in opposition to the real power in this country. Big Money is king here and will brook no opposition.

  6. Bob, if you want to see a group of academics trying to get their voices heard, check this out:

  7. Even better, check this out (list of over 200 academics, mostly professors, from all over the country):

  8. Oh, and I forgot Elizabeth Warren! Harvard prof. who initially just joined the public discourse (writing books, doing interviews), and ended up as senator.

  9. To support Mike L's contribution:
    Most colleges and universities ask their professors to provide a list of areas where they'd be willing/happy to be consulted by the press. The Public Information office collates these lists and provides them to various press outlets, and often publishes them on the college/university website. How often do journalists use this kind of resource?
    From columns to letters-to-the-editor, professors frequently try to get their views published in major news outlets but are seldom successful. Conservative "think-tanks," by contrast, have been very successful in diverting journalists' attention from actual academics.
    Journalists' rolodex is very limited despite the attempts of individual academics and their institutions to enlarge it.

  10. many professors submit pieces to the NY Review of Bks (David Cole, for example). and presumably many of the writers, editors, etc., at the Columbia Journalism Review are professors. (is this horse dead yet?)

  11. "Krugman ... is one of the most influential political commentators in the world right now."

    How I wish it were true. It sure seems like our elected leaders never follow his advice.

  12. Krugman is probably the most widely read, discussed, and "shared" writer at one of the world's most influential news organizations. He appears frequently on TV -- This Week, PBS Newshour, Charlie Rose, Jon Stewart, Colbert, Maddow, Morning Joe, ...? He has for several years ranked at the very top of Mediaite's list of most influential columnists:
    He was on the cover of Newsweek a few years ago for being a prominent critic of U.S. economic policy, which prompted the president of the most powerful/influential country in the world to invite him to the White House for a conversation. He has been the most prominent spokesman for the "anti-austerity" school of thought both here and in Europe. He is read by most major economists, including people in government like Larry Summers. I would say all of that probably makes him "one of the most influential political commentators in the world right now."

  13. Oh, sorry, I thought you meant "influence" - as in affecting actual policy, not just water-cooler talk.

    1. Just so.

      We hear Lassie barking and barking, so she must be very influential.

      What? She was actually trying to tell us something??

    2. "influential" doesn't just mean "affects government policy" -- that's a pretty narrow, idiosyncratic definition of the word, which you won't find in any dictionary. but it helps your argument, so I understand. you must save face. but by the way, krugman's ideas may very well influence policy. the fact that so many Dems and people within the administration, including Obama himself, read krugman might have played a roll in their pushing for the stimulus (the too-small [according to krugman] size of which wasn't dictated by the majority of Dems but by political limitations imposed by Republicans and small handful of bluedog Dems), for the healthcare bill, and for the new wall street regulations.

    3. now that I think about it, Krugman might have an influence on policy in another, less-direct way: by influencing VOTERS...both directly (through his writing and through his tv appearances), and indirectly through his influence on other political commentators, editors, think tanks, political activists/organizers, etc. all of those things I originally listed are really just indicators of influence.

    4. Boy, I was just bemoaning the fact that almost all world leaders do not follow his, in my opinion, mostly correct theories.

    5. Yes, he's little heeded.

      Pretending that the mere fact of a stimulus could be due to Krugman's supposed influence is really a pathetic move on the part of Mike L.

      The mention of various other "indicators of influence" is really just a list, presented with no evidence at all that any particular listed group has been "influenced" by Krugman's thinking at all.

      Have Krugman's ideas materially affected or altered (my dictionary's definition of influenced) the thinking of any of these groups? Mike L., Newsweek and Mediaite don't give us any reason to should think so.

      He's published (one is tempted to say he's tolerated) -- but very little of his arguments show any penetration into mainstream political thought regarding the economy.