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A Tabloid Tale Amid the Tomes

Campus celebrities such as Cornel West are most valued for their rainmaking.

April 18, 2002|NORAH VINCENT

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.


Norah Vincent is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank set up after Sept. 11 to study terrorism.

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