Philosophical ruminations.
Aug. 15 1998 3:30 AM

News from academe.


Suing 101


The latest trend in malpractice law is educational lawsuits. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that nearly 30 students are suing their universities for "breach of contract, fraud, misrepresentation, or negligence." Most of the claimants are angry at the poor quality or low value of the degrees they received. James M. Houston, who earned a Ph.D. in educational leadership from Northern Arizona University in 1995, is seeking $1 million in punitive damages for an education he says makes him a "fraud."

Other litigants are suing over degrees that were never awarded. A student who had enrolled at Lorain County Community College in Ohio in 1993 but never graduated from the school's nursing program is suing for breach of contract and violation of consumer protection laws, Community College Week reports. According to that publication, the student contended that "the catalogue of course offerings and academic policies created a contract that obligated the college to provide him with a nursing degree." He complained that courses required for his degree hadn't been offered during the time of his matriculation, forcing him to leave before earning the degree. But an appeals court threw out the suit, stating, "Ohio does not recognize educational malpractice claims for public policy reasons."

Cutting Off the Nose ...

According to the Southern Illinois University Daily Egyptian, SIU's medical school has "changed its long-standing policy of cutting the limbs off of cadavers to fit them into wardrobe boxes" before shipping them off to be cremated. An e-mail message sent to local media and the Illinois Board of Higher Education had claimed that student workers were employed to remove the limbs and that the policy was designed to save money. Both charges turned out to be false. But the school of medicine has stated that "in the future no student workers will work with cadavers or disintegrated anatomical remains. Further, we will no longer physically alter anatomical remains." SIU says the new policy is more respectful of people who have donated their remains to the cause of science.


In other cadaver news, a technique developed by a German anatomy professor named Gunther von Hagens, which allows him to preserve and study the body in detail, has occasioned protest. Plastination, as the preservation method is called, involves the replacement of blood by a colored polymer, which maintains its shape as the flesh is gradually removed. The entire circulatory system, down to the tiniest capillaries, can be examined at full scale. An exhibition of von Hagens' work has toured Japan and Germany, and protesters have called it an affront to human dignity--which the German Constitution requires citizens to preserve.


Go Fish

Stanley Fish, the flamboyant Milton scholar, legal theorist, and academic celebrity (David Lodge based his jet-setting Professor Morris Zapp on him), has left Duke University and the English department to which he attracted a parade of stars and controversies. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Fish will become dean of liberal arts and sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, a respected commuter campus making a bid for greater prestige and attention. Fish's wife, Jane Tompkins, who has made her disenchantment with conventional teaching and scholarship the subject of both her courses and her writing, will teach one course a year in the school of education.

Fish is not the only academic celebrity making a somewhat mysterious job switch. Philosopher Richard Rorty (whose work was the topic of "Out of Left Field" in Slate) has given up his chair at the University of Virginia (and a salary that made him the highest-paid public employee in the state) in favor of a nontenured post at Stanford, where he'll teach until he retires--or until a better offer comes along. His reason: He wants to be nearer to some members of his family.


Face It

A professor of English at the University of Mainz, Germany, believes she has figured out what William Shakespeare really looked like. Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel believes the closest likeness may be a death mask most other scholars think is a fake. Hammerschmidt-Hummel, working with a team of scientists using advanced photographic techniques, found close similarities between the mask and a famous bust of Shakespeare, which she believes was copied from it. In particular, the bust bears traces of "three small swellings on the nasal corner of the left eye"--swellings that are evident on the death mask as well. The mask also shows a swelling in the upper left eyelid, which, according to Professor Walter Lerche, head of the Horst-Schmidt eye clinic in Wiesbaden, Germany, could be evidence of a rare form of cancer that may have killed the bard. British Shakespeare scholars remain skeptical, both of the death mask's authenticity and of the possibility of discovering Shakespeare's true face.


All Politics Is Local

Another NYU video controversy: NYU's Project on Media Ownership, under the direction of journalism Professor Mark Crispin Miller, recently completed a study of the effects of local television news on the civic life of Baltimore. PROMO's report claimed that local TV news foments fear and hostility among city residents and suburbanites alike by devoting a disproportionate share of its broadcast time to crime. Such "inadvertent anti-urban propaganda" also hurts Baltimore's reputation and economy.


But the nonprofit research firm Public Agenda, whose polls PROMO used for the report, has publicly disavowed it. In its own press release, given to the Baltimore Sun and posted on the organization's Web site, Public Agenda charged that PROMO's report "while using data that are technically correct, distorts Public Agenda's findings by presenting them in a biased context and tone." In particular, the pollsters charge that PROMO downplayed the extent to which respondents' fear of crime was based on the experience of crime--53 percent of those polled had said that they or someone they loved had been the victim of a crime. Miller stands by his conclusions and insists that "anyone who reads my overview and their report will see that there is absolutely no disagreement."

Girls! Girls! Girls!

New York University has filed a lawsuit against the operators of a soft porn Web site. The site purported to display footage, picked up from an "NY University Dorm Cam," of young women dressed in skimpy clothing bearing the NYU insignia cavorting in a room decorated with NYU paraphernalia. The site promises that the women will "romp for your enjoyment in their own dorm room." Visitors to the site have included journalistic bon vivant Anthony Haden-Guest, who noted in a recent "Talk of the Town" piece for The New Yorker that among the "humdrum vulgarities that have become the bread and butter of the Internet," one can cop "a peek at some female NYU students who have wired up their dorm room." But the university's suit refers to the rompers as "alleged NYU co-eds" and assures all concerned that "there is no 'NYU Dorm Cam' installed in any NYU dorm room."

The Class System

Students at less prestigious British universities will soon be able to take courses with such Oxford and Cambridge luminaries as physicist Steven Hawking, literary critic Terry Eagleton, and paleontologist Richard Dawkins, through a national system of video linkups. The plan has drawn criticism on a number of fronts. Some say it slights the teaching abilities and intellectual talents of professors who don't happen to be world famous but who do a perfectly good job instructing their pupils at places such as Bristol or Newcastle. Others point out that world-class scholars don't always make the best teachers and worry that the videos will pacify the minds of students rather than stimulate them. "It would be like watching television," a professor at Brunel University told the Sunday Times of London, which published a story about the proposal. "You would lose that excitement of a live performance on a stage."

Doctor's Fees

University of New Orleans historian and best-selling author Stephen Ambrose is credited as a consultant on Stephen Spielberg's World War II epic Saving Private Ryan. But Ambrose did his consulting after the film was completed. According to a story in the New York Observer, Spielberg's people approached Ambrose this past spring and arranged a screening for him. Once he'd seen the film--which he loved--Ambrose signed on for less than $100,000, a pittance by Hollywood standards. The Observer speculates that Spielberg, who seems to have borrowed heavily from Ambrose's books in Ryan, was anxious to avoid another lawsuit like the one that plagued his last movie, the slave trade epic Amistad. (For more on the Amistad flap, see this Slate "Cheat Sheet" on plagiarism.)