University Diaries can’t tell you how much it means to her…

… that a university is the very cornerstone of this presidential election.

Historians of the American University…

… can thank Judge Gonzalo Curiel for opening the annals of Trump University, a landmark postmodern school. Until the inauguration of the University of California Goldman Sachs, Trump U. will continue to stand as our nation’s most cutting-edge institution.

“No one earns $100 million. You steal $100 million.”

With Fran Lebowitz’s words in mind (UD, you recall, interviewed Lebowitz not long ago), let us once again, very gingerly, sidle up to the Sketchy Benefactor problem — the problem with your university taking hundreds of millions of dollars from people who… eh… meh… bleh…

Take Michael Milken. Start with him because he’s local – I mean, local to ol’ UD, because he bought her university a very beautiful building which houses a very fine school of public health, which he also bought for us.

If there is a poster boy for the redemptive powers of philanthropy, it’s Michael Milken. In 1993 the former junk bond king of Drexel Burnham Lambert emerged from a minimum security federal prison after serving 22 months of a 10-year sentence for securities fraud. He seemed a new man — partly because he had abandoned his toupee — and this revised Milken took advantage of his freedom by dedicating himself to giving back. (His finances quickly recovered after he paid the $600 million in fines and restitution; his current net worth is estimated at more than $2 billion.) In the decades since, he has donated consistently and significantly: more than $60 million to teachers and $50 million to George Washington University’s school of public health. His Prostate Cancer Foundation has raised $210 million. There is plenty of evidence that these good works are sincere. Is it also useful? Well, when news of a new SEC investigation into whether Milken’s involvement with Guggenheim Partners had violated his lifetime ban from the securities industry, Milken’s official denial in Fortune magazine read like a recap of his past 20 years of giving.

So no problem with Milken’s name being all over the GW landscape because he paid his debt to society and though in a perfect world we might prefer not to be associated with someone who had to do that in the first place, okay. But what if, while no longer flagrantly stealing, he’s still a sketchy person who when cornered on alleged continued sketchiness points directly at my university and what he gave it in order to exonerate himself?

Yes, GW’s had to deal with sketchy performers and sketchy honorary degree recipients lately; but this is small-time one-off stuff compared to (switching universities here) putting Steven Cohen or Bernard Madoff on your board of trustees or plastering sketchy names all over your most prominent buildings.

I mean… Seton Hall!

Or, staying with Catholic schools here, there’s the lawsuit against Georgetown University for failing to put a donor’s name on a building he bought just because the donor was convicted of insider trading. A long lawsuit between the guy and the university ensued, and if you go to the campus today you can take in the Scott K. Ginsburg Sport & Fitness Center — although, curiously, when you click on the Google link to an article in a university publication titled GEORGETOWN LAW CELEBRATES THE SCOTT K. GINSBURG SPORT & FITNESS CENTER, the connection times out. UD‘s gonna guess they caved, they settled with the guy, they put his name on the building and grimaced through its christening, and then they removed from sight all online references to having celebrated any of this…

Anyway, it’s an old story. Lure of lucre. Lure of respectability. UD only brings it up because of the very strange ongoing latest Caspersen story. The sketchy Caspersen family has a long and important donor relationship with Harvard, and as the alleged actions of the father and now the son tarnish the name more and more, there’s the question of how much tarnishing-by-association Harvard will tolerate. It’s not merely that the Caspersen name is prominent on campus; it’s that in virtually every news article about Andrew Caspersen’s court dates and bail amounts Harvard prominently appears.

You might say Harvard’s too rich and prestigious to care. You might be right. But remember that Harvard is under constant pressure from the government and the media and even from within to account in some way for its immense accumulated wealth. Fighting an ongoing battle against releasing a nickel of its money (this cartoon is out of date; the endowment’s now worth way more than 35 billion) is not made easier by one story after another about sketchy rich people who have helped put Harvard way over the top. In the case of Caspersen’s father, for instance, if it turns out that he did in fact evade taxes on a large scale (this has not been proved; he was under investigation by the IRS at the time of his death), Americans might actually stop and ask themselves why they are both giving huge tax breaks to Harvard University and tolerating donors who are tax evaders. Is zat how Harvard got so rich that the fact of its richness has now become a national controversy? Through ripping us off via tax breaks and then ripping us off again via tax evasions?

“Nona Buckley-Irvine said that she had a lovely time at the dinner and ‘barely noticed’ the separation.”

Well, yes, there was a seven-foot high screen keeping me and my sisters away from the men… But if it weren’t there, our London School of Economics brothers would rape and ravish us and that wouldn’t be lovely, would it? I mean, for us. For the sisters hidden behind the curtain. That wouldn’t be lovely.

I thought it was a very tasteful way of keeping them from raping us. I so look forward to next year’s dinner. Maybe place the curtain a tad higher and put more layers of clothing on us.

“Oberlin hired an unrepentant bigot to teach undergraduates to write about justice and guide them in their moral development.”

Quite true, and this Tablet writer captures the real scandal at Oberlin, which is similar to the real scandal at Florida Atlantic University, and at the University of Colorado: How do hiring committees at American universities end up appointing vicious ideologues? What sort of hiring committee says We want to expose our students to sadists and knaves, and this is a sadist and a knave? How can we account for the regular emergence among the American professoriate of liars and moral idiots?

UD thinks the outcome only seldom has to do with what you might call fanatic affinity. It seems unlikely to her that there are other people on hiring committees who think the Sandy Hook massacre was a government-created charade intended to destroy our gun rights, or that the people killed on 9/11 deserved it, or that the 9/11 plotters were Jews. It seems far more likely to UD that colleges and universities end up with cretinous conspiracy theorists because their hiring committees, for some jobs, are lazy. They don’t read applicants’ writing (including blogs) with any care, or, if they do read, they don’t understand what they are reading.

At some universities, no one much cares who teaches the soft stuff – ethnic studies, communications, composition. Internal standards in these sorts of fields may be as low as they are in the courses designed for football and basketball players. Indeed, some of these are the fields into which the jocks are herded – especially communications. No one should be surprised when actually examining what some of these people write uncovers the political grotesque.

But what are you going to do? FAU and Colorado are big jock schools; it’s as important to them as it is to Auburn and the University of North Carolina to keep the course scam going one way or another. They’re not exactly going to start scrutinizing content and instructor.

As for Oberlin — damned if I know.

Universities on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Like the guys in The Hangover, Chicago State University and the University of Louisville wake up every morning amid mysterious and elaborate wreckage.

In the case of Chicago State it doesn’t help that the state of Illinois is currently without a budget; but over the last decade or so Chicago State has fucked itself up royally with no help from things like budget standoffs. One of the nation’s great drop-out factories, Chicago State goes way past corrupt to inexplicably self-destructive. It can always be found spending heavily on whistle blower cases it always loses. In order to spend even more, it’s pressing its latest losing case up to the state Supreme Court. All of this while handing out potential layoff notices to everyone on campus.

At Louisville, some members of the board of trustees are finally organizing to give that school’s grotesque president the heave-ho. The president’s fellow good old boys on the board are launching some hilarious attacks on these critics.

[Bob] Hughes alleged that the dissident trustees are elitists who didn’t go to U of L and wouldn’t send their children there, and that they are trying to replace Ramsey with someone who is related to one of the trustees.

The intellectual elite! At a university! And they won’t send their kids to one of America’s most depraved universities!

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UD thanks Wendy.

Okay, so your honorary degree recipients and your coaches are assholes.

It happens. When La Kid graduated from George Washington University, now-disgraced honorary degree awardee Brian Williams gave an address in which he lectured UD on personal ethics.

UD‘s kinda hurt because Williams lied to her in his speech: He said it doesn’t pay to cheat, but it does pay to cheat, and he knows it cuz he’s back at his old job after suffering only un p’tit peu for being a cheat.

University coaches are of course – if they’re any good at all – cheaters. Americans know this and love them for it. Coaches do what they have to do to get ahead, just like Brian Williams.

It almost always does pay to cheat in college sports. Wins matter more than integrity. This isn’t exactly a revelation. As Jerry Tarkanian used to say, “Nine out of 10 schools are cheating. The other one is in last place.” …Cheating pays. We’ve learned this from roided-up baseball players who walked away with tens of millions of dollars, and from white-collar criminals whose sentences paled in comparison to those of small-time crack dealers.

You can blame it on a toothless NCAA, or on a college sports system that values the almighty dollar over platitudes of integrity, or on an American culture that values winning over all else.

I’ll call it something else: The fact that schools cheat – and that they get away with it – is a natural result of the odd marriage in America between big-money athletics and academics.

The reference up there to white collar criminals reminds me of one of my all-time favorite commencement speeches, from Allen Greenspan to the young eager hedgies of Wharton. It’s a fascinating address rhetorically. Greenspan knows he’s talking to many of the most-honed, highest-level cheaters America has to offer the world, people who can barely stay seated in their chair before peeling off and starting a Ponzi scheme; and indeed he knows that the background of his talk is the most recent immense number of immense American corporate scandals… So what’s he going to say? Isn’t it all rather… futile….?

I do not deny that many appear to have succeeded in a material way by cutting corners and manipulating associates, both in their professional and in their personal lives. But material success is possible in this world, and far more satisfying, when it comes without exploiting others. The true measure of a career is to be able to be content, even proud, that you succeeded through your own endeavors without leaving a trail of casualties in your wake.

All the herbal viagra in the world won’t make this less limp.

Just as it’s especially amusing to watch the winningest coaches shovel the moral shit in their books and speeches, it’s a special treat to watch income inequality’s biggest boosters dish out the do-goodery.

The only trouble mondo cheato ever runs into is when pesky university students decide to get all judgmental about some of the important inspirational people on their campus. It bothers Yalies that Bill Cosby has an honorary degree that their school refuses to revoke. Why does it refuse to revoke Cosby’s degree? Yale says two things in response to this question:

1. It’s never revoked a degree before. (And we all know that timid backwater places like Yale can never do anything new.)

2. It doesn’t want to talk about it. Shut up.

UD rather admires Yale’s unwillingness even to try to argue the point. (Northwestern, where UD was an undergrad, is also opting for silence.) Tons of universities have revoked Cosby’s honorary degrees, and they’ve stated their reasons, but Yale’s like eh I don’t know didn’t I tell you to shut up? It’s like Yale acknowledges what UD has been saying which is like Hello? Everybody’s an asshole and the biggest assholes get honorary degrees. Nuff said.

One university leader has, however, been willing to go there. One leader has ignored the wisdom of the keep-mum crowd and gone there. Let us consider Stephen Trachtenberg’s opinion piece in the campus newspaper. Scathing Online Schoolmarm will interrupt his sentences with her commentary.

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‘I was the GW president back in the day when we gave Bill Cosby an honorary degree. At the time, he was arguably the most popular Commencement speaker of my tenure. His remarks at graduation were received with an ovation. All attending cheered him. He was celebrated for his contributions to American culture and for his comic genius. [Spectacular dude. Was his dissertation majorly bogus? Should this matter to a university like yours as it honors him? Nah.]

It would appear, on the basis of information only now revealed, that he had, in addition to his artistic gifts, a dark and troubling and tragic hidden side. [Tragic. Da guy’s a regular Hamlet already!] Had we known of that we would not have awarded him plaudits. But we did not.

All today seem well-informed of Mr. Cosby’s seemingly Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story. His life and reputation lie in tatters. One can only speculate on the mental health issues that may underlie the behavior that numerous women have reported regarding Mr. Cosby. [There, there. It’s all about his tragic mental issues. Let’s not get all moral about this… But UD can’t help wondering: Why didn’t Mr Cosby, during the century or so during which he drugged and assaulted women, consult someone about his troubling behavior? I guess had he known that he had psychological problems he would not have attacked all those women. But he did not.]

People of accomplishment can, as we know, also have criminal or evil characteristics. I think of Ezra Pound, a man of towering poetic, artistic and critical gifts, and a fascist war criminal who lived out his life in a prison hospital. [Yes. Pound was punished for what he did. And again unlike Cosby, Pound was indeed clinically insane. That’s why he was in a prison hospital. His Bollingen Prize was so controversial that Congress ended – revoked, if you like – the involvement of the Library of Congress in that award program.]

What good would it do to void Mr. Cosby’s diploma? Who actually celebrates it today? He is revealed and reviled. I am not keen on trying to rewrite history. We must own our past and learn from it. There is no Platonic device for awarding honors. We do our best to celebrate the good. We work with the best information available. But being human, we have erred in the past and will no doubt do so again in the future. [Enough platitudes for you? Mr Trachtenberg needs to go back and think about the many forms of public rejection, retraction, and revocation which have been a feature of the moral life of this country – and this country’s traditions – from the beginning. It does a lot of moral good – by way of clarification of one’s principles, and official removal from the community of people who seriously offend it – to void awards whose conferral turns out to have been a sick joke.]

We need to redouble our efforts to avoid such failures of judgement in the years to come but must in humility appreciate our limitations and permit experience to inform our thinking. There is a rough charm to the proposal that we should recall our degree from Mr. Cosby, but it is a blunt instrument that does not do real justice to the dreadful challenge it seeks to address. It does not actually get to right. It provides no real comfort to the abused. [How do you know? Have you heard what the abused have said? The obscenity of their attacker having been protected and even celebrated by the culture has featured prominently in their suffering. One of the reasons it took so long for law enforcement to catch up with Cosby was his many-laureled cultural identity, an identity to which GW contributed.]

Mr. Cosby knows that we no longer esteem him. Everybody knows. He is down. He is out. The degree is as null and void as it can be. It is self-executing. However much he may deserve it, I am disinclined to kick him again to underscore our own virtue. It’s too easy.’ [Oh yes, it’s just our virtue-narcissism at play. How contemptible of us.]

Summa Trumpologica

Frank Rich writes a grand synthesis of university-president-cum-presidential-candidate Donald Trump here. In a literate and amusing analysis of Trump’s lineage and appeal, Rich does not forget to mention his intellectual chops, a subject of abiding interest on a blog called University Diaries:

That “pledge” [not to run as a third party candidate] served Trump’s immediate goal of securing his spot on primary ballots, but come next year it will carry no more weight than a certificate from the now-defunct Trump University.

The Future of an Illusion

Today the American universities not only form the best system of higher education in the world, but are morally impressive institutions. They are not incoherent, nor are they in crisis.

Well, I guess this ain’t Allan Bloom.

No, it’s UD‘s hero, Richard Rorty.

She likes Bloom, but she likes Rorty more.

Her other heroes? The two Christophers: Christopher Lasch and Christopher Hitchens.

Albert Camus. George Orwell. Philip Rieff. Tony Judt.

Can we derive some coherence from these dead white males? Can we say why the same human being would swoon reading both hyper-righties and hyper-lefties? (And weren’t Lasch and Hitchens sort of both?) Why the same human being would applaud when Rorty says universities aren’t in crisis, and when Bloom says they are?

Do we want simply to say, with Gwendolyn, that ‘In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.’? Because all of these men wrote well (Rieff wrote like a jerk, yes, but not all the time. Not in his earlier days.), and some of them (Orwell) wrote insanely well.

No. Surely we want to grant UD a tad more depth than this. It’s not merely about writing style. Yet writing style is part of it. These men are all impassioned moralists, impassioned social justice warriors, and their prose shows it. Their prose has the sort of kick you get when you actually care about what you’re saying, when you believe that language is politics and that politics is how you decrease human suffering. It’s very much like what George Saunders says in an appreciation of E.L. Doctorow:

What I found particularly inspiring about Doctorow was the way he would tweak form to produce moral-ethical effect — the way that he seemed not to see these two things as separate. Reading his great “Ragtime,” for example, I can feel that all of that technical verve is there necessarily — to serve and escalate meaning and emotion. But as important — the verve serves and escalates the fun, the riveting sense that a particular and wonderful human mind is having a great time riffing on the things of this world, trying to make sense of them. The work exudes fascination with the human, and a wry confidence in it, and inspires these feelings in us as we read. Doctorow, we might say, role-models a hopeful stance toward what can be a terrifying world.

******************

In the same remarks of his I quote from at the beginning of this post, Rorty says:

If I were writing a history of the American university, I would tell an upbeat story about the gradual replacement of the churches by the universities as the conscience of the nation. One of the most important things that happened in the U.S. in the twentieth century was that the universities became the places where movements for the relief of human suffering found privileged sanctuaries and power bases. The universities came to play a social role that they had not played in the nineteenth century.

An impassioned atheist, Rorty reveres the American university as the place where arts- and sciences-inspired free and democratic discourse about the world and how to improve it, and about humanity and how to know and love it, thrives. The university is where we gather to read and talk about morally charged language, like Doctorow’s.

***************

Remember what Bartlett Giamatti called the university: a free and ordered space. When Rorty calls the university “not incoherent,” he doesn’t mean it’s coherent, as in fully pulled together, fully ordered and organized around some shared principle or faith. (And as readers of this blog know, once a university decides to organize itself around Joe Paterno, forfuckinggetit.) He means it’s coherent enough – it’s ordered enough to be free enough to generate the sorts of conversations, readings, and experiences that tend to make people (students, professors, readers of the research professors and students generate) more lucid and more compassionate. And more free, rather in the way of, as Saunders puts it, having fun — being part of a classroom where people are experiencing “the riveting sense that a particular and wonderful human mind is having a great time riffing on the things of this world, trying to make sense of them.” That mind, in the university setting, is a collective one, made up of the free and at the same time ordered synergy between a professor and her students.

***************

All of this is by way of background for a few comments on this intriguing opinion piece in today’s New York Times.

Kevin Carey is clearly on Bloom’s side. This is his opening paragraph:

To understand the failures of the modern American college system — from admissions marketing to graduation rates — you can begin with a notorious university football scandal.

So we’re going to talk about Chapel Hill as emblematic of what has made American universities a failure. Not just a failure – a nothing. An illusion. Carey’s title: The Fundamental Way that Universities are an Illusion. Later in the piece he will talk about them as Easter eggs – beautiful on the outside, dead on the inside.

The Nyang’oro fraud went on as long as it did because

U.N.C. had essentially no system for upholding the academic integrity of courses. “So long as a department was offering a course,” one distinguished professor told the investigators, “it was a legitimate course.” … The illusory university pretends that all professors are guided by a shared sense of educational excellence specific to their institution. In truth, as the former University of California president Clark Kerr observed long ago, professors are “a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking.”… When college leaders talk about academic standards, they often mean admissions standards, not standards for what happens in classrooms themselves. Or they vaguely appeal to traditions and shared values without any hard evidence of their meaning… The problem for students is that it is all but impossible to know ahead of time which part of the disunified university is which. [And the problem for faculty is that this] kind of profound dissonance can knock askew the moral compasses of people who have ostensibly dedicated their professional lives to education. How else to explain the many people at Chapel Hill — including, incredibly, the director of a center on ethics — who abetted or ignored rampant fraud?

It’s the free and ordered thing again. Carey believes the freedom Rorty identifies in the American university has dissipated into disorder, so that anything goes in terms of pedagogical content, which makes the world safe for the endemic cheating we know goes on at virtually all big-time sports schools. At such schools – the cutting edge, Carey seems to argue, of the frayed American university – even faculty – even ethics faculty – are cheaters. And why? Because they recognize “no shared values,” no “shared sense of educational excellence,” that would give existential identity, much less academic integrity, to the place where they happen to work.

In response to this, I’d like to cite Rorty once again:

In one sense, [the term “morality”] is used to describe someone relatively decent, trustworthy, and honest – one who gives correct change, keeps promises, doesn’t lie much, can usually be relied upon to take an appropriate share in cooperative efforts, and so on. It seems to me if you’re not that sort of person by the time you’re eighteen, it’s probably too late. I don’t think that sociopaths who enter the university are corrigible by any measures that the academy might adopt. If the family, the community, the church, and the like, haven’t made you a relatively decent member of society, haven’t given you a conscience that stops you from cheating the customers, administering date rape drugs, or doing a lot of things we hope our eighteen year olds won’t do, the university won’t either. The academy can’t take on the job of straightening you out, of creating the conscience that the rest of the culture didn’t manage to produce during your first eighteen years.

This is the same point UD tirelessly makes about the absurdity of ethics courses in business schools – and those are older students. They’ve had four or five years past undergraduate school to acquire a sense of decency.

And how much more hopeless when you’re whatever age professors Jan Boxhill and Julius Nyang’oro were when they dedicated year after year of their lives to robbing students of an education and trashing their school’s integrity…

Carey wants us to believe that the openness of their work setting, the structural trust of faculty and students upon which the maturity and generativity of the American university rests, knocked askew the fragile moral compasses of Boxhill and Nyang’oro. But that trust did nothing to their morality because they lacked morality all by themselves; they were the sort of people who take advantage of the trust others place in them, and the openness of the American university simply made it easier for them to do the sorts of things they do because of the way they are. UD doesn’t think we should press the great free liberal arts schools of America in the direction of moral explicitness and constraint merely because some of the people there are bad actors.

Thomas Jefferson, Pat Robertson, and Donald Trump:

These three American presidential candidates all founded universities. Jefferson, who of course went on to become president, established the University of Virginia. Robertson, who ran but failed to become president, founded Regent University. Trump, currently running, founded Trump University.

You want FRATERNITIES?

Go to the University of Arizona Tucson.

Real testimony on the experience of attending South Carolina State University.

When I was a student/athlete at then-SCSC, I witnessed increased donations in the athletic department but we as students got nothing. We went from flying to events and games to riding a bus for 15 to 20 hours while coaches received increased salaries, bought new houses and cars, and continued to travel by air. Large donations presented at halftime during footballs games were not spent on the science department as indicated at the time of presentation.

I must say I love SCSU, but the mismanagement of funds has negatively affected enrollment and has caused a decrease in donations from alumni. SCSU, a historically black college, has in years past been a very respected institution, but the actions of deceitful people in power have caused many who would have chosen SCSU to go elsewhere.

This is what legislators deciding the school’s fate really need: Direct testimony from honest people who’ve been there. Of all the things said in the last couple of weeks about SCSU, UD finds this the most persuasive and the most moving.

A university is a delicate thing; a university means an enormous amount on many levels to many of its graduates. When a regime of greed and deceit sets in on campus (I’m looking at you, Yeshiva University), these graduates, wounded and angry, pull back. Word gets around. Contributions and applications tank.

Schools like these need completely new presidents and boards of trustees. And that’s only a first step.

The President on Schools like South Carolina State University.

According to [Congressional Black Caucus] members, [President Obama recently told them] that struggling HBCUs with low graduation rates are failing black students, and he reportedly said that the lowest-performing institutions “should fall by the wayside.”

Under an existential threat to the school, South Carolina State University is able to gather fewer than thirty people to a rally.

The turnout strengthens the arguments of those in the legislature who point out that there’s no there there.

UD recommends that SCSU stop holding rallies.

UD’s mouth fell open in disbelief YEARS ago about South Carolina State University.

You can follow her many posts about this staggeringly pointless institution by typing South Carolina State University in her search engine. She has often wondered aloud, on this blog, why the chump taxpayers of that state don’t en masse refuse to pay up until SCSU, with its virtually non-existent student body and its corrupt leadership, is shut down.

Now a state subcommittee has indeed voted to close the money pit, though higher level votes are needed to really make this happen. As proposed, the closure would be temporary; but the measure would almost certainly hasten the natural evolution of the campus toward extinction. You cannot function without students and without money. Taxing citizens year after year in order to transfer revenue to an empty outstretched hand is insane.

And speaking of transfer: Under the plan, SCSU students with respectable GPAs would be free to transfer to other state campuses. They may thus have an actual shot at an education.

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