Friday, February 01, 2008

Are There Still Eccentrics in Academia?

We lost a beloved member of our community at Gettysburg yesterday. Charlie Zabrowski, a professor of classics, specifically Greek, passed away from lung cancer. Charlie was unique. He taught in his academic robe. He said whatever he was thinking whenever he thought it. Even if it was not something one usually said in the particular context and even if it was not at a time when one usually said it.

I found out of his death from a colleague in the presence of a retired colleague who had been at the college for many years. Reflecting on the loss, he commented, "There went our last eccentric."

That comment stayed with me. Can you be an eccentric in higher ed anymore? Has the whole academy become so managed, so rigorous, so professionalized that the one place where one could actually be extremely strange and be comfortable that way been lost? The image of education has become based on the customer service model. The tenure and promotion process now focuses so much on research and publication that it forces hires that are safe. Can there be eccentric professors anymore?