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The really nutty professor

September 30, 2005|Mikita Brottman

REMEMBER THAT crazy professor you had at college -- you know, the guy who could calculate to three decimal points in his head but had problems matching his own socks? There's one on every campus; often more than one.

Certainly the stereotype of the nutty professor is grounded in real life. Think of Einstein with his crazy hair, or John Nash, the tormented mathematician portrayed by Russell Crowe in "A Beautiful Mind." Eccentric characters seem particularly common in those departments known for the more abstract realms of thought, such as mathematics, physics or, most often, philosophy, the field of notorious oddballs such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Friedrich Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell. It has been observed that the more prodigious the intellect, the more it can compromise other aspects of the personality, such as self-awareness and social grace.

University life has traditionally been a haven where people are willing to overlook unusual behavior, or to accept it as part of the intellectual package. Both students and faculty generally find such "nutty professors" quirky and lovable. But not always.

What do you do when your odd colleague is not so lovable -- when their behavior is less eccentric than downright dysfunctional? I know about a couple of cases in which professors were hired on the basis of very impressive resumes, long lists of publications and superlative letters of recommendation from some of the top names in their field. What these letters didn't mention, of course, was how impossible these people were to deal with on a daily basis.

In the first case -- and I'm disguising some details to protect identities -- a professor turned out to be rudely dismissive of any student incapable of meeting her impossibly high standards, disturbingly fastidious, bad-tempered and intractable in meetings. She was also arrogant, petty-minded and obsessed with the size of her office and the quality of its furniture (not as nice, she claimed, as the furniture of those she deemed her intellectual inferiors).

In the second case, the new hire revealed himself to be an abstemious hermit and hypersensitive to imaginary slights. He was also a compulsive hoarder and frugal to an unusual extreme, regularly to be seen pocketing food from the buffet lunch at faculty meetings. He was finally discovered to be actually living, Bartleby-like, in his departmental office.

In any other job, this kind of thing might get you fired on the spot. In fact, some "nutty professors" may actually have very real neurological problems -- and the permissive haven of academia may hinder them getting the help they need.

One problem among academics may be the form of "high functioning autism" known as Asperger's syndrome. People affected by Asperger's often have above-average intelligence, may have uncannily good memories or a natural affinity with numbers, but sometimes have problems understanding the kind of social signals many of us take for granted, such as eye contact and body language, and have problems making small talk. In his 1944 paper identifying the syndrome, the Viennese physician Hans Asperger suggested that academe might well be the natural home for those who experience the disorder.

Despite academia's ability to absorb eccentricities, sometimes the situation can't be tolerated. In the two cases I know about, the professors were discreetly informed that their behavior was causing concern. Both of them insisted they were the victims of petty-minded or jealous colleagues; they responded to offers of psychological help with either supreme rage or utter indignation.

They were each on one-year probationary contracts; neither was asked to stay on. And, much to the relief of all concerned, neither asked for letters of recommendation. In fact, both seemed to believe that they were leaving institutions that were not important enough for them and that they were leaving of their own free will. And with such stellar resumes, I'm sure neither had trouble securing another position elsewhere.

While strengths in teaching, research and publications are what initially qualify a person for an academic career, when it comes to finding a permanent job, even the most superlative vita cannot outweigh the burdensome demands a dysfunctional personality can make on students, faculty and staff. However impressive someone may be on paper, that is not where their colleagues have to meet them.

Most of us, whatever our line of work, have experienced the day-to-day grind of dealing with a consistently exasperating co-worker. Now imagine that person with lifetime tenure. I suspect, you'd prefer not to.

MIKITA BROTTMAN is the interim chair of humanities at the Maryland Institute College of Art and a psychotherapist in private practice. Her most recent book is "High Theory, Low Culture" (Palgrave, 2005).

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