Ushering in the modern era of superstar professors

Princeton is doomed. With Cornel West now spreading his brand of academic “brilliance” at the eating clubs of Nassau, there’s even less of a reason to visit New Jersey. But perhaps not for long. Someday, Princeton President Shirley Tilghman will say something to offend the members of the African-American Studies Program, and they will leave in a huff. Maybe their brand of scholarship will be criticized a bit too harshly, or the university will refuse to allow West to rap at the Commencement exercises. Either way, West and his comrades will find cause to whine.

According to The New York Times, West decided to go to Princeton because Harvard did not seem eager enough to keep him on the faculty. In a quote that is tasteless at best, West said that “[Harvard President] Larry Summers strikes me as the Ariel Sharon of American higher education. He struck me very much as a bull in a china shop, and as a bully, in a very delicate and dangerous situation.”

Dangerous situation? Let’s recap the facts.

Summers received a great deal of attention for criticizing West’s work at the beginning of the year. In a move that was praised by some, Summers willingly criticized one of his academic demagogues — a scholar who has spent his years churning out books of questionable merit and most recently revealed his penchant for “danceable education” — West’s own way of referring to his new rap CD. After spending a great deal of time supporting the political campaigns of Bill Bradley and the Rev. Al Sharpton, West was approached by Summers, who supposedly wished to oversee West’s academic work.

An indignant West felt that he was being abused by his university, declaring that as a professor he is a “free agent” and should be left to his own devices.

A similar situation occurred at Yale two years ago, when President Richard Levin criticized Hazel Carby, the chairwoman of the then African American Studies Program. Upon hearing Levin praise Harvard’s Afro-American Studies Department, Carby resigned in protest, feeling that Yale was not supportive of her program. Soon thereafter, African American Studies was elevated to departmental status.

The pattern that emerges in these two examples is frightening. When professors feel that they are receiving undue criticism, they complain until they receive the honor they feel they deserve. West, not feeling loyal to anyone but himself, fled from Cambridge in response to criticism. And Carby was planning to resign until Yale elevated the status of her discipline.

It seems that the modern administration has lost its spine. Standards of scholarship or a willingness to criticize have been discarded in favor of the practice of coddling tenured faculty members. Historically, professors were not merely dedicated to their own superstar status, but to their universities as well. It is reasonable for members of the administration to show concern for the output of individual departments — indeed, universities should exert influence in order to prevent shoddy academic work from reflecting poorly on the school.

But now, some professors feel that they are above reproach. In an environment that should thrive on debate and controversy, people like Carby and West demand to be treated with with silk gloves.

If faculty members consider themselves too important to be criticized, they are not dedicated to the shared enterprise of the university. Academic institutions thrive on debate and the sense that dialogue among scholars will reap great rewards for society. Faculty who are more enamored with fame than with scholarship are encouraged to seek employment elsewhere.



Justin Zaremby is a junior in Calhoun College. His columns appear on alternate Tuesdays.

Comments