PRAGMATISM vs. THE GAG REFLEX

Posted in Rants on May 11th, 2011 by Ed

The great but largely forgotten journalist Sydney Harris once said, "You may be certain that when a man begins to call himself a 'realist,' he is preparing to do something he is secretly ashamed of." That quote kept coming to mind as I read this:

A conservative billionaire who opposes government meddling in business has bought a rare commodity: the right to interfere in faculty hiring at a publicly funded university.

A foundation bankrolled by Libertarian businessman Charles G. Koch has pledged $1.5 million for positions in Florida State University's economics department. In return, his representatives get to screen and sign off on any hires for a new program promoting "political economy and free enterprise."

Traditionally, university donors have little official input into choosing the person who fills a chair they've funded. The power of university faculty and officials to choose professors without outside interference is considered a hallmark of academic freedom.

Under the agreement with the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, however, faculty only retain the illusion of control. The contract specifies that an advisory committee appointed by Koch decides which candidates should be considered. The foundation can also withdraw its funding if it's not happy with the faculty's choice or if the hires don't meet "objectives" set by Koch during annual evaluations.

My favorite Calvin and Hobbes panel features Calvin lamenting not that everyone has a price, but that the price is always so low. It took all of $1.5 million – a pittance by the standards of a large research university – for Florida State to surrender the power to make its own hiring decisions. Sorry to play the slippery slope card, but one must wonder how far off we are from non-profit "foundations" sponsoring their own departments and purchasing university naming rights. If the story itself wasn't depressing enough, the comments from the Dean finished the job:

A separate grant from BB&T funds a course on ethics and economics in which Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged is required reading. The novel, which depicts society's collapse in the wake of government encroachment on free enterprise, was recently made into a movie marketed to tea party members.

"If somebody says, 'We're willing to help support your students and faculty by giving you money, but we'd like you to read this book,' that doesn't strike me as a big sin," said Rasmussen of the BB&T arrangement, which the bank has with about 60 schools. "What is a big sin is saying that certain ideas cannot be discussed."

Nor does he fear that the agreements with Koch and BB&T will prompt future donors to demand control over hiring or curriculum.

Said Rasmussen, "I have no objections to people who want to help us fund excellence at our university. I'm happy to do it."

Is there a sadder phrase in the English language than "It's really not so bad…"? A more tacit admission that one is engaged in some kind of morally repugnant activity? Even in print the extent to which the Dean is over-justifying what he knows implicitly is disgusting is loud and clear. People like him will likely find little success in convincing academia to try what he's doing because, you know, it's really not as bad as it seems once you suppress the gag reflex and get used to the taste.