What do the public really think about academics?

Do people fear the menace of 'transient academics', or is it just more scholarly infighting? Gerard Kelly writes

June 1, 2016
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It is probably fair to say that academics as a tribe do not impinge on the public consciousness in the way, say, doctors, judges or estate agents do. As a group they do not generate headlines of purposeful humanity, establishment eccentricity or parasitic ubiquity.

Ordinary punters, if pushed to sum up their views on academics, would most likely locate them in the battered middle classes – respectable, tatty but essentially harmless. 

Read more: I’m a university teacher clawing my way back to the middle class

So it must have come as a shock to many university folk when the citizens of Evanston – a suburb of Chicago known for its $1 million houses and liberal politics – were reported by the local paper as living in “fear” of that feckless menace “transient academics”. The local residents’ association, the paper reported, was mightily concerned about plans for a hotel that would “attract the wrong kind of academics as guests”.

The association explained that it didn’t object to the idea per se, but wanted “a hotel brand that will maintain a high quality of business and not devolve into cheap housing for transient academics”. 

Now it is entirely possible that what scared the bejesus out of the neighbours was the transience rather than the academic. Indeed, it’s not inconceivable that some of those outraged residents could have been tenured professors at nearby Northwestern University appalled at the prospect of running into untenured adjuncts in the local deli, or visiting faculty living it large till 3am. If the building plans had hinted that only sober, generously remunerated scholars were the likely residents perhaps the neighbours would have responded differently. 

The reaction of academics, however, suggests that the profession felt that it rather than any rootlessness was under attack. Faced with the collective scorn of its snooty neighbours, academe responded instinctively – and turned on itself. 

“I’m sure they are referring to statisticians who are frequentists,” wrote one sniffily, which prompted a counter-attack on the “Bayesian rabble” that apparently dominates Northwestern. Civil engineers were soon slagging off deconstructionists while mathematicians rounded on the humanities. “Forget the deconstructionists and Lacanians,” another wrote, “it’s the ontologists who bring down property values.” And who could really argue with that? 

The Evanston ruckus broke out a couple of years ago. But it’s a testament to the impression it made on informed opinion that the US media were still referring to it last month. After all, if comfortable, educated, liberal types such as the citizens of Evanston have a problem with academics, what about the rest of the population? 

In the UK, there has been little "Horrified of Hampstead" outrage directed at academics by the neighbours. There again as even vice-chancellors would struggle to get a mortgage in the select bits of Camden that’s probably not surprising. Town and gown animosities have of course been a feature of community relations for decades and in some cases centuries.

But local unpleasantness (apart from a bit of garden grabbing in Cambridge) has generally been the result of residents sparring with students. Academics have largely floated above the melee. 

So what do we know about public attitudes towards academics? Since 1983, pollsters Ipsos/Mori have published a "veracity index", which attempts to measure public trust in various professions. Up until 2011 it included "professors" along with "scientists". Sadly, professors have now been replaced by hairdressers and lawyers, which in itself might indicate something about their status. 

Yet up until 2011, professors had performed pretty impressively. They were the third most trusted profession, behind doctors and teachers, but well ahead of business people, journalists and politicians. The public still ranks scientists highly; 79 per cent of the public trusts them. Trusts them to “tell the truth” that is. Whether they can be trusted to mind the kids, put the rubbish out or buy a round is another matter.    

“Trust”, however defined, is of course only one component of reputation. Another is desirability. Who would the public prefer to date, for instance? Well according to the dating site Tinder, it’s not academics. They don’t make it into the top 15 jobs that men and women find most attractive. Hard to believe, I know. 

Read more: Being an academic is great, so enjoy yourself!

On the other hand, when it comes to jobs the public lust after rather than the people doing them, the academy does extremely well. Academic jobs are the third most desirable careers in Britain, according to a survey of 14,000 people by YouGov last year. Fifty-one per cent of Britons quite fancy earning a living as an academic. Only authors and librarians, at 60 and 54 per cent, respectively, score higher.

The attractions of being a Hollywood star, a Formula One driver and an astronaut are feeble in comparison (31, 29 and 27 per cent, respectively). 

So the next time academics find themselves infuriated by the research excellence framework (REF), the teaching excellence framework (TEF), their colleagues or students, their challenging salaries or the paucity of campus parking places, they should take some comfort in the fact that a majority of the public would rather be them than Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie or Lewis Hamilton.

Britain, it seems, loves its academics – possibly more than they do themselves. 

Gerard Kelly is the former editor of both Times Higher Education and TES. He is now a partner at education communications specialists GKP.

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