The Guilty Pleasures of an Endowed Professor
My Adventure at the Very Top of the Academic Food Chain
By Sam Minner

From the March 2002 AAHE Bulletin

 


After 17 years in higher education spent in various faculty and administrative positions, I was ready for a change. I was not unhappy with my job, but I have never had a long professional attention span and I wanted a new challenge. As I scanned vacancy announcements, I came across a position that I had never considered, and indeed had never dreamed of — an endowed professorship. 

I had known a few endowed professors over the years and my perceptions of them were not all that positive. They seemed to be of two types. Some were people who had done wonderful and important things, but were considerably past their prime. They wore tweed coats and quietly worked in offices where a lifetime of books and papers were stacked in precarious piles. They stared out of their office windows for long periods of time. When I was younger I had assumed that they were thinking great thoughts or working out some difficult problem. Later I realized that they were . . . well, just staring out of their windows. I was too young for that, or so I reasoned.

It was even more impossible to see myself as the second type of endowed professor — the cutting edge and internationally known scholar who is well known among other academics and perhaps even crosses over into the popular consciousness and appears on “Oprah” or early morning news shows. I knew I was not of that caliber nor was I interested in appearing on “Oprah.” But perhaps there was an opportunity for a seasoned veteran (but not old) scholar who was known to a few other academics (but of no interest to the general public) to work as an endowed professor? Wouldn’t that be just great?

The endowed professorship was a unique one. The wealthy gentleman for whom it was named stipulated that the appointment be for no longer than five years. Apparently he reasoned that this would allow the institution to have a continuous infusion of new ideas and fresh perspectives. That sounded good, but I had never applied for a position knowing from the very beginning that I would be leaving no later than a predetermined date. I had some misgivings about this but I applied anyway, was interviewed, and won the job. I was an endowed professor. As a close colleague said, I was now at the very top of the academic food chain!

My Office
The first very pleasant surprise I encountered pertained to the space I would occupy while at work. Like most academics, I had worked in many offices that were less than light, airy, and spacious. My new digs were wonderful. A small reception area led to a very large private office with a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the campus and, in the distance, pine-covered mountains. The desk was new and large. The credenza was actually larger than some of the offices I had occupied in the past. Indeed, I had never even had a credenza before. 

The office was complete with a small conference table with four chairs, a powerful computer, two phones, a fax machine, and decent budget to, as the dean suggested, “tailor the space to my individual needs.” I just loved the sound of that phrase and I set about tailoring immediately, adding some nice prints, which were hung on the freshly painted walls, a cabinet to place on top of my very own credenza, and a brass nameplate, which hung prominently on the outer door. To put it bluntly, I had never experienced such a pleasant and classy workspace in my life. It was heaven

Poets have debated the demarcation between heaven and hell for centuries. My own personal heaven quickly took on a certain hellish quality when a senior member of the faculty strode into my office, looked around my first-class digs, and asked me just who in the heck I thought I was to warrant such treatment. This happened my third day on campus. This colleague, an individual who had worked at the institution for many years, felt that it was important that I “hear the history” of the new position and that I understand “not everyone is very happy about the fact that you have so much and the real faculty have so little.” According to this individual, my office was the single most significant bone of contention among the faculty. It was too large, too elegant, too well equipped, and, on top of everything else, I had that incredible window and real wood furniture (as opposed to his pressed wood desk and bookcase). 

Although I had been warned of the possibility of some degree of collegial envy or even jealousy, I was not prepared for such a direct confrontation. My ineffective and rather pathetic retort was to suggest that the benefactor who had endowed the position expected that the holder of the chair would work in nice surroundings and finally, that I was not certain that my furniture was solid wood after all. I suggested that it could be some type of wood laminate or possibly solid wood on top, but pressed wood otherwise. Even I had to admit that, for an endowed professor, that response was really lame. I decided that I would have to work on a snappier retort, which would convince everyone of my superior intellectual ability and justify the window, the wood desk, and all of the other wonderful accouterments in my domain.

My Staff
The second pleasant surprise I encountered was that a graduate student and some student workers (notice the plural) would be working with me and only me. I was informed that I could ask these people to do whatever I pleased, from mundane clerical and office duties to assistance with my writing and research. The graduate assistant would work 30 hours per week, student workers 20 hours. The phone was fixed so that anyone calling me first had to speak with my GA. Individuals coming in to see me had to get by her. She would then call me (which was utterly ridiculous since we were about 10 feet from each other) and ask if I was “available.” If I was, in a very professional voice she indicated to the visitor that “Dr. Minner will see you now.”

What a change this was. Like most faculty members, I was accustomed to colleagues just dropping by for a chat. Students without appointments would crowd into my windowless and cramped office, sit on rickety chairs (probably pressed wood), and explain to me why their assignments would be a bit late. My professional life had changed and once again, my initial perception of the change was quite positive. My work environment was quiet, orderly to a fault, and for the first time in my professional life I had large blocks of time to think, write, and reflect. 

However, these advantages also had a downside. Given the gauntlet people had to navigate in order to see me, relatively few did so. Invitations to lunch were few and far between. When my new colleagues did see me, our interactions were quite formal, even stilted. The few students who made their way to my office and negotiated the highly protective GA, who took it upon herself to limit my interactions with others, seemed terrified of me. 

My Work
The assigned duties of my new position were few and simple. Each term I was to teach a one-hour seminar. I was to “reach out” to faculty members to collaborate with them on their teaching and research. Finally, I was to try to win external funds to further the mission of the institution. 

The one-hour class could be on any topic of my choosing. I carefully designed a course focusing on issues of power and hegemony in social contexts. I selected some key readings and prepared some lectures and discussions, which I hoped would be intellectually stimulating and challenging.

My class was rigorous, but I hardly felt that it was unreasonably so. Some of my students disagreed and disagreed vociferously and publicly. Although I worked with many superlative students, a good many seemed to be woefully underprepared for graduate work. I vividly remember one student who proclaimed that he had never read an entire book while in graduate school and added that he was not about to break that record while enrolled in my class! Student complaints were common and I thought it an interesting irony that I, the person who was charged with assisting the faculty with teaching, was the one frequently asked to discuss student complaints behind closed doors with the dean. 

The “reaching out to faculty” component of my job also presented some interesting opportunities and challenges. Although I had plenty of time for writing and research, most of my colleagues did not. Many of them taught four classes each term. A few taught more. The institution, like so many comprehensive, state-supported schools, was going through a kind of midlife crisis and expectations regarding the importance of scholarship were not always explicit or uniformly applied.

A few faculty members, mostly at the junior rank, spent long hours with me as we devised studies, wrote manuscripts, and tried to get them published. We were often successful, but I often wondered about the real value and utility of our successes. A good number of my collaborators privately disclosed that they were primarily interested in working with me in order to build their resumes and move to what they perceived as better positions with higher salaries at other colleges. I doubted that this was the administration’s desired result of my work.  

My efforts to win grants and contracts were also mixed. I found it extremely difficult to “get connected” to the institution and the needs and interests of the constituencies served by the school. A major project was funded by a private foundation. An application to a federal agency, which I had a history of success with, was not. A technology grant was approved. This was interesting as I actually had little expertise in the area of technology. 

I did the best I could, but concentrated on rather short-term projects. I thought it unwise to begin multiyear projects knowing that I would be unable to see them through completion. I was constantly on the lookout for possible sources of funding, but when I entered the terms “lots of money” and “begin and end the project in one year” with topics I knew at least something about, the search engine produced few hits. 

My Reflections
I remained in the endowed position for three years before deciding that yet another change was in order. I returned to the administrative ranks and have had more than a year to think about and reflect upon my time as an endowed professor. Those years were certainly among the most interesting of my career. 

I must confess that I enjoyed the large window, the personal assistance of the graduate student and student workers, and the incredibly small number of required duties. However, even that job had its own challenges and constraints. There were days when I would have gladly given up the large office and real wood desk for a small cubicle at the end of the hall and the opportunity to more powerfully engage my colleagues in meaningful conversation. I often felt bad about having access to a graduate assistant when so many of my colleagues struggled to meet the incredible demands of their work.  

I also had many problems with the rather temporary nature of my job. I knew that I would not be in the job for very long. My colleagues knew that as well. I found it difficult, sometimes excruciatingly so, to not get involved in the meaty curricular and governance issues swirling around me. But as one of my colleagues informed me, I really didn’t “have a dog in the fight.” 

However, many pleasant memories remain: Big blocks of time to think things through. Interactions with new colleagues as we discussed interesting ideas and projects. Teaching students things I was passionate about.  

For three full years I experienced a special kind of faculty life few of my colleagues have ever known. I was pampered. Indeed, I was privileged. I had the kind of life most academics only dream about. It was a wonderful experience and one I will always be grateful for. And, of course, I had the huge window and that desk, which before I left, I thoroughly examined. It was not real wood after all.  

Yes, I can say I was truly once at the very top of the academic food chain. It was great and I would recommend it to anyone who has a similar opportunity. But I have learned that even being in such a lofty position comes with its own challenges and problems. Maybe its my blue collar background or my first-generation-college/state-school-is-good-enough/you’re-not-better-than-anyone-else-and-don’t-think-you-are pedigree, but for me, being a bit further down the food chain is so much more comfortable.



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