Who are you calling stupid?

Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Professors Behaving Badly

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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Last week was a bad one for professors. First, Jonathan Gruber, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was raked over the coals by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee for referring to the “stupidity of the American voter.” Then, Ben Edelman, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, was excoriated on the Internet for demanding treble damages after a Chinese restaurant overcharged him $4 on a delivery.

If you’re a professor, especially one like me who has worked with the government and on occasion orders Chinese food, incidents like these are occasion for a little soul-searching. Beyond the obvious lesson to be humble -- or at least act humbly -- there's another message hiding: Professors are being held to a higher standard than civilians when it comes to public conduct. And that's a good thing.

Why did Gruber's comments, made at academic conferences, produce such a hostile reaction? Part of the answer is partisan. Republican operatives presumably started going through Gruber's appearances with a fine-toothed comb not because they were trying to embarrass him but because he had made public comments relevant to the new Supreme Court challenge to the Affordable Care Act. (Gruber had suggested, I think incorrectly, that the law was intentionally drafted to coerce states into creating their own insurance exchanges by disallowing tax credits should the exchanges be created by the federal government on the states’ behalf.) Searching for fodder that might help shape public opinion in advance of the Supreme Court arguments, someone found Gruber speaking in a colloquial fashion not unfamiliar in academic circles.

But what, exactly, made Gruber such an appealing target that an entire House committee hearing would focus on his choice of words? Yes, he could be described as an “architect” of Obamacare, a description which even if imprecise would attach him to the Barack Obama administration. But once Gruber was in front of the committee, Republicans and Democrats hastened to pile it on, subjecting Gruber to something like the collective scolding of the nation for the “arrogance” of explaining that the individual mandate was actually a tax but that the Obama administration had hoped the public wouldn’t see it that way.

The answer, I think, is that Gruber is a professor -- and a professor at a fancy university to boot -- and that made him especially vulnerable to the charge of arrogance. Professors teach, which implies that they have knowledge that students don't, at least at the beginning of the semester. American egalitarianism makes us suspicious of claims to greater knowledge, and so it satisfies our populism to put a professor in his place. Yet there's more to it than that. We want professors not to condescend, because we want professors to be caring, committed teachers. Professors are supposed to be motivated by the desire to see that students are smart and can be taught -- which is why it's so devastating for a professor to refer to the public as stupid.

A version of the same higher standard applies to Edelman. Would it be a story if some jerk wrote a snippy e-mail to a Chinese restaurant? No, it wouldn't, not even if the writer went to law school, as Edelman did. In fact, we kind of expect lawyers to be jerks in precisely this way.

What got Edelman subjected to a national scolding was the fact that he is a professor -- and at Harvard.

Edelman appeared to be using his professorial knowledge to bully a small business owner. Never mind that the knowledge had nothing to do with his teaching or research expertise. As a professor, he was expected to use his knowledge to enlighten, not to threaten. His conduct was therefore outrageous precisely because we believe he had a special responsibility not to act superior and not to use knowledge as a club to beat the less well-informed.

Let me be clear: I think it's great that professors are being held to higher standards than others might be under the same circumstances. The reason isn't just that professors might be prone to arrogance. I believe the higher standards reflect an underlying assumption that most professors most of the time are actually trying their best to use their knowledge in service of the public good.

This helps explain why, of all our public institutions, universities tend to be among the most highly respected. The job of the university is to discover truths, create knowledge and help us interpret the world to answer the hardest questions we face. Whatever the limitations of U.S. universities in fulfilling these goals -- and there are lots of them -- the public believes that we are trying.

The opinion seems to be shared around the world. Relatively few countries seek to imitate American primary or secondary education. Yet many countries seek branches of American universities to be opened on their own territory. Many of the best students from all over the world come to study in U.S. universities; and many of them stay.

So be glad that we are holding professors to the highest standards. It’s a sign that we believe in the special mission of higher education -- and in the people who pursue it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net