The Professor: an Academic Tragedy

Once upon a time there was a university.

It was a good school, and many of its departments were well-known and respected. One department in particular had international strengths in two programs and was a magnet for talent, not least because of its professors and their reputations.

One of these professors wanted to advance himself. He was already the world’s expert in a particular writer, and much in demand at conferences. He had published several books, and been promoted to a higher salary than most. Ambition did not leave this man. He needed more.

Apart from his eminence, the professor was an unusual man. He had taken the trouble to be trained as a psychoanalyst, for example, although he had no medical degree. He was serious about Catholicism in an old-fashioned conservative way.

Most of all, the professor was proud. He was certain of his worth and achievements and made sure that others recognized these things, and his importance. To illustrate: he hosted a university-related party at his house. The house was beautiful and decorated with tasteful art. His wife was a gracious old-fashioned university wife. And the guests were led in through an odd path. In order to reach the gathering in a larger room, everyone had to pass through the scholar’s study. On an otherwise immaculate desk, the galleys for his next book sat, turned open, with a fountain pen sitting on the paper. Clearly he had just stepped up from his labor to greet his guests!

Although the professor was respected and rewarded for his eminence, ambition and self-love demanded that he rise to greater heights. He turned to the department and requested — nay, demanded! — that an entirely new program be created in his specialty, with a permanent chair for himself, and a budget with which he could hire other luminaries.

This was immediately denied. There was no money for such a thing.

It was then that our professor realized that the great challenge of his life had arrived. With every strength he could find, he fought for his dream. Other professors at the university were convinced or browbeaten into supporting his program. Friends of his at other institutions chimed in. Strings were pulled, and steak dinners were had in half-dark restaurants with red booths.

This went on for at least two years.

The war was a failure. Not enough people supported the professor’s dream, and there really was no money.

At this point our story takes a strange, dark path. Convinced that he was in the right, and that his colleagues had spiked his dream unjustly, he struck back.

One of his supposed enemies was a writer of fiction. The writer had a new book just arriving, at that delicate moment where reviews make the difference between a future paperback or book club sale, or a commercial failure. The enraged professor requested this book for review from a major newspaper. Although this is not permitted, he was inexplicably allowed to review his enemy’s book, and performed a thoroughgoing hatchet job on the front page of the review section.

A storm of letters to the paper, pointing out the circumstances and chiding the newspaper for its editorial error, resulted in an apology. Not from our professor, though. He stayed his course.

In a classic academic flounce, he declared a year leave without pay. This is permitted in academia and some people hoped that he would read a book or two and come back ready to resume his career.

However, he almost immediately took a position at another university. This is not allowed. Requests, notices, and telephone calls from his former department were ignored. After ascertaining that he in no way was coming back, and that the new university had given him a tenured position, he was formally asked to come clean out his office.

Late one weekend day, he and his wife arrived at the department and entered his office.

When the janitorial staff came in later, the scene was overwhelming. file cabinets were tipped over, papers shredded everywhere, various objects smashed. Anything that could be destroyed or permanently damaged was. There were holes in the walls. And spraypainted on the wall, in huge letters, was the legend: FUCK [UNIVERSITY]!

And that is the story of the proud professor and the department that said no.

It’s likely that some of the details are distorted, because this was communicated to me orally many years ago. But it stuck. I run into references to this guy sometimes, even saw him on TV lecturing. He’s still a fine writer and very good on his topic.

10 thoughts on “The Professor: an Academic Tragedy

  1. Last year a USC professor was severely penalized for obtaining the names of the peers on his review committee for NIH grant funding and then intimidating a junior member of the review board to give him a higher score. The junior member complained to the head of the review board..and well, the professor lost all his NIH funding for ever and ever, which also affected his other funding streams and without funding, well… So his grant money is now going elsewhere and his peers have learned a lesson in how not to behave. Even if you did once have a Big Discovery.
    FROM LATIMES: Interviews and records show that a research grant proposal by USC professor W. Martin Kast was disallowed after his alleged lobbying efforts were disclosed by the chief of peer review panelists looking into prostate cancer research proposals.


    1. Christ, what an asshole.
      I’m not surprised, though, considering some friends’ experiences as grad students there. Ridiculous hierarchy with no consequences for misbehavior.


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