‘Something about our current national mood suggests we’re yearning to see con artists, to watch their rise and, more hungrily, their fall.’

It’s all Villains, Thieves, and Scoundrels Union here on planet earth, and University Diaries, in a year-end, retrospective mood, recalls with you not merely the prolific literary frauds of our day (chronicled on this blog, to the extent that I can keep up with them), but cultural frauds more generally. Obviously, we’re most interested here in frauds perpetrated in university settings – the hilarious venerable ‘student/athlete’ thing; plagiarism; made-up research; corporate-whore research; stashing federal funds away for personal use; or simply, Jimbo Ramsey-style, stealing your university’s endowment…

Or go way back to the much spiffier Andrei Shleifer, eminent Harvard economics professor, turning his federal-government-funded advisory position into a get-rich-quick scheme… Persistently, this blog, and planet earth, have been located in The World According to Trump University, and with the election of that university’s CEO, people have made it pretty clear that this is where they want to be. It’s not – as the Vanity Fair quotation in my headline has it – that we want to watch the rise and fall – few fraudsters fall… I mean, you’ve got to be Bernie Madoff to really FALL. His comrade in crime, Ezra Merkin, will remain out of jail – although, to be sure, in courtrooms – for the rest of his life. James Ramsey, larcenous president of the University of Louisville, will die with his McMansion lifestyle intact and the case against him grinding slowly on. The literary fraudsters described in the VF article are getting immortalized in fancy schmancy movies. Shleifer continues to ride high.

But it is true that watching ourselves being frauds and perpetrating frauds has become a keener and keener spectator sport – it’s part of the Italianization of culture about which Adam Gopnik writes. Our self-alienation, wrote Walter Benjamin long ago, has “reached such a degree that [we] can experience [our] own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.”

Yet the blogeuse you hold in your hands hopes you can, like her models (Orwell, Camus, Arendt, Murdoch, Hitchens), resist la dolce vita spectatorship in favor of sour indignation.

As Brown and Yeshiva Universities Know…

… you don’t want to look too closely at some of your biggest donors (Steve Cohen, Zygi Wilf).

UCLA‘s biggest donor is also kinda grody – but in a very Hollywood way [scroll down for Colbert Report segment]:

Best of all of these guys is California media mogul David Geffen… ‘These are designed to look like garage doors… But … they’re actually sealed shut.'”

All pretend! But law-abiding ordinary people, Geffen knows, assume they’re real. And therefore the dupes obey the… law…

Sitting behind glass, looking at a screen replaying something already projected on another screen.

Game day excitement!

Ripple Effect

Taiwan’s education minister, co-author on a number of fraudulent papers that appeared in Vibration and Control (background here), has resigned.

“Vibration and Control.”

So poetic a title, Vibration and Control. As in Whitehead’s term vibratory organism, or as in Baudelaire’s poem, Music, ‘vibration and control’ suggests the very dynamic of human existence – our lives as shaped expressions of energy…

Music, like an ocean, often carries me away!
Through the ether far,
or under a canopy of mist, I set sail
for my pale star.
Breasting the waves, my lungs swollen
like a ship’s canvas,
night veils from me the long rollers,
I ride their backs:
I sense all a suffering vessel’s passions
vibrating within me:
while fair winds or the storm’s convulsions
on the immense deep
cradle me. Or else flat calm, vast mirror there
of my despair!

I sense all a suffering vessel’s passions / vibrating within me… It’s also the very basis of aesthetic response: Listening to music, sailing away on its ether, makes one resonate with the universal suffering of the human vessel. Yet that sympathetic vibration, because it is for you, at the moment of listening, aestheticized, feels as it were supported (“cradle me.”) Tis what UD has said so often on this blog about artistic experience, and it’s an idea that goes back to Aristotle: We are intensely drawn to aesthetic response in part because it cathartically allows us to go through the feeling of suffering in a way not personal to us. Art “mirrors” our despair; it is not the raw stuff of our despair. It vibrates our being with being and is therefore thrilling, clarifying, purgative, and even – in making us feel universal suffering – compassion-making…

But what grand work of art is titled “Vibration and Control”?

Well, let’s shift gears.

“Vibration and Control” is the name of an engineering journal. One of its contributors was part of a peer review ring:

[Peter] Chen and possible collaborators may have set up as many as 130 fake email accounts that they used to fabricate identities as peer reviewers to help clear articles for publication. On at least one occasion, [the journal’s publisher] alleges, Chen “reviewed his own paper under one of the aliases he had created.”

The journal has in one swell foop retracted SIXTY articles.

Not very poetic, but very postmodern. A lot of journals these days pretty much run themselves. When you don’t have real editors (most journals don’t have much in the way of readers either), this sort of thing will happen. Another instance of what UD calls where the simulacrum ends.


UD thanks two of her readers for various links to this story.

“On the metrics for attendance to NMSU football games, Carruthers confirmed that the NMSU Foundation purchased season tickets to meet the requirement of 15,000 fans per game.”

These foundations are great. They find $300,000 that somehow couldn’t be found for scholarships and give it to politicians who visit campus for a few hours to hawk a ghosted book and give a speech. Their 30,343-capacity football stadium can’t attract half that, so money that could go to scholarships or something vaguely academic instead goes to buy seats – empty seats, but they’re paid for – in a football stadium.

This – as this post’s category puts it – is where the simulacrum ends. It’s the way simulacral culture eventually ends up infecting even our universities.

There are lots of things to unpack, thinks UD, in the Hillary/UNLV dustup…

… in which student leaders at the University of Nevada Las Vegas (a school that’s a perennial source of ridicule on this blog, by the way) object to the – everyone’s trotting out the usual adjectives – obscene, outrageous, grotesque – payment she’s getting to give a speech at the school. The students, who attend a university constantly and, uh, outrageously raising tuition and fees, a school about to build a billion dollar football stadium, are shocked that anyone would be handed $225,000 to read an hour’s worth of platitudes (an hour? maybe less) written by someone else. (UD will enthusiastically vote for Hillary when she runs, so look elsewhere for an anti-Clinton screed.) (And don’t get me started on the mystery of who wrote her memoir.)

Not long ago, Clinton got $300,000 to do the same thing at UCLA.

UD ran the give a speech for $300,000 thing by Mr UD, and though far from a populist, he too was shocked. For him too something in this transaction – you fly me out, put me up in a nice place, watch while I read a speech, have one of your fund-raising arms give me $300,000, and fly me home – seemed very wrong.


The dustup has me thinking about John Edwards, a presidential candidate with … call them money problems. Remember? This is a from a long profile in Esquire:

Edwards was taking a beating in the press. The two $400 Beverly Hills haircuts that were mistakenly charged to the campaign, his yearlong employment at a New York hedge fund, the revelation that he took large fees for speaking engagements — all of it has been drowning out his message.

“They’re calling you a hypocrite,” I said.

Edwards looked at me, kind of annoyed, kind of resigned. “The truth about me is that I come from a very normal background. Early in our marriage, Elizabeth and I had very normal lives. We got financially successful because I won a bunch of cases. So we had money far beyond what we would ever have expected to have. And I think that part of our life, the financial life, is pretty privileged. You know, that house you went to is a really nice house. But I don’t think either one of us has believed that anything’s changed about us.

“Yes, of course, having money, having people around me, being able to buy a nicer shirt or whatever without having to worry about it, or going to dinner and not having to worry about it, that’s all true, that has changed. But I don’t think it changes anything about me as a person. The people who are critical, well, they don’t know me, they’ve never been around me. They don’t know me personally. That’s what I really believe is the truth.

“Because of the background I come from, I always feel a personal connection with people who are struggling…”

Large fees for speaking engagements… though back then they were probably a piddling amount, like $100,000… Not long after he was president of Harvard, Larry Summers made $135,000 for one speech at Goldman Sachs… That’s nothing…

And what was Edwards’ defense? That despite the absolutely enormous house he’d built himself, despite all of the other gazillion dollar expenditures, he wasn’t a hypocrite because his essential ordinary humble self was unchanged.

Beyond the on-the-face-of-it unpersuasive nature of this argument – unimaginable sums of money clearly had changed him, as such a staggering life transformation would change anyone – there’s the deeper but even more obvious truth that how you use your wealth reflects your morality. Edwards used his in a profligate and narcissistic way; and to add insult to injury he did this while lecturing the nation on the shame of there being Two Americas.

And sure, there are two Americas, which is the heart of what Hillary’s up against. I mean, there are several Americas, but for the purpose of addressing this problem, her problem, there are two. There’s middle-class America, represented by the shocked UNLV students; and there’s Tom “Kristallnacht” Perkins’ America, represented by Brown University’s Steven Cohen (personal wealth $9 billion) and Harvard University’s endowment (approaching $35 billion). And the real problem, ironically enough, since UNLV is a university, is ignorance. The student leaders do not know about, let alone understand, this other America, the America whose one big daily existential issue is what to do with all of its money. People are always bothering Harvard about spending more of its endowment, but Harvard is kind of at a loss. They spend and spend – they’re building an entire other campus, for god’s sake – and it’s still around 35 billion. Cohen is constantly purchasing palazzos and Picassos, but, like some character in Alice in Wonderland, the more he spends the more he makes. This is The Spending Down Problem, the one problem that continues to bedevil our rich country’s large number of super-rich people and institutions. What the hell do we do with it all?

If you understand the problem from this angle, you’re not surprised when people come to your university, read some lines, and get a check for $225,000. The country is bulging with people desperate to dispense their money somehow, somewhere.

Since UD believes the students’ problem is essentially one of education, she has a proposal to make. Our universities should offer – perhaps in the business school – a History of Personal and Institutional Wealth in America, with an emphasis on the last ten years or so, when so much wealth has accumulated in private hands that most observers have trouble believing the numbers, much less the Spending Down Problem. (Review of required text here.) This course would allow America’s university students to look at $300,000 for a speech at their school (not to mention prepare them for the eventual escalation of these fees into the millions) without blinking.

“If the test is unreliable and 99% pass, why have a test at all?”

Where the simulacrum ends.


UD thanks Barney.

“[A] major credit mill fraud operation [appears to have been] run with total impunity inside one of America’s premiere public research universities.”

Kevin Carey lifts discussion of jock school University of North Carolina Chapel Hill to the higher, existential level that was always implicit in nihilistic events there.

Like all universities, particularly those with prestige, [UNC] depends on the idea that it actually exists…

Yes. But this is postmodern America, and the school might be a simulacrum. Lots of universities – all the online ones – are simulacra.

The writing that follows Carey’s words about the non-existence of UNC is so strong that I would like to quote it in its entirety.

UNC Chapel Hill is not a coherent undergraduate institution. It’s a holding company that provides shared marketing, finance, and physical plant services for a group of autonomous departments, which are in turn holding companies for autonomous scholars who teach as they please. This is the only possible explanation for the years-long, wholly undetected operation of the African and Afro-American Studies Department credit fraud scam. Or, rather, it’s the only possible explanation other than a huge, organization-wide conspiracy in which the university administration, department, and football team colluded to hand out fake grades to hundreds of athletes.

The university, of course, vehemently denies that anything resembling the latter scenario is true. Despite damning emails between [Julius] Nyang’oro and the athletic department, UNC is desperately selling the story that the entire credit fraud operation was the work of just two people–Nyang’oro and an assistant–and involved no athletic department wrongdoing of any kind. That’s because while academic misconduct gets you nothing more than a wrist-slap from your accreditor and [a] year of sad/absurd “monitoring” in which the university administration randomly checks classes to make sure they actually exist, athletic misconduct can cost the university things it actually cares about, like money, bowl appearances, and athletic scholarships.

In other words, the only way for UNC administrators to avoid blame for gross academic misconduct is to admit that academic conduct was never their concern.

Meanwhile, the football team must be saved because the intense tribal loyalty generated by big-time sports is one of the chief mechanisms employed by universities to create the illusion that they exist. I’ve lived in Chapel Hill and experienced the closest thing to full-scale Dionysian revelry one is likely to find in modern America, on Franklin Street after the men’s basketball team won it all. It was thrilling. It felt like we were one people, all of us, conquerors. But it was also an illusion (I wasn’t a student at the time), a false consciousness manufactured by the university to conceal its non-existence as an academic institution.

The cynicism and dishonesty inherent to that seep into the cracks of university life, occasionally as outright criminality but far more often as mediocrity and simple indifference. If Julius Nyang’oro had simply bothered to show up in a room on campus from time to time, say something–anything–to some “student” athletes, and hand out a bunch of A-minuses, he never would have been caught. In the modern non-university, he wouldn’t even have been doing something wrong.

Where the Simulacrum Ends

UD has a category on this blog called Where the Simulacrum Ends, and it chronicles the many ways in which high-tech postmodern American culture is making the nuisance of conducting an actual life – a life outside of one’s bedroom, kitchen, and tinted-window car – a thing of the past.

This category has things in common with another UD category – Online Makeover – because among the education-related de-actualizing she chronicles (here, “actual” means going to public buildings and being with other physical humans) is the transformation of the country’s universities to – well, the strongest current model is Southern New Hampshire University, but pretty much everyone else is bringing up the rear. Public life in general in the United States is disappearing, and universities are no exception.


And of course that most salient feature of our higher education institutions – their football games – is also undergoing obsolescence. It’s happening in the professional leagues; it’s happening in the university leagues.

Before long, players may be performing in front of empty stands, with those most interested in the game sitting or standing miles away.

Why should anyone care, though? Ticket sales are no longer the main source of revenue for sports leagues. That may be a fair economical point to be made, but is there nothing to say about the toll this may take on integrity of the games played? Does the game gain a feel of becoming more of a simulation that we score through fantasy points as opposed to real-live action taking place right in front of our eyes?

Integrity… integrity… That strange word seems the core of this statement, yet what does it mean? What does it mean to say that a university or a football game has integrity?

Motto, Postmodern American University: SI NIHIL IBI

Or, as its originator put it, There’s no there there.

How do you make a university disappear?

In the age of the simulacrum, there are many ways.

There’s the process this blog has long called Online Makeover. You phone it in. You put it all online. You go the University of Phoenix route. Plenty of respectable universities are well on their way to this form of disappearance. Their professors outsource their grading to a drudge in India. They outsource the actual running – call it teaching – of the course to for-profit vendors under contract to their university. Vendor-provided “facilitators” do everything, and professors do nothing; they merely clock in to their online course occasionally to satisfy their supervisor that they’re doing something … For, as the language of an AAUP draft report on online changes notes:

Online teaching platforms and learning management systems may permit faculty members to learn whether students in a class did their work and how long they spent on certain assignments. Conversely, however, a college or university administration could use these systems to determine whether faculty members were logging into the service “enough,” spending “adequate” time on certain activities, and the like.


And speaking of professors as supervised clockers-in, reason number two for the disappearance of the postmodern American university can be understood by considering what’s going on lately at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill: mandated spot inspections of classes.

To prove the legitimacy of classes, administrators have fanned out to hundreds of classrooms to verify that students and professors are present. Some departments even discussed bringing in photographers to document classes, according to one professor, Lew Margolis, a faculty member in public health.

As the real university ceases to exist (in UNC’s case, under the weight of hundreds of no there there courses for athletes and assorted others), professors must do their bit to persuade accrediting agencies their university does actually exist…

We DO believe in UNC! We DO we DO we DO we DO!

See, here’s what they’re up against:

[One University of North Carolina student took a class] in the fall of 2005 on Southern Africa that never met. He was a Florida native and undergraduate student paying out-of-state tuition at the time. He wrote the university seeking a tuition credit to make up for the education he did not receive.

[Julius] Nyang’oro was the professor…

“I visited (Nyang’oro) once, when he approved my topic and told me we would not have any scheduled meetings or talks, only that I could contact him if I had a problem,” Ferguson wrote.


Universities aren’t universities because they can show that they have coaches; they’re universities because they can show that they have professors. Thus professors, at the postmodern American university, become – symbolically – the most important group on campus, routinely wheeled out to show the world that their university exists. While contract facilitators gradually take over the teaching, it will be the postmodern professor’s job to pace the campus pensively, ideally wearing an academic gown, as the professors at the College on the Hill, the central location in Don DeLillo’s iconic postmodern American novel White Noise do.


Even when the postmodern American classroom exists, it may not really be anywhere in any meaningful sense. I’m talking about professors who do meet their students, human being to human being, but then instantly turn out the classroom lights, fire up the PowerPoint, put their heads down, and read out loud, while their students gaze at sports and porn on their laptops, play on their smart phones, or take advantage of the setting to get much-needed sleep.

The sleep thing goes to a third significant way in which universities disappear: They go from party schools to party businesses.
A professor at simulacral University of West Virginia explains the shift:

[T]he party school is [now] a business, and alcohol is part of the business model. Schools lure students to attend their schools with the promise of sports, other leisure activities and overall fun. Part of this fun, whether schools like it or not, is drinking. Thus, even as university officials want to keep students safe, they also need to keep their consumers happy. This means letting the alcohol industry do what it does best – sell liquor.

There have always been party schools; the new thing, the thing that makes the party school go from partying to disappeared, is the university as party business, the recruitment and retention of students largely as a function of the provision of alcohol. Places like the University of Iowa, which are basically already distilleries, have had to weather a little dissent from students and faculty, but you can’t argue with the revenues, and UI is clearly recruiting students big-time on the basis of its alcoholic rep. So the synergy here is hung over students plus PowerPointing professors… At the distilleries, there’s really no reason to hold any non-virtual class. These schools will go, or are going, online. The one surviving form of human to human contact at these schools will take place in their stadiums.

Nice Work If You Can Get It

$350 an hour for copying a clutch of Wikipedia pages: While his students go into debt and fail to get jobs, a Georgetown law professor shows everyone exactly how postmodern simulacral culture works. He gets an expert witness for the prosecution gig and lifts much of his expert report from the web. Look Ma – No hands! And I’m getting $350 an hour at the same time! Are you proud of me?

But now he’s gone and fucked up the case.

“[James] Feinerman’s pervasive plagiarism from this unreliable and error-prone source, which has been rejected by federal courts all over the country, casts serious doubt on the reliability of his entire testimony,” … said [a defense lawyer] in a court filing.

Now you know what Feinerman’s gonna say when he’s finally forced to say something. You know because for years you’ve been reading this blog on the subject of the atelier crowd, right? Feinerman’s gonna blame it on the people he hired to write his expert report for him.

Really, really look Ma no hands.

Next Up: Time Card Punching

Big-time athletics enriches the academic setting in so many ways. At North Carolina Chapel Hill

administrators are making surprise inspections in class to make sure courses are actually taking place

because… you know… Julius Nyang’oro and all…

UD‘s advice to UNC Chapel Hill professors: Spruce up and look your best! You only have one chance to make a good first impression.


UD thanks Christopher.

Hadid It Already

China is famous for its copy-cat architecture: you can find replicas of everything from the Eiffel Tower and the White House to an Austrian village across its vast land. But now they have gone one step further: recreating a building that hasn’t even been finished yet. A building designed by the Iraqi-British architect Dame Zaha Hadid for Beijing has been copied by a developer in Chongqing, south-west China, and now the two projects are racing to be completed first… [The plagiarized project] the other is being built at a much faster rate than [Hadid’s].

This is so “meta” …

… that even UD, who prides herself on her grasp of our simulacral world, is having a little trouble.

It’s a diploma mill in Wyoming — nothing to see there; hundreds of thousands of diploma mills operate all over the world, and Wyoming is one of the most pro-diploma-mill states in America (God forbid the feds interfere with private enterprise). But even by Wyoming’s give-a-shit standards, the gloriously named Degree in a Day (the website provided in the Star Tribune story no longer functions) represents a problem. Dig:

The website tells visitors that purchasers can receive diplomas “in the traditional university manner printed on traditional paper with traditional fonts in the traditional format,” plus official transcripts, signed letters of verification to for use with an employer and letters of recommendation from the dean and president.

Under a tab called, “About Degree in a Day,” the website says it “offers verifiable and authentic life experience degrees from our own ‘Anonymous Universities.’” It continues, “We will never publish the name or allow it to be associated with this site to anyone other than alumni. We do this to ensure our alumni can feel confident there will not be any negative press online about their degree.”

The website “gives examples of legitimate-appearing university websites that it promises to construct in order to give purchasers ‘further proof their degree is in fact authentic,’” according to the complaint.

So… UD‘s been trying to figure this one out. Here’s what she’s come up with. If she’s right about the business model, it represents an authentic advance in the industry.

As soon as a diploma mill’s name becomes known, it becomes notorious. Coverage of the scam will invariably refer to “the notorious degree mill, LaSalle University,” or whatever. In order to avoid instantly stigmatizing the millions of people who’ve gotten bogus degrees from this or that outfit, Degree in a Day will tailor-make a pretend online university just for you. It will come up with a name (the model assumes one will never run out of plausible-sounding university names, and this seems to UD a reasonable assumption) that will be known only to you and to the few to non-existent employers who ever bother to check your credentials.

One particularly brilliant aspect of this model involves (I assume) the ability at a moment’s notice to change the university from which you graduated. Once you’ve been run out of town because of the exposure of your fake Cambridgetown Institute of Technology degree, you can go back to Degree in a Day and have them construct Oxfordshire Institute of Technology.

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