The news of the firing of Mark Schlissel, my university’s president, brought joy to many households last night, not least my own. (He had a relationship, apparently consensual though who even knows, and definitely against regulations, with a subordinate.)
Franzen himself could not have better arranged the details: an anhedonic rich man, trying to pursue a little self-indulgence, who scandalizes his university and tanks his career, as well as, presumably, destroying his marriage (though you have to figure that was tanked a while ago, and this was the outward manifestation), in order to have what sounds like the lamest affair ever. He shares his Hulu password with her; he sends her gifts from Etsy; he flirtatiously forwards racy New Yorker articles. I have way more swag than this guy. You have way more swag than this guy.
The insulting part of Schlissel’s presidency was always that: the evident mediocrity of the man whose job it was to tell you that the university was safe to reopen when it wasn’t, that wildly aggressively sex pest professors were being dealt with when they weren’t, that the new rules which work to endanger the job of every employee ever accused of a felony were a necessary early-warning system against those same sorts of sex pests when they weren’t. (We had lots of early warnings about Philbert, Daniels, Conforth and the rest. The new rules will be very helpful if the U ever wants to fire a woman who kills her abuser in self-defense, though.) For a guy who I never once heard say a single interesting thing, neither in his public statements nor in his private emails to a lover (where you’d at least expect a little show of personality), to bring my union to the brink of striking twice in four years, and to inspire an actual strike by grad students, because he truly believes that if we mattered, we’d have tenure and he’d know our names already: you could start to think he must be right. There is nothing interesting about this guy, and yet he can make everyone’s life worse. There must be some other scale of interesting/not interesting, valuable/not valuable, significant/not significant that I am too dumb to see, to explain such a person’s proximity to power.
There never was, though. This guy is so stupid that doesn’t even know how to properly wreck a career (and, in the process, tear up a golden parachute so lavish that his petty-cash account in retirement was higher than my 2013 starting salary). The system selects for blandness. Increasingly it selects for incompetence: just look at the current and previous administrations. (I could pick on any number of moments from the visibly sundowning Joe Biden, but there’s just such greater poetry in Kamala Harris’s “It is the time for us to do what we have been doing, and that time is every day.” It’s like a bit imitating Ashbery.) Even the people who maintain this machinery seem to realize how little of themselves the machinery needs, how little are the selves it needs. They aren’t having that much more fun than we are. (Kamala and Joe both used to know how to be, if nothing else, floridly cruel. Now they just sound depressed.) They’re lonely.
It depresses me that Schlissel loses his job for writing “lonely. m” on company time to a subordinate, and not for ignoring his own public-health specialists or alienating the people who do the bulk of the teaching. It also gives me hope that my undergraduates are seeing the emptiness of his life. We like to talk about “mediocre white men” (or we did a few years ago), as though white people were actually a race and mediocrity were carried in germ-plasm. But the reality is that even Mark Schlissel is a child of God, and he had it in him, at one point, to be much more interesting than this. If you ever forget this, just spend some time in a kindergarten classroom. Children who will grow up to be the blandest functionaries on earth act as strange and alien as the kids who will grow up to be outsider artists. Mark Schlissel probably cared about public health at one point. He probably really did have intellectual problems that made him curious. He has stuffed his face behind this mask; he has learned to be this boring, because that’s what success is now, and he was told, or told himself, that no other goals exist.
And every student at University of Michigan, from sheer rubbernecking prurient curiosity, is now seeing the details of how boring it is behind that mask. At just the moment when the process really accelerates, the process of lopping off bits of aspiration and curiosity and anger so that you can find a place within the system where you can work your way toward your goals, my students are seeing that at the end of that process is nothing. The further down that road you go, the less you are. The system will promise you a little more power in exchange for a little more compromise, but by the time you have enough personal power to run anything, you’ll be so compromised on the inside that you’ll forget how to want anything interesting, let alone anything morally beautiful. You’ll be trying to woo your mistress with knishes, or (as in Jeff Bezos’s case) sexting “I love you alive girl” like some kind of robot. My students are getting a chance to see that, and maybe it will inspire them to think harder about the compromises they make, to name the things that will not be worth trading away because without those things there’s nothing left. Maybe it will inspire them to doubt personal power, and to look at forms of collective power—after all, it was union power that finally checked Schlissel, despite his confidence that we had no forms of influence that he was bound to respect. Maybe it will inspire them to want to live somewhere besides the U of Lonely M.