Blundering Blurbers

Philosophical ruminations.
May 25 1999 3:30 AM

Blundering Blurbers

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Duked Out Citing long-standing unresolved ethics and safety violations, federal authorities suspended human experimentation at the Duke University Medical Center for four days in May. The experiments ranged from drug tests to research on psychological reactions to illness. Among the alleged violations: "insufficient training" of review board members, "potential financial conflicts of interest with some board members," and inadequate supervision of informed-consent procedures. (Federal investigators also uncovered an incident in which a space-walk experiment volunteer briefly lost consciousness.) The ban was lifted after Duke agreed to overhaul its procedures for protecting human subjects. The government also warned the City University of New York and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine to clean up their safety procedures or face shutdowns of their federally financed human research.

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Legal Omertà

Closed Chambers, Edward Lazarus' behind-the-scenes exposé of political wrangling at the Supreme Court, continues to generate controversy. Lazarus, who clerked for Justice Harry Blackmun, earned the opprobrium of legal scholars, other clerks, and the justices for making internal court business public in his book, published last year. Now Anthony Kronman, the dean of Yale Law School who blurbed the hardcover edition of the book as "well-researched and wonderfully written," has formally apologized to the Supreme Court and sent a letter of explanation to Yale Law School alumni. Declaring that his initial enthusiasm for the book constituted a "real lapse" in judgment, Kronman said he believes former clerks are bound to silence about the court's nonpublic discussions and activities. According to USA Today, Kronman's blurb will not appear on the paperback edition of the book due out this month.

Little Big Man

New York Review of Books writer Thomas Powers stands accused of ignorance, incompetence, and racial stereotyping by 32 Native American studies scholars for his review of several books about Native Americans. Powers, a journalist who has written about spycraft and the atomic bomb, drew the ire of the scholars, led by Patricia Hilden of the University of California at Berkeley and Arnold Krupat of Sarah Lawrence College, who wrote that he had "little or no detailed knowledge of Native American scholarship" and that he reproduced tired clichés about Native American figures and traditions. "We are quite certain that no one of us would be asked to review books in Mr. Powers's fields," the signatories declared in a letter in the May 20 issue. Powers expressed bafflement at the charges, concluding that the letter "amounts to an attempt to intimidate ... me from writing about 'their field.' " The Review's editors concurred: "It is hard to take seriously academics who condemn an independent scholar without making a single substantive criticism of his work."

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The Academics Strike Back

Star Wars hoopla visits academia, reports the Dallas Morning News. Some scholars view the original Star Wars film as a simplistic Cold War allegory that helped to legitimize Ronald Reagan's view of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" and to build popular support for a "star wars" missile defense. Others reverse the movie's ideological lenses, arguing that filmmaker George Lucas based his "evil emperor" on Richard Nixon and Darth Vader on Henry Kissinger. Finally, others charge that Star Wars represents a covert remake of Birth of the Nation. "The narrative homologies between Birth of a Nation and Star Wars click beyond the possibility of accident," writes Clyde Taylor of Tufts University. "Darth Vader (dark invader?) is the upstart commander of 'black' political forces, threatening a weakened, but spiritual, refined, and honor-bound version of the 'South.' ... [R2-D2 and C-3PO] take the place of those sassy, back-talking darky house servants, of equally mechanical loyalty to their betters." Whatever their differences, the scholars agree on Star Wars' enduring impact on American culture.

Eyes on the Prize

The Bancroft Prize, given to honor the best works of American history, was awarded this year to two books on slavery and one on the (hostile) relations between Native Americans and settlers. The books are Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America, by the University of Maryland's Ira Berlin; Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake & Lowcountry, by William and Mary's Philip D. Morgan; and The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity, by Boston University's Jill Lepore.

The Other Side of the Rainbow

Affirmative action is good for you, supporters told the New York Times. The University of Michigan, for one, cites statistical evidence to argue that affirmative action benefits not only minority students but all students. White students who attend a "diverse" college campus are more likely to work in integrated settings and to display ambition, confidence, and other worthy traits, the school attests. "Diversity enhances learning," says university President Lee Bollinger. Meanwhile, the New York Times Magazine offers a rosy portrait of California after the abolition of affirmative action. Minority students who once might have been admitted to the system's best schools are now finding places at lower-tier schools. More important, the new dispensation has encouraged state universities to step up their efforts to recruit students from low-performing high schools, often with positive results.

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businesschool.com

Junk bond king Michael Milken and the University of Chicago are partnering in an online business school venture. The University of Chicago has just announced a deal with UNEXT.com, an online education company partly funded by Milken and headed by a Chicago trustee. University officials anticipate $20 million in revenues just in the next five years. But faculty members are concerned about conflicts of interest, not only on the part of the trustee, Andrew Rosenfield, but also because UNEXT's investors include two University of Chicago economics professors, Gary Becker and Merton Miller, as well as the university's law school dean, Daniel Fischel. Fischel is also the author of Payback: The Conspiracy To Destroy Michael Milken and His Financial Revolution. Administrators protest that they are only keeping pace with their competitors: UNEXT has already signed on with Columbia, while Harvard, Stanford, and Cornell are considering commercial partners for their own online programs.

UC-Berkeley Folds ...

A monthlong protest by students in Berkeley's ethnic studies department, marked by a hunger strike and 129 arrests, ended in near complete capitulation by the administration, which promised more tenure-track faculty and a research center. The "Third World Liberation Front" demonstrators argued that over the last decade Berkeley had neglected its ethnic studies department, failing to fill positions in fields such as Chicano and Native American studies. The agreement calls for a committee of students and faculty members to design a five-year plan to guide the department's hiring strategy.

... And So Does Anna Quindlen

Protests by anti-abortion activists at Villanova University convinced former New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen to bow out as a commencement speaker. The best-selling novelist would have been the third member of her family to receive an honorary degree from the Catholic university near Philadelphia. Quindlen, a board member of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, had no plans to discuss abortion in her address--"I would have talked about the sheer pleasure of living," she told the Philadelphia Inquirer. She added that she didn't want to divert attention from the students on their graduation day. The protesters were only half-mollified by Quindlen's gesture: The president of American Collegians for Life regrets that the university did not revoke the invitation first.

Yo Queerio, Taco Bell

Under a "Missionary Positions" theme, the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies met in San Antonio, Texas, to focus on sexuality, a topic long considered taboo in the Latino community. As the Los Angeles Times reports, about 1,000 scholars gathered to hear papers on subjects that ranged from "Latina rage" to "joto" (queer) scholarship to Chicano rap music and machismo. Alicia Gaspar de Alba, a professor at the University of California Los Angeles, declared that Chicano studies has "finally been won by feminists and people in gender studies." But Juan Rodriguez, a professor at Texas Lutheran University and a member of the association since 1974, predicted a "backlash" in a few years: "Academics are no more enlightened than anyone else."

Atlas Shrugs at No. 1

At the end of April, Random House posted two lists of the top 100 nonfiction titles of the 20th century--one as judged by the Modern Library's "board" (Caleb Carr, Elaine Pagels, Stephen Jay Gould, Jon Krakauer, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., among others) and the other as judged by the "readers," or basically anyone who voted for his or her favorite book on the Modern Library Web site. Topping the "board" list is The Education of Henry Adams, by Henry Adams. The "readers" gave Ayn Rand four titles in the top 10, including the top slot. In response, the feisty journal Philosophy and Literature has inaugurated a different kind of discussion on its listserv. Its members are posting their votes for the worst books. Rand has proved to be a listserv favorite, though John Steinbeck's Cannery Row and Martin Amis' The Information have also garnered mentions.