The best recent show about academia over the past few years is not The Chair, although it was pretty good.
No. The show you want to watch if you want to understand how a university actually works is HBO’s thinly veiled academic drama, House of the Dragon.
From the outside, a university appears to be a coherent organization, much like the image House Targaryen presents to the people of Westeros. From the inside, things can look very different.
Over the first nine episodes of season one, House of the Dragon beautifully captures the dilemmas that university leaders must navigate.
The story of King Viserys Targaryen amply demonstrates the limits of power and authority of any university president.
The provost of House of the Dragon, otherwise known as the Hand of the King, has the almost impossible job of keeping the knights (faculty) happy and the place running more or less smoothly.
Some of my favorite scenes of House of the Dragon occur during the meetings of the president’s top leadership group, perfectly renamed the Small Council. Appearances by the relevant deans/lords—including Lord Corlys Velaryon as the dean of the business school (naturally)—always make for compelling viewing.
The role of the university endowment is embodied in the form of dragons. The house (or university) with the most and the biggest dragons (endowments) will always claim the top place in the rankings.
Observers of university life and viewers of House of the Dragon no doubt have similar thoughts. Wouldn’t things go so much better if everyone could find a way to compromise and share power and if women held all the top leadership roles? As House of the Dragon dramatizes so aptly, however, universities follow their own internal logic and codes.
Winter may be coming (a clear reference to the combination of the demographic cliff, public disinvestment and the cost disease), but the attention of universities will inevitably be focused on their place in the status hierarchy (the top spot in the U.S. News rankings made material in the form of who sits on the Iron Throne).
By disguising (if barely) their commentary on academic politics as a semimagical medieval tale, the creators of the House of the Dragon have created the most realistic portrait of university life yet to appear on the small screen.
What are you watching?