It’s late summer, the leaves are beginning to look a bit bedraggled, and my university is filled with loud and very enthusiastic students … walking backwards.
Yes, this is the time for prospective students and their mildly anxious parents to visit universities and colleges in preparation for the annual ritual of application filing. And part of that ritual is walking behind a backwards-walking student guide extolling the virtues of their incipient alma maters. All libraries are world class, all dormitories are world class, all professors are world class, and the sun never sets on the winning football, basketball, and parchesi teams.
Many years ago, and for an incredibly short period of time, I was one of these guides, responsible for discussing the science program with our guests. In a moment of great moral clarity -- or more likely in a moment when my blood testosterone concentration had reached truly dangerous levels -- I decided to try something different: I would give my charges an honest appraisal of my institution.
“Coming to the university is a two-edged sword,” I intoned. “Generally, it seems that our professors were treated poorly as children and are trying to prove something to the rest of world. The benefit of that is that none of our professors wrote their lecture notes 35 years ago and have never updated them.”
But,” I continued, “This is a research institution first and a teaching institution second. I had an organic chemistry professor here who, on our first day of class, announced, ‘They are forcing me to teach you people.’ And when the surf was good, he didn’t show up. On the other hand,” I declaimed, “he brought in over a million dollars a year in grants and it’s likely that if he had wanted to set fire to the admin building, the chancellor would have handed him the match.”
After my part of the campus tour, several parents shook my hand and thanked me for the only unscripted account they had heard that day.
My tenure as a guide lasted about 37 minutes. The Powers That Be took me in hand and said, “You are upsetting some of the parents. We just can’t have this kind of controversy here at the University,” a nice example of what we might now consider organizational cognitive dissonance.
Looking back, it was all to the good – at best I was mediocre at walking backwards and would likely have damaged an Achilles tendon tripping over an illegally parked bicycle.
Milton Love is a marine biologist at UC Santa Barbara. His latest book is the copiously illustrated and breezily written Certainly More Than You Want to Know about the Fishes of The Pacific Coast.