The ratio of nastiness to illumination in this thread of comments is too high for my taste. I suppose it is inevitable that the comments section of this blog should from time to time dramatize the dialogue of the deaf that passes for “political discourse” at many levels in our land. But it is reduced to its sad essence in the brilliant exchange that begins, in effect, “Your are an idiot,” to which the devastatingly witty response is “No, I am not an idiot. You are an idiot.”
I’d like to return to the subject of the post: namely, the effect of what has happened so far to various people at Duke/
The expectation of Apocalypse Now on the Duke campus is and will remain unrealistic. “Why don’t they fire Brodhead?” “Why don’t they ‘clean house’ in this or that department?” “How can they make an 88-er a dean?” To this list of supremely naïve questions I’ll add another one that shows up in various forms: “Why don’t they hire KC Johnson?” Such questions betray a serious lack of understanding of the operations of large and complex educational institutions. They move rather ponderously and within the confines of strict protocols. Our universities have a “business” aspect to them, but it is only one aspect, and the models of business reform or restructuring frequently brought forward are largely irrelevant to them. Duke and many other wealthy institutions are also large charitable entities that view their mission in terms of the redistribution of wealth—first in the relatively paltry manner of handing out scholarships and fellowships, but much more importantly in the creation of lasting “social capital” in their graduates. Most parents are incompetent to judge the actual intellectual quality at a given institution, but they know, rightly, that an average college graduate will have a lifetime income far greater than that of an average non-graduate, and that the average Duke graduate will do considerably better than the average graduate of Western Kentucky State Teachers’ College.
Universities are staffed by faculty members who for the most part enjoy the protection of appointment with continuing tenure. The institution of academic tenure has defensible aims but often-lamentable results. It is nearly impossible to fire a tenured professor, however deep that person sinks into sloth or incompetence. To be fired for “moral turpitude” in today’s climate presupposes a level of sexual athleticism requiring long, arduous Olympic training beyond the capacities of most of us. Hence a university faculty, though highly and self-consciously professionalized, has many of the characteristics of a voluntary organization, like a civic or church committee, or a campaign organization, or a baby-sitting pool. There is seldom a very good match between the need as seen from a center and the competence, willingness, or availability of someone to fill the need. The administration has to cajole people into taking on necessary but perhaps irksome jobs. “Madge, would you be willing to be recording secretary this year? Oh, you’re tied up with the Garden Club?...Well, Tom, how about you? I can teach you to write…” I have not perused a Duke catalogue, but from what has come up incidentally in this blog I get the impression that many Duke faculty (a) teach very little, and (b) teach pretty much what they want to teach, which is (c) two or three variations on an esoteric theme.
A university president may and does have very great power, but is almost guaranteed to fail if he cannot at least achieve a state of uneasy non-belligerence with his faculty. Hence the strange gyrations and even stranger silences of Richard Brodhead. He is a prudent and experienced fellow. If you want to consider what happens when a self-identified political conservative is brought in with powerful board support to “clean up” an institution with a faculty run amok, and is imprudent enough to try to do so, review the sad history of Boston University under the presidency of John Silber. So don’t look for swift actions and dramatic gestures that feature so prominently among the desiderata in these comments. But don’t go to the opposite extreme and suppose that “nothing has changed”. A good deal has changed because of this Rape Hoax.
1. Richard Brodhead’s is a failed presidency. Everybody in higher education knows that, which is why practically nobody in higher education will say it. He will not disappear immediately, but he will disappear. And I mean disappear—not reappear as the president of some other institution. This may not be fair to Brodhead, who is an able person, and his successor is unlikely to be better. But nobody who has presided over such a genuine “social disaster” can recover. And people will in the future reflect on why and how he failed.
2. Another development on the local Duke scene is the “raised consciousness” of sensible alumni and institutional friends. There is a large effort from various sources trying to blunt the effect of this blog and what it has represented. To paint Duke’s critics as neocon, reactionary, racist “blog hooligans” will now work for only a very diminished audience. There now is a very detailed, circumstantial, well researched and well written book that needs to be answered. The one attempt to answer it to date—Piot’s—is so pathetic as actually to amplify the work’s power by giving such a vivid example of the intellectual quality of its opposition. Any intelligent Duke alumnus of whatever age should now realize that he or she probably has more sensible and constructive ideas that many prominent Duke faculty.
3. Do not underestimate the power of the derision and opprobrium heaped on various faculty members through various posting and especially the “Group Profiles”. These were particularly effective, because they were not name-calling but intelligently collected anthologies of the individuals’ own written opinions. It is one thing to shout out that “the Emperor has no clothes”. It is another to present the Emperor in the buff before our own horrified eyes. Professor Piot undoubtedly still has his clannish friends at their unread and unreadable academic journal. But for literally thousands of other people, not to mention hundreds of silent colleagues on his own faculty, the man is now a public fool. This is the result not of name-calling but of self-advertisement. There probably will not be immediate professional effects. But I think it very unlikely that even with a deck of fifty-two race cards Professor Baker, for example, will today seems such a hot property to anybody else as he did to Vanderbilt before the publication of his racist diatribe.
Tuesday, November 06, 2007
From the Comment Thread
This blog has generated more than 90,000 comments. Few have offered a more intriguing perspective than the one below, offered for yesterday's post. The discussion of how universities operate is, in my opinion, absolutely correct: