Clicking on banner ads enables JWR to constantly improve
Jewish World Review April 13, 2002/ 12 Iyar, 5762

Norah Vincent

Norah Vincent
JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Michael Barone
Mona Charen
Linda Chavez
Ann Coulter
Greg Crosby
Larry Elder
Don Feder
Suzanne Fields
Paul Greenberg
Bob Greene
Betsy Hart
Nat Hentoff
David Horowitz
Marianne Jennings
Michael Kelly
Mort Kondracke
Ch. Krauthammer
Lawrence Kudlow
Dr. Laura
John Leo
David Limbaugh
Michelle Malkin
Chris Matthews
Michael Medved
MUGGER
Kathleen Parker
Wes Pruden
Sam Schulman
Amity Shlaes
Tony Snow
Thomas Sowell
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Ben Wattenberg
George Will
Bruce Williams
Walter Williams
Mort Zuckerman

Consumer Reports

A tabloid tale amid the tomes


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | When we turn academics into celebrities, we can hardly be surprised when they act like them. Still somehow, we are surprised--even gravely disappointed--to find that there are divas of Wagnerian proportions trolling the groves of academe.

Because professors purportedly are smarter than your average bear or because we assume they've assimilated Kant, we expect them to behave better, more nobly than a climbing corporate careerist.

But they don't. On the contrary, when crossed or thwarted, they can be every bit as prickly and pusillanimous as a soprano. Take Cornel West. After rowing bitterly and publicly with Harvard President Lawrence Summers over the past six months, the esteemed professor of African American studies is finally defecting to Princeton with these unbecoming words on his lips:

"Larry Summers strikes me as the Ariel Sharon of American higher education," West told the New York Times. "He struck me very much as a bull in a china shop, and as a bully, in a very delicate and dangerous situation."

Such vitriol may shock those among us who would have expected a more graceful exit from a respected scholar, but in a sense West was right. The situation was delicate. He belongs in a special category. He's famous. He's one of the favored few paid to be himself. Nothing more. Nothing less.

But Summers, the former Clinton administration Treasury secretary, is a bit of a rube in these things perhaps.

He insinuated himself into the arrangement and asked West to perform differently, to conform more to the scholarly norm.

By so doing, Summers showed that he misunderstood the neat calculus of modern higher education.

West has image. Image is money, and money is all that matters.

The adage has never been truer than today in the elite universities: You get what you pay for.

Much as we would like to think of our nation's institutions of higher learning as blessed isles sheltered from the sordid panhandling of the capitalist machine, they aren't.

They're businesses like any other. They run on money, which is part of the reason why interlopers such as the United Auto Workers have been so successful at unionizing graduate students. It's also the reason why some professors have been made into pop culture icons who can command six-figure salaries.

To attract more students (more tuition dollars), universities need to be newsworthy, maybe even a little notorious, which means they need a personality who can deliver--somebody who's popular, a bit piquant, with a high profile and a pleasing edge.

And, of course, being a member of a minority group can't hurt. Neither can a few media connections.

Hence the birth of the academic celebrity, the packed lecture hall, the fat endowment, the glut of eager applicants, the sustained rank in U.S. News & World Report and on and on.

In truth, West did what he was hired to do. He along with Henry Louis Gates Jr. gave Harvard the hottest African American studies department in the country.

The students loved him, as their recently garnered petition to keep him clearly shows. They got an easy thousand signatures. That's what matters, because that's where the money is.

In case any of us failed to notice, the university ceased primarily to be about teaching long ago.

The ivory tower has been sacked by publicists and social engineers. They are far more interested in the earning potential of star power and the insipid thrill of correcting history's sexual, racial and ethnic mistakes with endowed professorships than they are in preserving traditional academic pursuits.

Summers has just had his first lesson in priorities, and it won't be surprising if it costs him his job.


JWR contributor Norah Vincent is a New York writer and co-author of The Instant Intellectual: The Quick & Easy Guide to Sounding Smart & Cultured. Comment by clicking here.

04/06/02: Will folding Oprah's Book Club reverse the damage done to literature?
04/02/02: Where There's No Big Deal Over Flag-Waving
02/22/02: Gold medals and moral antipodes
02/15/02: Liberal media ignore what they don't want to hear
02/08/02: 'Kidnapped' by drivel, we invite world hatred
02/01/02: Anarcho-Terrorists Cut Their Teeth on Video Games
01/25/02: Barbies at the Gate
01/22/02: The power of "Nigger"
01/18/02: Vietnam-era left better get used to the new cold war
12/27/01: Rambolina's 'savior fantasies' and the Yankee spirit
12/18/01: A graceful ballast in the Battleship White House
12/13/01: Stop coddling the Palestinians -- they're bloodthirsty bigots who would have exterminated the Jews if they were in charge
12/06/01: American Taliban member is wake-up call
11/28/01: It's not our fault that we're better off
11/19/01: The (cruelest) Season in the City
11/15/01: Whining and wailing won't win a war
10/26/01: Getting a grip is all we can do
10/19/01: The Sick Joke Is on Us Now
10/12/01: Bring a child into a world like this?
10/05/01: The war on terrorism resembles war on drugs?
09/28/01: Apocalypse now
09/07/01: Swimming with sharks
08/31/01: Time to 'fess up, America. Condit is doing exactly what he was elected to do
08/20/01: An Anti-Deconstructionist's Delight
07/17/01: Individualism Trumps Identity Politics
07/13/01: Blame anybody except she who did it
07/02/01: On reparations and mental slavery
06/27/01: I left the Left behind --- and the Politics of Victimhood
06/21/01: Spoiled Americans Here; Big Bad World Out There
06/13/01: 'Gotcha!' guidelines
06/06/01: Tit for tat, David Brock is a turncoat's tale

© 2001, Norah Vincent