Monthly Archives: February 2005

Wolf amongst wolves

Harvard president Lawrence Summers—his faculty "threatens open revolt"!  So he’s going to "temper his style" and treat people "more respectfully"…see the NYT story.

Just months before this latest flap, in an
essay for Harvard’s alumni magazine, Summers argued for a measure of
autonomy as the University’s chief.

“At the same time,” he wrote,
“we have also seen that the team cannot be managed by its players. Too
often, universities have been managed as kibbutzim, with academic
leaders elected by faculty, students, and staff, thus undercutting
mandates to impose high standards and the creation of leadership
horizons sufficient for true long-term innovation.”  (Zachary Seward in the Harvard Crimson)

HuThis pot has been coming to a boil for a while.  Back in early 2002 Summers had the temerity to criticize that marxist behemoth Cornel West, perhaps wondering what the tutorial value of supporting Al Sharpton’s presidential campaign might be.  West eventually decamped to a far more radical venue than Harvard—Princeton.  (No doubt they didn’t force him to take a pay cut from his ex-Harvard University Professorship’s $300K.) 

Summers clearly has a problem with the mutual proximity of his foot to his mouth, adducing the statistic of 1M teenage prostitutes in  Korea in the 70s while making a point about the power of economic growth to improve living conditions (and leaving the entire south end of the peninsula enraged).  By the late 70s the South Korean population was in excess of 35M, but still, that’s rather a blunder for an economist.  It is especially painful to Koreans, of whom up to 200,000 were kidnapped by Japan into sexual slavery as "comfort girls" in the Second World War.

In late 2004, Summers was challenged by a group of female faculty to reverse the trend in tenure for women.  In the  year prior to  Summers’ ascension to the peacock throne, 36 percent of tenure offers went to women,  while four years later that number was down to 13 percent (of 32 offers). 

Summers, even back when he was a superstar economist and Treasury official, has always struck me as a bit too much of a smartass for this own good.   But as an ex-UMass employee and  Harvard College grad, I have a funny feeling the current story is tipping a bit too far in favor of the galant and embattled faculty.  As I’ve watched his most recent incarnation as Harvard President, I have not agreed with many of his positions but I’ve been interested in his apparent belief that (shades of Nixon) "make no mistake—I am the president!"  And wondered about the reactions of the campus barons (and—too few perhaps—baronettes) to the actions of their liege lord.

As anyone who has worked at a college or university (especially the latter, and especially not as faculty) knows, they are among the last outposts of feudalism.  Perhaps this is good in some respects—in theory, the decentralized academic world should give shelter to the corner-cases that we seem to need for mental genetic health.

But the world of the University is far from the wonderfully collegial and intellectually free-wheeling world of nostalgic novelizers more than two or three decades removed from their undergraduate impostures.  It is a place of vicious power struggles, just like any other seriously adult hierarchical organization.  While the tenured faculty whine about Summers’ imperial style, check in with the non-tenured faculty to get their impressions of life under their department heads.  Then check further down the food chain, with the serf-like grad students who in many cases do all the teaching and testing and associated grunt work, for shit wages and just pure shit from on high.  Then amplify the above for Harvard, which, along with a handful of other institutions, is the highest level in the tree for academic superstars.

What I realized at UMass was that, in addition to the usual knife-fighting to be found in any corporation, one has to deal with professorial kung fu and the assassins of state politics.  And all around a fixed or shrinking fiscal pie, circled by professors, pols and administrators like junk-yard dogs.  I’m here to tell you that, as rough as it gets, life in a large corporation is blissful by comparison.

So let us spend a moment in prayerful reflection for the academic soul of Lawrence Summers—intellectual sinner, wayward administrator, and would-be manager of  a  more concentrated collection of inflated egos (cut to the same pattern as his own)  than any maximum leader, even on mental steroids, could ever hope to dominate.

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I Sing the Body Electric Kool Aid

Reading obits about Hunter Thompson, I reflect on the fact that I drank Wild
Turkey pretty much exclusively for years after first reading Fear and Loathing.
The other drugs I came to on my own—though
I didn’t have a gonzo approach to them at all.  That would be my late brother Ewen, who had a
similar taste to Hunter’s for ingesting hallucinogens and testing perception in
challenging ways. 

Ewen liked to visit a
huge & noisy Nathan’s Famous (a hotdog & hamburger joint for those of you in red states) near our home on Long
Island under the influence of the drug whose effects Wolfe described in Kool Aid.  This kind of adventure would have overtaxed an introspective tripper like
me. Unfortunately for him, in between his visit and the previous one, someone
had the bright idea of locating a surplus DC3 airplane on the lot next door,
for promotional reasons we never properly ascertained.  This led to an interesting series of
ontological dislocations on his part…

I also had a good friend who did a concentrated course of
the same medication one summer in the early 70s (about 50 treatments in a 2
month period).  He worked at McDonalds
and later described the experience of working the grill while the sizzling hamburgers
talked to each other.  He ended that
treatment after a long spell under his bed, having seen a stream of
interplanetary aliens racing out onto the street from behind a home in his suburban
neighborhood as he passed by (kids with party hats on, he later realized).

One mistake I’m seeing in alot of the coverage is
thinking that Hunter invented something.  He actually reflected something already there,
always incipient in the culture, at that point in time.  A hells’ angels approach to electric kool aid is
about the best way to capture the concept…

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