News From Academe

Philosophical ruminations.
Jan. 21 1998 3:30 AM

News From Academe

News from academe.

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Tenure Cracks

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Tenure--the promise of lifetime job security for academics--may be losing its raison d'être: a guaranteed salary. In 1992, Northwestern University declined to renew the contract of Dan Kirschenbaum, a tenured psychologist and the director of a money-losing eating-disorders clinic at the medical school. Administrators claimed that a permanent appointment didn't mean permanent compensation. Now the University of Southern California has taken a similar step. A new proposal at the USC medical school gives tenured professors just 20 percent of their salaries every year. The rest will be subject to annual negotiation. Is this ploy a legitimate new way for universities to get rid of faculty deadwood? Or is it an illegal breach of contract? The courts will decide soon: Kirschenbaum's case against Northwestern goes to trial in April, and 23 USC professors have also filed suit.

Prize Fight

Last May, judges for Britain's 1997 National Cash Registers or NCR Award--the Commonwealth's biggest prize for nonfiction--admitted that they hadn't bothered to read all the entries. Mortified, the award's official sponsor, the business-computing company NCR, has announced that 1997's award was the last. To select the winning title from among 122 submissions, a panel of five judges, most of them media personalities, relied on synopses provided by "professional readers," as well as on published reviews, reports from business acquaintances, and cocktail-party gossip. No one is quibbling with the winning selection, Orlando Figes' A People's Tragedy: A History of the Russian Revolution--just with the process. "We are busy working people," one judge told the London Observer. "We just haven't got the time. Some of the books are 500-page jobs on subjects such as ... the death of the British countryside."

Closet Conservatives

Tired of being attacked by other leftists for, among other things, obscurantism, pointlessness, and a lack of political commitment, academia's postmodern leftists have decided to fight back. On Jan. 31, heavy-hitting literary theorists, including Judith Butler of the University of California at Berkeley and Jonathan Arac and Paul Bové of the University of Pittsburgh, will convene to explore the previously unrecognized right-wing affinities of such thinkers as Nation political columnist Katha Pollitt, feminist Time columnist Barbara Ehrenreich, and New York University physicist Alan Sokal. (Sokal is the author of a parody of science-studies scholarship that was unwittingly published as serious scholarship by the postmodernist journal Social Text.) "A specter is haunting U.S. intellectual life: the specter of Left Conservatism," explains the flyer advertising the workshop, which is to be held at the University of California at Santa Cruz. "We can see, in the work of some of the writers listed above, ... claims for a certain kind of empiricism, for common sense, for linguistic transparency." "Left Conservatives" are also guilty of "an attempt at consensus-building ... that is founded on notions of the real." None of the writers to be discussed was invited to the workshop.

What's the Use?

Jeremy Bentham, father of utilitarianism, will be attending a symposium next month at the University of Texas marking the 250th anniversary of his birth. Bentham--who believed the purpose of government was to provide the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people--died in 1832, but his corpse, preserved according to the philosopher's own specifications and dressed in the formal fashion of his day, sits in a glass box at University College, London. Panelists at the Austin conference will address their remarks directly to their long-deceased subject, via a live video hookup. University of Chicago political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain plans to deliver a paper titled "Bentham Stuffed," and the festivities will culminate with a birthday bash featuring a cake in the shape of a panopticon--the high-surveillance prison designed by Bentham but not realized during his lifetime.

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Degraded

Harvard Business School students will vote this week on whether to adopt a policy that will forbid them to reveal their grades to a prospective employer until after a job offer is on the table. The school awards prestigious degrees but, because of its notoriously rigid bell-curve grading system, students often graduate with less-than-stellar GPAs that they'd like to hide. Arguing for the new policy, which other top schools such as Stanford and Wharton follow, a student association brochure claims, "The image of the [Harvard Business] School would be enhanced among prospective students, who might perceive grade measurement as creating a 'ruthlessly competitive environment,' " which, presumably, would be too much for an aspiring capitalist to handle.

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