January 2011

A Faustian bargain

That single chapter in a much longer book is one of the great works of modern literature. You would find a lot in it to think about. I’m sure your Russian faculty would love to talk with you about it – if only you had a Russian department, which now, of course, you don’t.

Then there’s the question of whether the state legislature’s inaction gave you no other choice. I’m sure the budgetary problems you have to deal with are serious. They certainly are at Brandeis University, where I work. And we, too, faced critical strategic decisions because our income was no longer enough to meet our expenses. But we eschewed your draconian – and authoritarian – solution, and a team of faculty, with input from all parts of the university, came up with a plan to do more with fewer resources. I’m not saying that all the specifics of our solution would fit your institution, but the process sure would have. You did call a town meeting, but it was to discuss your plan, not to let the university craft its own. And you called that meeting for Friday afternoon on Oct. 1, when few of your students or faculty would be around to attend. In your defense, you called the timing “unfortunate” but pleaded that there was a “limited availability of appropriate large venue options.” I find that rather surprising. If the president of Brandeis needed a lecture hall on short notice, he would get one. I guess you don’t have much clout at your university.

Illustration to Dante The Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto I, 1-90.

It seems to me that the way you went about it couldn’t have been more likely to alienate just about everybody on campus. In your position, I would have done everything possible to avoid that. I wouldn’t want to end up in the ninth Bolgia (ditch of stone) of the eighth circle of the Inferno, where the great 14th-century Italian poet Dante Alighieri put the sowers of discord. There, as they struggle in that pit for all eternity, a demon continually hacks their limbs apart, just as in life they divided others.

“Inferno” is the first part of Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” one of the great works of the human imagination. There’s so much to learn from it about human weakness and folly. The faculty in your Italian department would be delighted to introduce you to its many wonders – if only you had an Italian department, which now, of course, you don’t.

And do you really think even those faculty and administrators who may applaud your tough-minded stance (partly, I’m sure, in relief that they didn’t get the axe themselves) are still going to be on your side in the future? I’m reminded of the fable of the Travelers and the Bear by Aesop: two men were walking together through the woods when a bear rushed out at them. One of the travelers happened to be in front, and he grabbed the branch of a tree, climbed up, and hid himself in the leaves. The other, being too far behind, threw himself flat down on the ground with his face in the dust. The bear came up to him, put his muzzle close to the man’s ear, and sniffed and sniffed. But at last with a growl the bear slouched off, for bears will not touch dead meat. Then the fellow in the tree came down to his companion and, laughing, said “What was it that the bear whispered to you?” “He told me,” said the other man, “Never to trust a friend who deserts you in a pinch.”

I first learned that fable and its valuable lesson for life in a freshman classics course. Aesop is credited with literally hundreds of fables, most of which are equally enjoyable – and enlightening. Your classics faculty would gladly tell you about them, if only you had a classics department, which now, of course, you don’t.

Gregory Petsko has contributed a thought-provoking and entertaining monthly column to the scientific journal Genome Biology every month since its launch in 2000. To mark the 10th anniversary of Genome Biology, the journal is publishing 10 years of Petsko's columns. You can order the book on Amazon.com. 

As for the argument that the humanities don’t pay their own way, well, I guess that’s true, but it seems to me that there’s a fallacy in assuming that a university should be run like a business. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be managed prudently, but the notion that every part of it needs to be self-supporting is simply at variance with what a university is all about. You seem to value entrepreneurial programs and practical subjects that might generate intellectual property more than you do “old-fashioned” courses of study. But universities aren’t just about discovering and capitalizing on new knowledge; they are also about preserving knowledge from being lost over time, and that requires a financial investment. There is good reason for it: What seems to be archaic today can become vital in the future. I’ll give you two examples of that. The first is the science of virology, which in the 1970s was dying out because people felt that infectious diseases were no longer a serious health problem in the developed world, and other subjects, such as molecular biology, were much sexier. Then, in the early 1990s, a little problem called AIDS became the world’s number one health concern. The virus that causes AIDS was first isolated and characterized at the National Institutes of Health in the U.S.A. and the Institute Pasteur in France, because these were among the few institutions that still had thriving virology programs. My second example you will probably be more familiar with. Middle Eastern studies, including the study of foreign languages such as Arabic and Persian, was hardly a hot subject on most campuses in the 1990s. Then came September 11, 2001. Suddenly we realized that we needed a lot more people who understood something about that part of the world, especially its Muslim culture. Those universities that had preserved their Middle Eastern studies departments, even in the face of declining enrollment, suddenly became very important places. Those that hadn’t – well, I’m sure you get the picture.

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This one line caught my attention: "...humanities don't pay their own way..." If you REALLY want to find units of university systems that don't "...pay their own way..." just look to the athletics departments. Not only do such entities NOT pay their way they draw down hugely disproportionate subsidies from students, parents, taxpayers and institutional foundations. No one would be surprised to learn that 20 to 25% of a student's tuition and fees bill goes directly to the sports entertainment "business" on campus. Charging academic departments with "not paying their own way" is simply a pathetic excuse to not educate our populace (while giving thme the best sports entertainment their money will buy even when they don't want to purchase that "entertainment"). James Joy 10 January 2011




Absolutely wonderful piece! So right you are Greg.


Unfortunate, but true.


Next should be a letter to Mark Wrighton, Chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis, regarding the treatment of four senior faculty in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics. Garland R. Marshall Professor, WUSM


Terrific, erudite letter/article. It is wonderful to see a scientist make such a effort to support the teaching of the humanities. The faculty of the humanities program owe you a debt of gratitude; I should think President Phillip would find it difficult to not respond to your convincing arguments for maintaining the humanities departments. Once something that important is lost, it is very costly to rebuild it. I hope your wisdom prevails. Eleanor Spicer Professor of Biochemistry Medical University of South Carolina



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