Commentary: Sorry, Mitt. The faculty doesn't do much lounging

The Kansas City StarFebruary 15, 2012 

It was the morning after the Florida primary and a clip from Mitt Romney's victory speech came floating out of the car radio.

"Like his colleagues in the faculty lounge who think they know better, President Obama demonizes and denigrates almost every sector of our economy," the GOP front-runner declared. "I will make America the most attractive place in the world for entrepreneurs, for innovators and for job creators. And unlike the other people running for president …"

The faculty lounge? I drove on, thinking this was looking like a long day, a long year, another long, dumbed-down election season.

What is it about American politics that compels smart people to think that the way to connect with regular folks is to bash the people who helped them get smarter?

Poking around the Internet, I saw the Florida speech wasn’t the first time Romney had linked Barack Obama with the pointy-headed intelligentsia. Usually, he limits his disdain to the Harvard faculty.

“That may be what they think in that Harvard faculty lounge, but it’s not what they know on the battlefield!” the candidate told the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ national conference in August.

As a line of attack, that one is ever so curious. Romney himself has never seen combat, but he has seen a lot of Harvard. He earned graduate business and law degrees from there, and three of his five sons are Harvard grads. Some of his top advisers are of Harvard pedigree. Also, as news reports have noted, Romney has received some nice campaign contributions from the Harvard faculty.

But do university professors really sit around the faculty lounge denigrating the U.S. economy? Do all universities even have a faculty lounge?

I phoned Gary Ebersole, a professor of history and religious studies and chair of the faculty senate at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and asked his opinion on Romney’s comments.

“Some universities do have faculty lounges, but they are used mostly for alumni functions and the like,” he reported, once he’d stopped laughing. (UMKC doesn’t have a lounge, although the faculty sometimes sponsors events in the chancellor’s residence.)

“This notion of the faculty gathering at 3 in the afternoon to have a brandy is really quite funny,” Ebersole said. “Would that we had time to lounge somewhere.”

Online, I found a blog called “The Faculty Lounge.” Contributor Alfred Brophy, a law professor at the University of North Carolina, said the law school at Chapel Hill has a faculty lounge, but not the kind with dark wood panels and recliners.

“We have a little room that we call the faculty lounge,” Brophy said. “If you bring your lunch, you can go and eat there. It reminds me of the teachers lounge in my high school.”

Brophy noted that university professors are often cast in the role of the foil. In the movie “Dirty Harry,” a judge who moonlights as a constitutional law prof at (where else?) the University of Berkeley is called in to lecture Clint Eastwood about the constitutionality of his tactics.

“It’s a cartoon sketch, but I suppose it taps into something,” Brophy said. “There’s this image that you have the liberal, left-wing academy trying to brainwash students whose parents go into debt putting them through school.”

Romney’s remarks were on my mind last week when I attended a presentation at UMKC. By chance, it featured deans talking about some of the projects being undertaken by the faculty.

In the school of education, professors accompany students into city neighborhoods to get a look at the home lives of urban schoolchildren. Faculty and students in the schools of pharmacy and dentistry spent parts of their summer vacations helping out in tornado-wrecked Joplin. While Romney pledges to extend a hand to entrepreneurs, the faculty at the Bloch School of Business is miles ahead of him.

At just about every college and university, you’ll find highly engaged faculty members who are much more in touch with communities and ordinary people than — need I say it — presidential candidates. And notwithstanding the perception of universities as bastions of excess, faculty members in general are being asked to do more with less, especially at cash-strapped public institutions.

It would actually serve Romney well to spend some time in the faculty lounge — if he can find one.

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