Stony Brook Faculty Achievement Dinner Remarks

Steven S. Skiena
November 3, 2010

Dear friends and colleagues:

I thank Mark Aronov and Eric Kaler for the honor of addressing you all tonight. I do not often have the opportunity to get into trouble before our top administration and faculty, so I knew I had to give it a go.

First and foremost, I congratulate all the award recipients being honored here for an amazing range of achievements! Indeed, I'd like to encourage all the award winners to turn to their Chair or Dean and demand a raise, preferably angrily. Threaten to leave the university if they don't give it to you on the spot.

Did that work? Probably not. Awards are something organizations tend to give out when they can't afford to give money, so I look forward to this wonderful annual dinner continuing to grow in the years to come!

I do not have to tell you that the world situation is very bad these days, and Stony Brook feels the full brunt of it. President Stanley and the administration are doing all they can to shield us, but times are very tough. Class sizes keep getting bigger, with less teaching and secretarial support. The same pressures hit at our research mission. Pay lines at the Federal granting agencies keep getting tighter, so we write more proposals to support less research. The results of yesterday's elections certainly do not seem destined to improve matters. Every bone in my body tells me that things are going to get worse; a lot worse; before they begin to get better.

But this is not my subject for tonight. Instead I want to talk about something everyone in this room knows, but we all often forget -- especially in times like these. I take this opportunity to remind each us just how lucky we are to be professors at Stony Brook University. I mean this sincerely. No one in this room can out-cynical me -- believe me. But it is important to step back and recognize that we faculty still have the best job in the world.

Why is being a professor such a great job? Freedom and independence are a big part of it. We get enormous freedom to pursue our interests, whatever they are and where ever they take us. Aldous Huxley defined an intellectual as "a person who has discovered something more interesting than sex." I refuse to speculate on what fraction of Stony Brook faculty are intellectuals, but suspect this freedom is what lead most of us to become academics in the first place. This freedom remains intact despite all the complexities of the outside world.

Teaching. We all get to experience the joys of teaching. I understand that teaching in medical school is quite different than on my side of campus, but there are still many similarities in what we do. I see we have no less than six faculty awardees from the Anesthesiology department tonight. West Campus faculty also get to put people to sleep for a living.

The truth is that teaching can be a joy. Plenty of people will serve as adjuncts to teach for almost no pay, which explains the contemptuous sneer your Dean gave you when you demanded that raise. So why is it that so many faculty scheme mightily to avoid teaching when other people will do it for nothing?

It is explainable, at least in part, by experiments psychologists have performed on children. First, the experimenters pay kids small sums of money as they play their favorite games. Then after a while, the experimenters stop paying the kids. The result is that the kids indignently stop playing. But if we faculty do our jobs right, we can inwardly maintain our amateur status in the classroom, preserving the fun throughout our careers.

"Nachas". "Nachas" is a Yiddish word for the joy or blessings you get from your kids, on a good day. We also get it from our students.

Most of us have seen the movie "It's a Wonderful Life", where Jimmy Stewart gets to see how life for others would have been diminished except for his actions. Being a professor means that each of us can star in a remake of the film, taking on the Jimmy Stewart role. We get the unique opportunity to change people's lives with a word of advice, a letter of recommendation, or even a throwaway line tossed off in class. And we feel a swell of pride (nachas) when we hear years later from these grateful students, that everything has worked out well for them. Of course the students whose lives we ruined don't tend to call back, a selection bias that leaves each of us with convincing evidence of own our wisdom.

Part of this nachas comes from being a Professor at a state university like Stony Brook. State universities are truly noble institutions. We all know students who never would have made it without a state university in their neighborhood. First generation kids who lacked the self-confidence, or financial means, or maturity to strike it out on their own. Second-chance students who discovered the power of study and self-discipline years after they first discovered drugs. Truly brilliant, world-class students are sparsely but randomly scattered around the globe. We get our fair share, and teaching them is both a joy and a privilege.

And Stony Brook is a damn good state university. Maybe not as good as you might think after reading our advertisements in the Times. But good enough that both our students and faculty get a fair chance to realize whatever dreams we have. Each of us here could easily tick off a list of better universities, particularly those which did not offer us a faculty position when we were out looking for one. So we owe Stony Brook some gratitude for the loyalty it has shown us.

We faculty have a wonderful social network. To a great extent, university faculty get to pick their friends, be they on or off campus. Join a company and you must get along with the people in your department. Not so at the University.

We get to pick our friends. I believe that social compatibility is as much a driver of our research interests as the demands of our disciplines. We get interested in research problems because we like the people who will work with us on them, or because their institutes are located in particularly congenial places. It is a special thrill to be speaking as two of my collaborators are honored tonight: Joe Mitchell in Applied Math and Arnout van de Rijt in Sociology.

But even better than picking our friends, we get to pick our enemies. This is a corrollary of the Kissinger Dictum that academic politics are nasty because the stakes are small. I feel safe in presuming that many in this room hold long-standing grudges against certain others in academia. Perhaps it is the fellow who "independently" discovered our favorite idea, or blackballed our proposal or candidacy. Perhaps it is the blockhead who refuses to accept our pet theory, and even persists in publishing evidence against it at regular intervals.

Eric Hoffer said that "Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life." Between our friends and our enemies, we faculty live rich, purposeful lives.

Our jobs come with several great perks. One is travel. Everyone in this room has a passport stamped full with exotic places we have visited professionally. Paris, London, Songdo-Korea. The places we get to go leave us the envy of most of our friends outside the academy.

More important is stability. Tenured faculty are blessed with job security unheard of elsewhere in today's society. Anyone ungrateful for this is frankly an idiot, given the economic upheaval faced by our friends outside the university. A few of you untenured Assistant Professors may not feel this sense of security yet, but I gather you must all be on the right track or else you wouldn't have been invited to this dinner. Unless, of course, you just burned some bridges by too aggressively demanding that raise.

Respect for Seniority. No aging employees get treated with as much respect as university faculty, short maybe Supreme Court Justices. This is a phenomenon which I confess keeps growing on me with each passing year. Distinguished professors are *supposed* to be grey. In our business, age gives you the patina of wisdom, and maybe some of the Real McCoy.

We are blessed that we get to carry on our work for as long as we are able. Next time you encounter a cranky colleague, kvetching about his terrible students or how much work "they" make him do, conduct the following experiment. Casually mention that you heard that "they" are thinking of instituting a retirement age of 70, and watch his reaction. "What! They can't make me retire!"

And when we finally do get to retire, we actually get promoted, to "Emeritus Professor". There is no title I hope to someday to achieve as much as Emeritus Professor, because it means that I will have lived long enough to retire.

The final great thing about being a professor is that we have unique opportunities for personal recognition. Americans hold funny attitudes towards awards and honors. Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize, and had to treat it as if it was radioactive. He would have done much better for himself politically trying out for "Dancing with the Stars".

But every few years academics are granted the opportunity for personal recognition, as this dinner demonstrates. Most of the world does not have this privilege. My non-academic brother made a nice speech thanking the guests at his wedding, acknowledging that this would presumably be his last chance in life to get a standing ovation, and stating that he had no intention of letting it go by unused.

But such constraints do not hold for faculty, and I can prove it. I encourage all our guests to salute the award winners being recognized here tonight for all their achievements. Congratulations to you all!

Enjoy the rest of your dinner.