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The Shootist/The Monastery /The Whorehouse

Universities have their quota of disgruntled people. There is a perhaps lucrative book waiting to be written — The Ungraduate? — about the attempts that have been made on professors lives, more often by students than by other faculty. When I was in graduate school there were at least a few more than apocryphal recollections of such occurrences. A casual google search quickly leads you to many, of which just several are…

There are many more. Google “Bayard Peakes” for some interesting information.

Killing someone isn’t going to get you tenure or a degree. But there is definitely something anomalous about modern universities; when I returned to academic life seven years ago I found it unlike what I had recalled or imagined.

Part of the confusion is the perplexity as to where universities lie in the spectrum of higher learning vs business. Forty years ago, at least in my imagination from the student side of things, it was simple: your grades were supposed to be all that mattered (in England and South Africa, provided in the latter case, of course, that you were the right color) and everything else counted for nothing. Universities were supposed to be dedicated to learning and teaching, and tenure provided some freedom.

Now, universities are different, and don’t quite know which camp they fall in, the idealists or the moneymakers.

They patent algorithms.

Pharma companies reside on their premises.

Administrators think it’s their job to be entrepreneurs and fund raisers.

Departments strive to provide executive education as a way of generating funds.

They admit more students than there are future jobs for because they like the cash flow.

They inflate grades and are tempted to tolerate cheating because their students are quite clearly customers.

And on the (somewhat perhaps?) good side, professors themselves get graded by students. (I took quantum mechanics from Robert Serber who pulled out his ancient yellowed notes from his jacket pocket and copied them onto the board while he took long deep luxurious puffs from his chain of cigarettes. No powerpoints given out in advance, no office hours.)

And they give tenure, the apparent trigger for the recent episode. It’s such an all-or-nothing thing; where else in the world is there a job that they can never fire you from? (Apparently, I recently learned, in the NYC school system.)

Nevertheless, many universities, like Walmart, use non-tenured adjuncts at a fraction of their cost to do the heavy lifting cheaply, the correct phrase, I’m told, being the “proletarianization of academic life”.

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