Town vs. Gown: A Personal Memoir

America is awash in culture wars, but one of the least noticed yet most consequential is the hostility between the academy and business. More is involved than a gaggle of Marxist professors condemning capitalism. Academics, especially those in the social sciences and humanities, not only support the increasingly anti-business Democratic Party; their loathing is often personal, as if those who create wealth are evil doers dedicated to despoiling the environment, increasing global warming, and oppressing minorities. Many, to use an obscure term, suffer from oikophobia: hating the culture of one’s own people.

Meanwhile, if one were to ask Chamber of Commerce members about professors, few would offer kind words. For a speaker at the local Chamber, the most damning condemnation one can offer is to declare that an idea was “cooked up in the Sociology Department’s faculty lounge.” Eventually, these sentiments may grow more widespread and attract demagogues calling for “defunding the universities.” Doubters need only observe the angry parents who are disrupting school board meetings to express their outrage over university-manufactured Critical Race Theory. Peasants armed with pitchforks and torches may soon be on the march.

This conflict makes no sense. The academic and business worlds should not be at war. Surely academics must realize that their livelihoods depend on a vigorous economy. Without millions of small businesses and large corporations paying taxes, their paychecks would bounce, and classes would be held in dilapidated huts. Have those excoriating commerce ever considered the source of their school’s endowments? And, irony of ironies, countless academics come from business families where Mom and Pop slaved through 60-hour work weeks in their hardware store to support junior’s expensive forays into radical politics.

On the other side of the cultural divide are the business folk ridiculing pointy-headed academic nutjobs. Their behavior is just as foolish as that of the well-paid professors who denounce capitalism. Do the businessmen who criticize the academy realize that universities are what make a modern economy possible? It would be impossible to build an IT system or create a modern vaccine without the help of today’s slightly wacky Ivory Tower. Are they willing to kill off the entire enterprise due to a little lunacy emanating from the Department of Queer Studies?

What might explain this odd animosity? Are professors too dumb to realize that you should not bite the hand that feeds you? Are those in commerce oblivious to the role that higher education plays in a modern society? Where is Sigmund Freud when we need him? Call your office, Doctor.

[Related: “Professors, Think Tanks, and Chicken Flocks”]

Let me offer a personal snapshot that might shed light on this quandary—a little family therapy, so to speak. Some personal background. Almost by accident, I became a rare academic who functioned as a bona fide man of commerce for twelve years and regularly was called upon to handle the daily crises of a business. I passed in both worlds—people were genuinely surprised to learn of my “other” existence. Until I sold my business, I lived a double life.

Now to analyzing the animus. Why is it that the average business owner, the entrepreneur creating jobs, tax revenue, and the consumer choice that makes America the envy of the world, receives so little sympathy from the professoriate? The root cause, in my estimation, is that my fellow denizens of the university barely understand what it takes to run a business. Talk about stereotypes! My university colleagues may be able to mathematically model international conflict expertly, but when it comes to their grasp of day-to-day business, especially risk, their understanding resembles a seven-year-old’s knowledge of kinky sex. At best.

This misimpression is most striking in academics’ exaggeration of the monetary gains of the marketplace. The idea that most businesses fail seems beyond comprehension. When my fellow Ph.D.’s discovered that I owned a business, albeit a small Mom and Pop operation, they instantly assumed that I was wealthy. One colleague, a man with over three hundred public policy publications who lectured worldwide, even described me (totally erroneously) as “the richest man in the profession.” My biggest problem, “obviously,” was figuring out how to spend the newly acquired loot. I would tediously explain that maybe, just hopefully, the venture might eventually show a modest profit, but the conversation was pointless since he remained convinced that I was already a multi-millionaire.

Fellow business types, by contrast, intuitively knew otherwise. “Creative destruction” was for them painfully real. It was presumed, correctly, that new businesses struggle to survive and find direction and that the initial hope was simply to break even. Strained jokes about surviving the month and paying the sales tax went over big. Whereas my university colleagues saw commerce as “glamorous big bucks,” my business confederates easily regaled one another with catastrophe stories.

Profound disagreements also existed about what government did. As a professor of political science, I, like my colleagues, typically taught students that government was a positive force—it provided national defense, facilitated commerce, and, more recently, sought to make America a more just and equitable society. In other words, I taught the usual modern liberal view of government power.

Depicting government as a necessary evil, a potential oppressor, an enemy of liberty to be hobbled, was confined to lectures on constitutional history. (Or, more recently, a few references to police brutality or over-criminalization.) Government’s extractive side—taxes—was rarely mentioned. Many of my professor friends have undoubtedly spent their careers lecturing on everything from rebuilding cities to universal comprehensive healthcare without ever uttering the word “tax.

Ditto for classroom discussion of the regulatory state. For academics, the relentless growth of the administrative state brought progress. Bit by bit, executive order by executive order, government was advancing to bring heaven on earth, and only greedy businesspeople resisted. Why should those in the marketplace enrich themselves at the expense of the millions of people who need government help?

Fellow merchants hardly shared the vision of a benign, non-extractive state. For them, contact with the government was often painful and distasteful. My fellow retailers and I would endlessly play “can you top this” with stories about state incompetence, bureaucratic stupidity, and misguided policy. I quickly acquired a respectable collection of horror stories regarding building code violations, sign ordinances, tax screwups, and moronic municipal regulations. My tales of woe, such as a harebrained local missive asking that we mail all venders a statement telling them to be equal opportunity employers, went nowhere in a room full of academics.

Describing taxation to academic colleagues resembled communicating in ancient Sanskrit. Almost no professor regularly writes large checks to several government taxing agencies. Taxation for our learned sages is both comparatively modest and largely “invisible” due to payroll deduction and S & L escrow accounts. Classroom or scholarly analyses of high taxes are thus largely abstract. Imagine if professors, like business owners, had to monthly cough up $10,000+ for withholding, social security, unemployment, sales tax, property taxes, taxes on paid-in capital, and other sundry assessments? Further imagine that these end-of­-month tax payments simultaneously competed with bills for rent and food. America might well become a nation of educated and articulate tax protesters. In the meantime, however, my complaints about crushing taxes are disregarded as a reprehensible avoidance of a natural obligation.

Matters become worse when the subject turns to social policy. It would be futile, even dangerous, to explain to colleagues why such “good ideas” as six-month maternity leave, lavish mandatory insurance coverage, paid internship programs for inner city youth, and the like are a recipe for bankruptcy. My academic friends seemed to assume that “good social policy” could be easily implemented if only the greedy types in the private sector would “act responsibly.”

My university colleagues were particularly clueless regarding the difficulty of hiring competent staff given the local labor pool. Few had any real contact with this often troubled, “challenged” slice of humanity. I would patiently explain that, though I paid above the prevailing wage rate and provided fully-paid medical insurance, my generosity could not surmount stupidity, chronic alcoholism, laziness, or an inability to follow the simplest rules. My laments about struggling to find good help were undoubtedly perceived as a facade for prejudice and inhumanity. In university life, everyone seemed to believe in the existence of rampant private sector hiring discrimination; however, over many years and countless conversations with others in the business world, I never saw or heard of a single instance of this alleged bias. The need for competent employees trumped everything.

My fellow professors were particularly oblivious to the costs of crime, notably employee theft, shoplifting, and bad checks. It was a waste of breath to explain how I would have to sell a hundred dollars of merchandise to cover the cost of a stolen ten-dollar item. Perhaps they believed that criminality was necessary for poor people to survive in a capitalist economy. One otherwise sensible colleague, who advised foreign governments on military matters, explained over lunch that employee theft just reflected my “failure of executive leadership.”

The differences in the Weltanschauung in these two worlds was especially pronounced in perceptions of groups. For my fellow political scientists, the poorest of the poor, especially blacks, are fundamentally noble people who are trying to surmount a socially-dictated stacked deck, which includes everything from police violence to systemic racism. They are always the victims of evil, never its perpetrators. For many of my business colleagues, however, these impoverished people were their most troublesome customers.

In my clothing store, I came to cherish older rural people, who accounted for a sizable portion of our trade, as likable, honest, loyal, and well-behaved (and likely future Trump voters). I suspect that this population barely exists in the minds of professors who seek to conjure up all the “groups” in American society (women, blacks, Hispanics, gays, disabled people of color, etc.). Indeed, as a businessperson, I saw my gay employees as a regularly employed group enjoying a good life, not as grimly marginalized victims of mass homophobia.

[Related: “A Gay Bar of Our Own”]

Finally, almost all my academic colleagues grossly under-appreciated the resourcefulness required to survive in a fickle marketplace. To them, running an enterprise was not a serious, demanding occupation. Business, especially small business, was for “C” students who joined fraternities to drink beer and passionately followed TV hockey. That daily merchandizing decisions could be as intellectually demanding as, say, choices on research methodology was inconceivable. Any dolt could run a business.

And while I lack similar personal experience in the corporate world, I suspect that academics under-value the ingenuity necessary for success there as well, and thus succumb to envy and resentment when they hear of the high salaries of top executives. These managers may far out-earn even well-paid professors, all the while traveling in private jets and being chauffeured about in limousines, but hearing them speak will seldom impress academics who calibrate intellectual acumen by displays of trendy jargon. (Hardly surprising, of course, since executives’ public speeches and op-ed pieces are typically written by lower-level assistants inclined toward inoffensive platitudes.) Nor can senior management boast of long vitas that list publications in prestigious peer reviewed journals, the lingua franca of the academy.

The most notable accomplishments of CEO’s often seem trivial to those who cherish the life of the mind. Imagine professors evaluating an executive who earned millions in stock options by increasing ketchup sales by 25%. Consider also that many of today’s CEO’s and CFO’s enjoy reputations for making unpopular decisions, such as shuttering obsolete factories or replacing workers with machines. Further add that corporations often face lawsuits over racial and sexual discrimination. Then there are the executives who’ve earned their salaries in politically incorrect industries, such as fossil fuels, fast food, defense contracting, or gas guzzling cars. It is no wonder that academics feel morally superior to those in industry—no professor of sociology needs to worry about employing half-starved children to collect his research data in unsafe conditions in the Central African Republic.

What academics do not see, of course, is how corporate executives earn their “obscene” salaries and multi-million dollar stock options. Professors who listen to executives’ banal speeches are totally unaware of those executives’ administrative skills or track records of making the right choices under extremely tough conditions, let alone convincing others to embrace those decisions. Nor is credit given for the decades spent climbing up the corporate ladder and the personal sacrifices necessary to achieve such a lofty position. No doubt, many professors listening to a top CEO at a banquet for big donors will conclude that they too could easily earn $5+ million a year for boosting ketchup sales. Decolonizing the US Constitution is far more intellectually demanding than selling ketchup, so why should the CEO receive the big bucks?

All and all, the conflicts between the academy and the business world, whether small Main Street enterprises or big-time corporations, are unlikely to vanish any time soon. Neither side understands the other, and few participants in this conflict want to bridge the divide. Tax dollars will continue to subsidize academics who condemn those paying the bill. Meanwhile, businessmen at Chamber of Commerce after-hour events will continue to roar with laughter when speakers quote the latest pronouncements from Marginalized Queer Studies departments as if this gibberish defined the academy.

Perhaps we should privatize universities, turn them into stock corporations, and compel professors to buy shares instead of awarding them tenure and guaranteeing their salaries. All bills will be paid on the 30th of each month—but only if any money is left over from monthly receipts. Personnel policy, including promoting diversity, must have a clear-cut connection to cash flow. Meanwhile, unpopular courses and shopworn faculty will be closed out at fire sale prices, while professors will be required to visit high school cafeterias to drum up future customers.

Hopefully, these “real world” measures would help a few academics to appreciate Mom and Pop’s efforts at the hardware store that funded their college escapades. Who knows, under pressure to generate revenue, enterprising faculty might set up a retail store on campus selling only merchandise that is environmentally friendly, bio-sustainable, and manufactured in accordance with the strictest rules banning anything that somehow promotes racism, sexism, homophobia, able-ism, or lookism—all the while offering employees 180 days per year of paid maternity leave, plus other benefits dictated by the Office of Reimagining the University. Finally, intersectionality would dictate all staffing decisions so that the most historically oppressed minorities would be executives and the born-to-privilege white males would sweep the floors and make the coffee. What could possibly go wrong?


Image: Atharva Patil, Public Domain

Robert Weissberg

Robert Weissberg is a professor emeritus of political science at The University of Illinois-Urbana.

7 thoughts on “Town vs. Gown: A Personal Memoir

  1. Good piece, but “Where is Sigmund Freud when we need him?” No one has ever needed Sigmund Freud, or ever will.

  2. One thing that is blatantly obvious is people who propose radical (some would say anti-American) ideas are seldom affected by the results. The people who promote defunding the police live in crime-free, gated communities. Of course college professors will trash capitalism and promote marxism. So what if capitalism fails? They have tenure. They aren’t affected. Of course professors believe criminality is necessary for poor people to survive in a capitalist economy. They don’t own small businesses. It’s not THEIR stuff that is getting stolen. They have tenure. They aren’t affected.

    One change will stop this nonsense—eliminate tenure. I’m sick of hearing that it’s so necessary to protect academic freedom. Pure garbage. Nobody is going to stop you from studying anything you want. But without tenure, you’re going to have to sell it to keep that pay check coming in. If nobody takes your classes because they’re dumb, and people laugh at your ideas because they’re puerile, and the only “journals” that will publish your work are pay-to-play publications, then you aren’t contributing anything positive and are let go.

    And that’s the way it should be. Professors need to be affected—personally—by the ideas they promote.

    1. The three exceptions to tenure are moral tirpitude, lack of need, and financial exthnguancy.

      Tenure protects individuals, but entire programs can be elimimated. UMass elimated both the Home Economics & Physical Education programs. Both were once large programs ffeeding K-12, with Home Ec being a popular program for women pursuing the Mrs Degree.

      Tenured faculty in the programs either left, taught something else- or went into the admin.

      Union “bumping” rules protected them, but tenure didn’t.

    2. Patti hit this one out of the park. Academics defend tenure with the notion that without it, something unjust may happen, like a good professor being fired for political reasons. And, that will happen and life will go on. It won’t be perfect, but it won’t stop, just like it doesn’t stop when good professors are denied tenure for political reasons.

  3. Well stated, Comrade Bob! My family were working class people, some of them started hardscrabble businesses, I think my father was the first of all in the preceding generation to go to college, but they also had high respect for learning and academia. Perhaps that’s why I appreciate what you have to say. Alas, things are different now.

  4. Weissberg opines:

    It would be impossible to build an IT system or create a modern vaccine without the help of today’s slightly wacky Ivory Tower. Are they willing to kill off the entire enterprise due to a little lunacy emanating from the Department of Queer Studies?

    Why would one have to kill off the university in order to eliminate the “studies” departments? One could simple eliminate those. Universities could be split into centers of scientific research and engineering and everything else. If the physical sciences wanted to contract for “studies” courses, they could do so from the rump left behind by the split.

    The modern university is a vestige of the feudal system. An apt analogy is the American provision of health care through employers–we spend twice as much as other countries for less healthy outcomes, and it came about because health care provided by employers did not violate wage controls during World War Two. Alternatives to the university aren’t allowed because firms are prohibited from requiring general aptitude tests for employment purposes, so a university degree is a proxy for that.

  5. I find this surprising — what I have seen is a sense of “screw the students” entitlement.

    That both Town & Gown believed that the students existed to make them rich — very much a Jim Crow culture where students were expected to stay in their place.

    Even more than a tourist resort, it was felt that the students were a captive audience that would pay whatever they were charged, be it by the university, the local sltmlords (many of whom were professors), and local businesses.

    I never ceased to be amazed at how the purported Liberals cheated students — failed to pay wages. We won’t even get into COVID protocols…

    It will be interesting to see what happens whe the demographic bomb hits in 2026 but I saw something like Detroit in the 1970s, everyone getting rich and no one caring about the customers.

    Besides, most of the professors are themselves small businessmen — they have their own consulting agencies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.