Saturday, August 7, 2010

Power vs. influence

There was an incident at my University last year that made me start thinking of people in positions of power differently. Someone who is pretty high up at my school (I won't mention names) basically used his position of power to oppress a student who had an opinion that wasn't convenient to the administration. It got me wondering if it's possible to have such a position and not let the power corrupt you.

Only a nerd like me would liken real life to the Lord of the Rings, but the things Tolkien wrote about are so real-life at the end of the day. Denethor basically steals the throne and basks in the glory of it while his people (not to mention his family life) go out the window. And then there's Aragorn. He doesn't want to be king, he doesn't think he can do it, and he would be content to live a simple life with the elven wife for all of his days. And yet when he came to grips with his place on the throne, he was an amazing king, the kind of person that others looked at and wanted to emulate. They didn't feel scared of him or controlled by him. He ruled by influence.

I once knew a man like that. His name was Joe. He was the head of a company I used to work for (let's just say I was about 10 ranks below him) and he was maybe the kindest, most caring and compassionate person I'd ever met. But he was also passionate about what he did. He was a positive person. He believed in touching people's lives instead of living in a mansion and laughing at those who were less fortunate than he was. Everyone in the company wanted to be like Joe, and yet none of us felt intimidated by him. It helped that he was the first to get his hands dirty whenever the chance arose.

It seems like Joe was a rare breed. As much of a cliche as this is, power really does corrupt people. Seriously. It leads teachers to fail students "just because I can". It makes cops instigate arguments with innocent bystanders and then arrest them when they talk back. But when all's said and done, as scared as we may be of people who abuse their power, none of us really want to be like them. Why? Because what they have isn't real. Power comes and goes, and when the power is gone and you've got nothing left to show for it, that's a really miserable place to be.

The guy who runs my university scares me. And with that fear, I have an intense dislike (perhaps even hatred) for him because of the things he's done. He stands for awful things and yet he's running the best-respected University in my city. So people who attend the University have two options: they leave the University and go elsewhere (out of town, if they can afford it), where their education will still be considered inferior because it's not from the best school available; or they can get an education from a University where ruling with an iron fist is acceptable, and where the administration presumably hopes to pop out a whole generation of people who essentially accept authority figures as gods who need to be feared.

Tenure is a funny thing. Professors work really hard, typically for a decade or two, to get it. During that time, they're under really close scrutiny so that if they give the University any excuse to be scared of them, they can throw them off the "tenure track". So the idea is that once you've behaved long enough to get tenure, basically you've been trained to behave for the rest of your career. You've been trained to think, feel, and discuss only things that are convenient to the University. But here's the great thing: once you have tenure, you're untouchable. You can't be fired. Even if you publish a book on how the President of the University is terrorizing the student population with his dictator-like system.

By the time you have tenure, you're pretty unlikely to need it. At least that's what the Universities believe. (Hell, maybe they're right.)

I chose to do my Ph.D, dictator president or not. I plan to teach at a University. I will get tenure, of course, because I will find a way to be a well-behaved employee who supports the values of the University where I teach.

But once I've got tenure, I'm going to have a whole lot to say. And if I become anything like Joe (which I really hope is what happens), the people in charge may just have something to worry about.

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