Lean on me (or why blogging matters, especially for faculty).

“Nice project [career, job] there son, shame if something happened to it” …

That is the implied message I got a bit a year ago from an intermediary passing along comments from a local appointed official serving other local appointed officials unhappy with comments I made in a newspaper article inspired by a post on this blog. (The local appointed official came out smelling like roses in this article, the local officials he worked for did not). Of course it wasn’t put in quite those words, and they don’t even fund me. (The lead appointed official this appointed official worked for was subsequently not renewed).57411306

I have heard similar comments from others who blog and work in a relatively small network within a particular industry, and fears of the same from those who would like to blog but won’t. This is a problem. The people who know the field best, those who work on it day in and day out, are afraid to speak.

Dude, I am a professor. I have tenure. I have a salary. The only people you can hurt (unless you can actually get me fired for free speech, which I doubt – I imagine the University of Minnesota faculty would have something to say), are graduate students, who won’t get funding if you cut off that avenue.

My job, and the reason I have tenure, are to say things that might not be politically “savvy”. This is why I am hired by the University and why the University has a tenure system, and why it receives a modicum of funding from the People of Minnesota.

If I were to only say things that were “Rah, Minnesota” and pat ourselves on the back (1) No one would read this blog*, (2) No change would ever occur, (3) I would be derelict in my duties.

There are of course plenty of people paid to say things like “Rah, Minnesota”. We build whole stadiums (we build fleets of stadiums in fact, and we have the newest fleet of stadia of any City in North America) to pat ourselves on the back and feel the joy of the one-ness of life in the barren wilderness of the North, the provincial capital of the only region on planet Earth not getting warmer due to “Global Warming”.

If things were perfect, and I were just a curmudgeon who did not acknowledge the perfection of our society, perhaps I should be ignored. [Does a perfect society tolerate or contain a curmudgeon? ] I think evidence however is that we live in a less than perfect society, and while we may disagree on the nature of the imperfection or its solution, few argue the Panglossian case. The causes of the imperfection are not just the symptoms, but the underlying structures that produce the symptoms. This includes things like Governance. This is not simply a technology problem (in fact, much of it is not a technology problem – though there may be technologies that can route around the political problems).

Now the “savvy” professor who only says the right things to patrons may get more money, or more promotions into administration (which obviously many of us are capable of (and most of us think we could do a better job than those in those administrative positions – whether or not that’s true), but who really wants to deal with more bureaucratic processes than we already do). In a field which is sufficiently technical, this may be fine. In pure sciences like chemistry, one assumes that discovering a new element ruffles few political feathers (though undoubtedly there are all sorts of intra-chemistry politics). Yet even seemingly “technical” breakthroughs like fracking have many social consequences, just look at the price of fuel.

Transportation is a socio-technical system. A savvy professor who does not touch the “socio” aspects of the systems, will leave no mark upon the social systems of the world that govern the technology.  Tenured faculty have an obligation to  speak truth to power, even if it is outside their nominal domain.

  • There are lots of boring institutional websites and blogs. I won’t name and shame.