Connecting the dots on Columbia

In addition to the traumatized-by-the-news exam extensions at the Columbia School of Law, there’s this:

I was quite anxious when I was asked to present my work to colleagues in order to get a long-term contract and be moved into line for a shot at tenure. A friend in the history department told me that given my publishing record and popularity among students the talk would be “really just a formality.” But I knew it would be trouble.

Several distinguished professors from Columbia showed up, since the university has final say on all tenure decisions at its sister college, Barnard. During my talk, a Columbia professor who had been named by a national magazine as the most important public intellectual in the United States, stared at me with what I took — rightly, it turned out — to be disgust. Another walked out before I finished. One of my graduate school advisors asked a series of hostile questions. Other colleagues told me after the talk that I was “courageous,” that I was “wonderfully, relentlessly revisionist,” and that I made some famous historians “look like dinosaurs.”

But emails came into the hiring committee from “important places,” I was told, calling my ideas “improper,” “frightening,” and “dangerous.” They said my ideas had no place in the academy and insisted that I be terminated. It was simply not okay for me to describe the “oppressed” in the terms used by their oppressors — “shiftless,” “sexually unrestrained,” “primitive,” “uncivilized” — even though my argument transformed those epithets into tributes.

After I was told that I would be leaving Barnard, hundreds of students protested in faculty and deans’ offices and the Columbia Spectator devoted an editorial to my case, but to no avail. There did indeed seem to be no place for me in the academy. And so I wrote a book.

Yes. It was Columbia that shit-canned Thaddeus Russell’s application for a tenure-track faculty position on account of thoughtcrime. Instead of responding to his unorthodox scholarship and teaching with substantive counterpoints, Columbia faculty piled onto Russell in a witch hunt motivated by embarrassment at his plain speaking of truth and behind-the-scenes influence peddling from a sort of permanent government.

This means that Columbia has been involved in at least two high-profile academic scandals in the space of about a decade. I don’t keep a close eye on higher education news; there’s too much other news not involving academia that I find more important to follow. These scandals are just ones that I happen to have come across while reading about matters tangential to them. Again, both of these scandals specifically involve the academic probity of Columbia and its faculty. They don’t involve, say, its athletics, campus police, or nonacademic support offices.

I never expected Columbia to be such a major offender. Of all the top-tier colleges and universities in the United States–the Ivies, the Seven Sisters, Haverford, Reed, Stanford, MIT, Cal Tech, etc.–the one whose name I’ve always seen popping up in sleazy academic or administrative scandals is Harvard. No other school in its class seems to have such a baseline ooze of sleaze seeping out of its precincts. Lower-tier schools have athletics scandals: there’s the Sandusky clusterfuck at Penn State, but that was just a spectacular manifestation of the systemic corruption pervading schools with NCAA Division I sports teams, schools that will move heaven and earth to shield “student” athletes who are frankly academically unfit and violent from minimal academic, civil, or criminal accountability.

So I must elevate Columbia to the hall of shame. I probably shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve heard stories from the 1950’s about the Ivy League shuffling academically useless football players from school to school on “academic” scholarships. These were guys who would have been hopeless to pass the New York State Regents Exam, so they’d fail out of Cornell and get recruited by Penn, again on an academic scholarship, in the policy interest of #FOOTBALL. Columbia is in the Ivy League, of course, and the Ivy League is technically an athletic conference, not an academic association. I guess there is no one righteous, not one.

The sleazy we will have with us always. But we oughtn’t look to these intellectually and ethically rotten institutions for leadership. We oughtn’t even accept leadership from them when they impose it on us. As a self-governing people (is this a conceit?), we should tell them, shoo, go have your sleaze privately, like decent adults, and let us manage our own affairs.

That’s a cool story, anyway. Looking at the entrenchment of the Ivy League, I’m not sure that I can properly classify American self-government as nonfiction.

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