Celebrity professors have been in trouble recently on both sides of the Channel. In France, Luc Ferry, a professor at the Diderot University in Paris and author of many bestselling books of philosophy, has received his salary ($6,300 monthly, after tax) at the university for seven years without teaching for a single moment. Instead, he has acted as head of the Council for the Analysis of Society, a governmental body set up in 2004 to “clarify the government’s political choices by the analysis and judgment of opposing points of view.” The university, granted financial autonomy by the state in 2010, refused to continue to fund Ferry’s salary in return for nothing. The government stepped in and agreed to pay it; but a deputy in the National Assembly, a supporter of the main government party, nevertheless asked why taxpayers should pay Ferry for not working. He also demanded that Ferry repay all the money that he had received during the past seven years.
A lively debate has erupted as to whether Ferry’s heading the Council for the Analysis of Society is a sinecure, and whether the work it entails—a monthly meeting, an annual report, some hearings and lunches with ministers—would justify being excused from all duties at the university. Some say that Ferry works hard at the council. Others are more suspicious, citing the many books he has managed to publish during the last seven years (to say nothing of his television appearances). There is no doubt that, despite Ferry’s protestations, a pall of corrupt clientelism hangs over the affair.
Meanwhile, across the Channel, another celebrity philosopher, A. C. Grayling, has unexpectedly waded into hot water for a different reason. Together with other equally prominent public intellectuals such as Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, and Niall Ferguson, he has decided to set up an independent college of the humanities in London, charging students $29,000 a year to attend. Some of this money will fund scholarships for poor students, who are expected to make up to 20 percent of the enrollment.
Grayling was until that moment a darling of the liberal elite, principally because of his vigorous attacks on religion. Now, however, he has become an object of hatred. When he tried to explain his proposal to an audience in a large London bookshop, opponents let off smoke bombs, and the event had to be abandoned. Actually, Grayling’s college would, initially at any rate, be but a glorified crammer or system of private tutoring, since the idea is to issue University of London degrees. But the virulent opposition that it has evoked among students and university teachers suggests a deep anxiety about it.
In the first place, the fact that such prominent academics should think of setting up a college parallel to the state-run university system suggests that they don’t think much of the standards of the state system. It also suggests, by implication, that they are elitists who do not agree with the use of higher education as a means of demagogic and supposedly egalitarian social engineering, as well as a means of disguising youth unemployment. This in turn threatens an entire world outlook: much is at stake, then, which the protesters instinctively realize.
In the second place, the protesters greatly fear that Grayling and his friends might just succeed, and this would presage the destruction of the present system: a system comforting in its mediocrity and in its power to reward conformist apparatchiks. Even a small breath of competitive air threatens clientelism as a prevailing system.