Melancholy in the Academy

By Snyder, Martin D. | Academe, May/June 2012 | Go to article overview

Melancholy in the Academy


Snyder, Martin D., Academe


IT'S HARDLY NEWS to anyone that higher education is under siege. That's painfully clear. Selfserving politicians, self-righteous ideologues, and self-delusional bean counters are all demanding their pounds of flesh from our increasingly emaciated institutions. It's hard not to be discouraged. Moreover, the Lilliputian stature of our leaders both in government and on our campuses does little to inspire confidence or dispel gloom. As the writer and translator Lin Yutang once wrote, "When small men begin to cast big shadows, it means that the sun is about to set."

Under these circumstances, it's easy to become despondent and imitate the figure of Melancholy in Albrecht Dürer's famous 1514 engraving. Surrounded by symbols of intellectual accomplishment, she sits brooding, unable to take action using the tools at her disposal. Dürer's depiction of Melancholy is universally praised as a masterpiece of the engraver's art. I cannot recommend it, however, as a strategy for addressing the problems we face in the academy.

What, then, to do? Columnist Frank Bruni in his March 17, 2012, New York Times op-ed piece, "The Living after the Dying," suggests a strategy. Describing How to Survive a Plague, a new documentary about the history of the AIDS epidemic, Bruni notes the keys to a successful activist strategy: "While the movie vividly chronicles the wages of bigotry and neglect, it even more vividly chronicles how much society can budge when the people exhorting it to are united and determined and smart and right."

We denizens of the academy are a brainy bunch. We have the tools at our disposal to address any crisis, most especially a crisis in education. We need to employ those skills to get the facts and understand what's going on. The AAUP can help. Use the Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, published in the March-April issue of Academe, to get the facts on salaries and compensation at your own institution and its peers. Check out the AAUP's website for helpful answers to frequently asked questions on financial analysis. In short, do what we tell our students: research the issues carefully and arm yourself with the facts. …

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