Pinned to the mattress: Columbia University really is an intellectually bankrupt institution

In the latest embarrassment, carrying a mattress around campus to represent the burden of a rape that probably didn’t happen meets Columbia’s academic rigor standards for senior thesis-level artwork. I don’t often agree with Blair Naso, since he’s a sexually bigoted crackpot, but in this case he’s right that Emma Sulkowicz is nuts. It’s possible that this whole circus, including the rape allegation, is a calculating stunt, but pulling off a conceit like that for months at a stretch requires a rare extreme of stone coldness and disciplined messaging. It’s a lot easier to pursue such a vendetta when one believes at least some of one’s own bullshit.

The picture at the top of Naso’s essay seems especially damning, although I’m not sure exactly what it implies. Again, I doubt that Sulkowicz is deliberately lying about the entire incident, but at the same time that picture is a pretty fucking cavalier way to behave around an object that one claims represents the most traumatic act of violence one has ever suffered. Sulkowicz is shown posing between two other female students in front of the mattress, all three of them smiling and one of them also sticking her tongue out. This is an incredibly discrediting thing to do if the goal is to convince other people that one was in fact raped. This sort of absurd, frivolous behavior makes it much, much harder to win anything against an attacker in a court of law: a criminal indictment, a conviction, a civil judgment, even a restraining order. As a victim of several deliberate crimes myself, most of which very nearly turned violent, I cannot imagine responding to any of the crimes committed against me by commemorating them with such a weird, interminable public spectacle. I went back and forth mentally on what I action I should take, if any, but carrying around a large prop as a piece of extended performance art never crossed my mind. A judicially counterproductive attention-whoring stunt like that was too kooky to ever be on the table.

Emma Sulkowicz’s mattress stunt points to a serious structural problem with Columbia’s undergraduate culture and with the administration of its undergraduate academics. That is, this structural problem affects its undergraduate academics at the very least: there’s a good chance that it equally compromises Columbia’s graduate academics, and, as the no-bill exam extension fiasco shows, there are serious problems with academic rigor and credibility at the law school regardless of how well other divisions of the university are being run. The undergraduate art department is giving Sulkowicz 400-level thesis credit for carrying a mattress around campus and saying that it’s all because she was raped by another student. This is exactly the sort of department-level breach of academic standards that makes it imperative for the administration to intervene and restore proper academic standards by fiat. The problem with this approach is that the horse almost certainly left the barn years ago. If university administrators try to force normal academic standards on the art department over Emma Sulkowicz’s senior “thesis,” not only will they have a food fight on they’ll hands over bogus claims that Sulkowicz is being retraumatized (as Vietnam-era veterans like to tell their doctors at VA disability pension reviews, pulling lists of symptoms from their pockets, “let me tell you about my trauma”), they’ll also open up a Pandora’s Box full of allegations that academic standards have been waived for other students and other departments, making the application of these standards to Emma Sulkowicz selective and unfair.

The administrators are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. I momentarily feel bad for them, but then I remember that any official high enough to have academic authority over the art department probably earns more payroll income in a quarter than I’ve earned in my lifetime, not counting fringe benefits, and that no fuckup falling short of Spanier/Paterno-spectrum dereliction of duty will convince the faculty or the trustees to yank their meal tickets. These people are set for life. Graham Spanier was offered a consulting position with the national clandestine services after being fired by the Penn State Board of Trustees for harboring a serial child rapist. The official story about this offer was that it was rescinded after a public outcry, but there’s no way for outsiders to know for sure that he wasn’t quietly hired through back channels. These were spies who were trying to hire him, after all.

The deep, spreading rot in major universities is the stuff of terminal crises of legitimacy. Normal, workaday Americans get pissed off when they hear about these scandals, and they often react with stupid anti-intellectual fury, but if the universities don’t want to anger the plebes, they shouldn’t be so crooked and flagrantly intellectually bankrupt themselves. Odds are that Columbia, like Harvard and Yale, is a sort of protean elite superorganism, part aboveground and part submerged, that cannot be meaningfully reformed, only eradicated, and whose eradication would require a national bloodletting on the order of the French Revolution. The nuttier corners of the alt-right internet are teeming with conspiracy theories about how the problem with the power universities is that they’ve been hijacked by the Jews (alternately spelled YKW or Joo), but these schools have been manifestly subversive of American self-government since at least the mid-nineteenth century. Into the twentieth century there were hard quotas limiting the number of admission slots for academically gifted Jews; today, there are soft quotas limiting the admission of Asians and non-Hispanic whites.

These details aren’t nearly as important as they appear. The aristocratic lawlessness of the Ivy League and its peer institutions transcends ethnicity. The ethnic makeup of the overbearing elite that runs these schools doesn’t matter because this elite is a caste, not an ethnic kinship. It can replicate itself with more or less obedient socially climbing members of whatever ethnicities are fashionable at the time. In a multiethnic republican setting, this is much more useful than a hereditary peerage of WASP men. It helps maintain the illusion that the whole arrangement is a pure meritocracy, one that anyone might be able to someday join with enough hard work and grit. Meanwhile, the cryptomonarchist white supremacist rear guard wrings its hands about what ever could have happened to all the WASP’s, apparently forgetting about Jay Rockefeller, two presidents George Bush, and a prospective third President Bush whom the kingmakers rather like for 2016. Putting Hoyt Thorpe’s diversoids in prominent positions is a great sleight of hand to convince unperceptive members of the white lower and middle classes that, man, sux to be white these days. Not quite: what really sucks these days is to be poor, and by virtue of sheer racial demographics a great many of the American poor in absolute terms are white. Similarly, popping a few black and Latino administrators into the visible parts of the Columbia University matrix doesn’t magically transform Hunts Point and Grand Concourse into something other than troubled ghettos. It merely gives the segment of put-upon whites from the lower castes who naturally view socioeconomic problems through a lens of racial bigotry a convenient reason to wrongly believe that the non-Asian minorities benefiting from affirmative action are representative of their ethnic groups, when they are in fact outliers whose success is a function of survivor bias.

What really is a grave problem, regardless of the ethnic particulars, is the intellectual and moral debasement of these elite schools. They’d engender little public resentment and anger if they actually were what they claim to be, namely, meritocratic institutions devoted to the intellectual and moral formation of the best and brightest of America’s youth, motivated by the sincere hope that their graduates will use their education for the genuine betterment of society, especially its most vulnerable members. Giving a coed academic credit for carrying a mattress around campus because she insists that she was raped is exactly the sort of scandal that can give articulable form to the inchoate suspicions of ordinary Americans that elite higher education is really devoted to the self-dealing of well-connected charlatans and scumbags.

The mattress stunt is of a piece with the plagiarism scandals that pop up from time to time at elite universities and newspapers. These scandals belie the fervent insistence that of course students enroll in selective four-year programs and take jobs as reporters for respected news outlets because they’re looking to cultivate in themselves and in others the life of the mind. Mull this over: it takes a powerful level of intellectual suck to abandon efforts to articulate one’s own ideas and instead go about falsely claiming authorship of the sort of writing that Fareed Zakaria would plagiarize. Academic ethics or honor codes are a secondary consideration in this matter for anyone who actually enjoys thinking about things. It’s like, yeah, I have thoughts of my own, so I could try writing about them, or I could copy the second-degree derivative platitudes published by a notable Commonwealth anglophile milquetoast from the boob tube.

At least Jayson Blair’s fictionalizations of current events had a certain maudlin charm about them. To get entertainingly shitty writing from an undergraduate, one would have to find the sort of student who writes that “like all countries, Burma has rivers and mountains and lakes and forests” (University College London, if memory serves) or avers that the importance of the Battle of Jutland is “inweaved in the extensive” (Dickinson College, with a semester abroad at Gettysburg; now a lawyer, in case you need one). By that point, the writing would be original, since it would be too unabashedly ridiculous for published academic literature, and not insufferable enough. As far as the ethics of turning in such a crappy term paper are concerned, grades exist so that professors can assign poor ones for poor work, although not at Harvard undergrad.

Most student plagiarism, however, isn’t the least bit entertaining. The savvy student plagiarist knows better than to copy and paste something that is beyond his eloquence (as a point of comparison, even the writing that I did for recreational purposes when I was an undergraduate couldn’t hold a candle to what I publish here), so the end product usually amounts to the misattribution of Thomas Friedman columns that have been stripped of their stylistic polish. (For once, an atrocity that can properly be called “content.”)

If the parties to this nonsense were merely academic mediocrities unable to discern a semioriginal thought compelling enough to commit to paper in their own words, their wankery and fraud and passing of the buck wouldn’t really be a problem. It might not be the most advisable course of action to dick around with this horseshit for a few years before easing into some combination of a 7-Eleven clerkship and graduate school, but it wouldn’t cause trouble for the rest of us. The dipshits would be content on their reservation, allowing the rest of us to muddle our way through a tolerably good effort to attend to adult affairs. The problem is that they aren’t content with their own proven mediocrity. They need to be masters of the universe. They have to peddle influence (maybe their parents’) and pull strings to get positions far above their own levels of competence and qualification.

Emma Sulkowicz needs graduation credit for walking around campus carrying a goddamn mattress on her back, a sort of Flying Dutchman of United Van Lines. If she were really interested in artwork, she’d be making some fucking artwork. But she isn’t at Columbia for the fine arts, not any longer at least. She’s there to play an institutional snakes and ladders game that has been purged of all the snakes. And she’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are entire academic programs and institutions full of people–students, faculty, and administrative staff alike–who share her values. As things stand in this mattress nonsense, she has the backing of an Ivy League university, not some marginal hippie-dippie liberal arts college or laughable diploma mill.

These people are my competition in the job market. They have curried favor with power brokers I’ll never be able to influence. They’ve distorted admissions and hiring standards to favor utterly spurious qualifications and disregard meaningful ones. They’ve shifted the Overton Window into such an outlandish position that I’d sound like a butthurt twit to argue, no matter how substantively, that a BA from Columbia isn’t worth a bucket of warm piss because the administration allows rogue departments to give academic credit to the mentally disturbed for engaging in interminable, obnoxious publicity stunts. I’m at a professional disadvantage to these asshats, and I have a bachelor’s degree in history and geology. It’s appalling to imagine how viciously they must screw over competent, intelligent people who never went to college.

God help us. Robert Moses bulldozed the wrong parts of Manhattan.

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