Good responses to “Ivory Tower” accusations?

Recently I have come across a few articles on Google that are really distressing.

I typed in "professor real world" and it just mentions how professors have lost touch with the real world, how they need to step down from their ivory towers, etc.

Why is all that bad? It doesn't make me reconsider my dreams a little, but it does hurt.

Is it ultimately subjective from the pessimists' point of view? I have come to terms with the fact nothing ultimately matters, we are just grains of (smart) sand in the universe. Whether I did industry or not wouldn't matter, since I love academia.

How can I help others see that academia is a 'real job' too?

• Some people are just jerks. Ignore them. – JeffE Oct 4 '13 at 11:03
• Welcome to AC.SE. It is not really clear to me what you are asking. – StrongBad Oct 4 '13 at 12:49
• I think this is just an invitation to discussion. Academia Chat is the right place for that. I don't see what sort of objective answer could address this question as posed. – 410 gone Oct 4 '13 at 13:04
• Speaking from experience in Computer Science: "Ivory Tower" professors who have "lost touch with the real world" are unfortunately quite common. They're the ones that don't have experience outside of academia, but treat their way as the One True Way, when those of us who do have more experience know that their way not only isn't the best, but might actually be detrimental in the long run. – Izkata Oct 4 '13 at 16:11
• The good news is that people with extreme opinions often say foolish things. For example, "If a medical or dental-school professor has never had to perform a type of surgery he is teaching, how does he know the best way to teach it?" (Sure, this could be a problem in principle, but does anyone actually think it's a widespread problem in practice?) If you want to argue with them, this will give you an advantage. However, I've never actually seen such an argument change anyone's mind. If someone doesn't like academia, you won't convince them to like it by telling them their facts are wrong. – Anonymous Mathematician Oct 5 '13 at 12:28

There is no point talking to people about the job they cannot do themselves or about the parts of reality they cannot even see, not to say enter. Most of them are, probably, just envious (that's why the words "easy life", "good salary", and "tenure" appear in such articles more often than not). The rest are frustrated that our work doesn't provide any immediate personal benefit for them. As to "stepping down from ivory towers", in Soviet Union the students and professors were sent for a month to collective farms to help with harvesting every year. It turned out that we could do the farm work. Sending help in the other direction wasn't considered practical.

• I think there is a big different between an academic planting seeds and an academic promoting a business model when the academic has never experienced the life of a businessperson. If someone claims a theory works in real life, there should be evidence to back up that statement. – earthling Oct 5 '13 at 0:14
• @earthling To be honest, I have never tried to promote any "business model", so I cannot comment on this, but I was involved in a few engineering consulting projects without ever experiencing the life of an engineer and believe it or not, my math. worked the way it was supposed to. – fedja Oct 5 '13 at 2:22
• This answer could be improved with reference to a proof overturning basic sociological arguments about the knowability of social relations. – Samuel Russell Oct 7 '13 at 8:37
• Plenty of "ivory tower" complaints come well reasoned from within academia itself. Responses like this that simply presume the complainant is unqualified and bitter are not constructive to the overall conversation. – Nick Bastin Oct 7 '13 at 9:19
• @Nick Bastin When they come well-reasoned, the answer is different. Unfortunately, when somebody says that "one cannot understand business without being a businessmen himself", it just reminds me of "you cannot tell anything about penguins without spending a few months in Antarctica walking with your hands tight against your hips and diving for fish". Observation and deduction are not less powerful than the first hand experience and the fact that they are used in a wrong way occasionally or even often does not disqualify the general idea. – fedja Oct 7 '13 at 11:32

I can only speak to my personal experience, but it stems from the fact that professors are supposed to be training in a new generation of productive people in the work force. If they have not spent a significant amount of time being productive themselves, they are at a disadvantage when it comes to passing on useful education to future productive people. This is not to say that such education is impossible, or even uncommon, simply that the education is typically based on applied theory as opposed to experience.

As an example, I once was in a lecture about computational complexity. My professor had said that if I could take an algorithm from 4n^2 to 4n that my boss would be happy, but if I could take it from 4n^2 to 2n^2 that he would not be happy. I told her the entire business model of the firm I interned at relied on running our computations as fast as possible, and that if I could cut the time in half, my boss would be thrilled out of his pants. She immediately dismissed this as naive, as such a performance gain would be insignificant: only a reduction in the order of complexity would be noticed - simply reducing the coefficient would not.

I called my boss after the lecture, and he said if I could cut our simulation time in half, he would fly me back to work and double my pay (since it would still be cheaper than the expansion of our beowulf cluster we were planning). We looked up the professors credentials, and despite having a PhD and over 20 years experience in academia, her only real world experience was a 6 month internship that, according to the description, consisted mostly of paperwork.

Now, is this representative of most people in academia? I don't think it is. But it does happen, and it's more common than it would seem from the inside looking out. And because it does happen, it feeds the stereotype of academics who couldn't engineer their way out of a paper bag. There are stereotypes all over all industries. Software developers have a stereotype of being nerds who couldn't possibly get a date, and yet in North America 70% of developers are married, with only a 3% divorce rate (compared to 40% of the population). While I certainly know some nerds in my line of work, and yes they do feed the stereotype, they really aren't represented by the majority of the population.

The conclusions I would make is that the concerns raised by those yelling about "Ivory Towers" I think are valid concerns. They do not apply to all academics, and of course, research should be judged on the actual research, not the researchers. But you should keep in mind that the there are certain individuals who speak with authority based on experience, while others speak with authority based on the assumption that they have the experience. When it comes to published, peer reviewed research, it's easy to separate the wheat from the chaff. In the classroom settings, where such authority is not to be questioned, it can be very dangerous for young, impressionable students.

So how do you respond to an ivory tower accusation? Well, clearly if you have industry experience, put it forth. If you lack industry experience, make it clear that you have no intention of trying to pass off your education as being backed by industry experience. When it comes to your research, encourage skeptics to review your research on its own merits. If they're true scientists, they will.

• Computaional complexity theory and software engineering are NOT the same thing. Complexity theory is a branch of mathematics which studies the limitation and nature of computations. It is studied for pure intellectual curiosity just like number theory or theoretical physics (even though it has practical applications just like physics and number theory). A complexity theorist is not working to increase revenues of software companies. And what she said is absolutely right a factor of 2 is irrelevant for complexity theorist. – user774025 Oct 6 '13 at 4:37
• @user774025: complexity theory is of incredible use to software engineers. It should not, however, be a handcuff to the practical concerns of actual runtime. – Nick Bastin Oct 7 '13 at 9:12
• "I could take an algorithm from 4n^2 to 4n that my boss would be happy, but if I could take it from 4n^2 to 2n^2 that he would not be happy". You misunderstand the idea. The point is that if you can do it with $n=10^6$ now and reduce the running time to $2n^2$, then you'll be able to do it just with $n=1.4\cdot 10^6$. However $4n$ will enable you to jump to $n=10^12$. "Happy boss" means "a real breakthrough", not "bringing your particular application down to acceptable running time". For the latter, sometimes even a 10% reduction may be enough if you are close to the goal already. – fedja Oct 7 '13 at 11:50
• @fedja You seem to misunderstand the idea that if you're a firm that does nothing but thermal modelling and you can double the number of thermal models you run in a given amount of time, you essentially double the revenue of the company. Last time I checked, doubling the revenue of the company is a happy boss. – corsiKa Oct 7 '13 at 14:54
• @corsiKa We have a pure communication problem here. My point is that both the professor in question (and I) understand all this perfectly well. However, it seems that she has long given up trying to explain the ideas of "order of magnitude", "asymptotics", etc. to her students and decided to do the (very sloppy) translation to the language they can comprehend instead. What I tried to do was to translate back and my point was that the construct "happy boss" in her language had nothing to do with the company revenue, the promotion, or anything else in that venue whatsoever. – fedja Oct 11 '13 at 0:56

Firstly, you do matter, we all matter in our own way and we have no idea just how far our influence will extend. Never let yourself otherwise.

Secondly, as JeffE said in the comment, some people are just jerks - for whatever reason, the authors of those articles are venting, and as they can not possibly know every professor - they probably have had an awful experience and are venting, generalising across the board. (or they can just be jerks).

They obviously do not know my professors - the most dedicated educators I have ever had the privilege of working with.

Fundamentally, you do not have to prove yourself to anyone, but yourself. So, be yourself.

• They just mention how it's not a real job and I want some good comebacks to that. – Jossie Oct 4 '13 at 11:35
• I am also a high school teacher, and similar comments are levelled at us - comebacks? you do not need to - you don't answer to their jibes. – user7130 Oct 4 '13 at 11:41
• +1 for "You do not have to prove yourself to anyone." And if you want comebacks, I recommend "I know you are but what am I?" Or, "How appropriate, you fight like a cow". – Nate Eldredge Oct 4 '13 at 15:49

I typed in the same Google query, read the article I think the OP was referring to (this one?), and was filled with a similar hot burst of indignation. (How dare they!) But while the author of that article paints with a broad brush, I think it might not be inappropriate for us, as scholars, to examine ourselves with the same brutal honesty that we take to our intellectual disciplines.

Some of the complaints I've heard about ivory-tower academics simply reflects a misunderstanding of what higher education is about -- for example, as a computer science professor I've heard students complain about not being taught how to use Excel spreadsheets and the like. But I've also seen colleagues who have grown complacent and uncaring, whose courses really do shortchange the students. So yes, the author of that article paints with a very broad brush, but I think that we'd do ourselves a disservice if we just blithely ignored him.

I think it's important for us to be able to articulate why we do what we do. I routinely explain to my reviewers why my research matters -- I should similarly be able to explain to my students why they should study what I'm teaching;[*] and I should similarly be able to explain to my neighbors why their tax dollars should pay my salary. (I may not have to do these things, but I should be able to.) Whatever explanation I come up with -- and it'll be different for different people -- that's the "good comeback" the OP asked for; and if I can't come up with any explanation at all, then maybe some deeper introspection would be in order. :-)

[*] In my grant proposals I say what difference I think the research will make if it's successful. In my classes I tell the students what I want them to remember of the class five years later. I've found this sort of exercise very helpful for distilling out what I think really matters.

• Thank you for the link you provided. I think that one is the one (@Jossie Please confirm it if you can). I, too, feel the same way as you do. – scaaahu Oct 5 '13 at 5:40

Jossie, you are a scientist, right? Define the 'real job' for us first, please. "The real job is a job in which..." what happens? You get a real paycheck, that's for sure, and if that's the main indication of the 'real job', then you definitely got one. If, on the other hand, you define a 'real job' as the one from which you can be fired, then a tenured professor is not a real job.

Aside from that, there are several layers of complications that your question uncovers. Apparently, you are a smart person with a dedication, given that you were able to finish your Ph.D. It is, however, also apparent to me that you cannot really explain what you do to a layperson. You are not alone in this: the portrayal of academia as the ivory tower stems from this same lack of communication between professors and the general public that just cannot understand the value added that academia provides.

I have worked as an assistant professor on a tenure track for three years, was booted from it, and found home in industry. I can tell very specifically what the value of academic research is for me in my position: it can produce new efficient ways for me to make the product that my company delivers better... where better may include concepts like "more accurate" (I am a social statistician, so that's a relevant dimension of my work), "faster", "more robust wrt various uncheckable assumptions", etc. Unfortunately for me, academic research produces hell of a lot of noise that's irrelevant for me: from ~100 papers in the top general interest journals, I would find 1 to be of relevance to my work. The ratio is of course higher in specialized journals, where it can be 3:1 or so. (Nature or Science or PNAS are out of my league; they may publish statistics papers on a cute little topic from time to time, but generally the ratio will be what, 1:10000?) So I am the natural selection process: out of all the random mutations that academic researchers publish, I am selecting the relevant traits that need to be preserved because there is a survival value in them.

Now, the question that I keep asking myself is, "How much of that random noise does need to come out so that in the month of October 2013, I will read up something that will change the way I work?", and apparently the answer is, well, several hundred papers (out of which I will get may be 10 or so to read). That's a costly enterprise: if an average professor is paid $120K, and they publish three papers a year, then that's$40K per paper (we can ignore teaching: first, nobody really cares about it, and second, you can buy a teacher for $5K/course, way below the cost of a research paper that I just derived). So the total for one usable academic result is [drum roll]$4M for the hundred papers that need to be published. That's A LOT of money... although I would humbly hope that for each disgrunteld StasK, there are hundred other statisticians who would find the other 99 random papers useful for them.

If the ratios are better in other disciplines, that's great. For what I heard in education research, the ratios are about the same: at some point, that depository had reviewed ~300 papers, and found only 6 of them to be usable.