January 2011

A Faustian bargain

I know one of your arguments is that not every place should try to do everything. Let other institutions have great programs in classics or theater arts, you say; we will focus on preparing students for jobs in the real world. Well, I hope I’ve just shown you that the real world is pretty fickle about what it wants. The best way for people to be prepared for the inevitable shock of change is to be as broadly educated as possible, because today’s backwater is often tomorrow’s hot field. And interdisciplinary research, which is all the rage these days, is only possible if people aren’t too narrowly trained. If none of that convinces you, then I’m willing to let you turn your institution into a place that focuses on the practical, but only if you stop calling it a university and calling yourself the president of one. You see, the word “university” derives from the Latin “universitas,” meaning “the whole.” You can’t be a university without having a thriving humanities program. You will need to call SUNY Albany a trade school or perhaps a vocational college, but not a university. Not anymore.

I utterly refuse to believe that you had no alternative. It’s your job as president to find ways of solving problems that do not require the amputation of healthy limbs. Voltaire said that no problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking. Voltaire, whose real name was François-Marie Arouet, had a lot of pithy, witty and brilliant things to say (my favorite is “God is a comedian playing to an audience that is afraid to laugh”). Much of what he wrote would be very useful to you. I’m sure the faculty in your French department would be happy to introduce you to his writings, if only you had a French department, which now, of course, you don’t.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that you have trouble understanding the importance of maintaining programs in unglamorous or even seemingly dead subjects. From your biography, you don’t actually have a Ph.D. or other high degree and have never really taught or done research at a university. Perhaps my own background will interest you. I started out as a classics major. I’m now a professor of biochemistry and chemistry. Of all the courses I took in college and graduate school, the ones that have benefited me the most in my career as a scientist are the courses in classics, art history, sociology and English literature. These courses didn’t just give me a much better appreciation for my own culture; they taught me how to think, to analyze, and to write clearly. None of my sciences courses did any of that.

Faustian Bargain
Faust's pact with Mephisto, engraving by Julius Nisle after Goethe's “Faust.”

One of the things I do now is write a monthly column on science and society. I’ve done it for over ten years, and I’m pleased to say some people seem to like it. If I’ve been fortunate enough to come up with a few insightful observations, I can assure you they are entirely due to my background in the humanities and my love of the arts.

One of the things I’ve written about is the way genomics is changing the world we live in. Our ability to manipulate the human genome is going to pose some very difficult questions for humanity in the next few decades, including the question of just what it means to be human. That isn’t a question for science alone; it’s a question that must be answered with input from every sphere of human thought, including – especially including – the humanities and arts. Science unleavened by the human heart and the human spirit is sterile, cold and self-absorbed. It’s also unimaginative: Some of my best ideas as a scientist have come from thinking and reading about things that have, superficially, nothing to do with science. If I’m right that what it means to be human is going to be one of the central issues of our time, then universities that are best equipped to deal with it in all its many facets will be the most important institutions of higher learning in the future. You’ve just ensured that yours won’t be one of them.

Some of your defenders have asserted that this is all a brilliant ploy on your part – a master political move designed to shock the legislature and force them to give SUNY Albany enough resources to keep these departments open. That would be Machiavellian (another notable Italian writer, but then, you don’t have any Italian faculty to tell you about him), certainly, but I doubt that you’re that clever. If you were, you would have held that town meeting when the whole university could have been present, at a place where the press would be all over it. That’s how you force the hand of a bunch of politicians. You proclaim your action on the steps of the state capitol. You don’t try to sneak it through in the dead of night when your institution has its back turned.

No, I think you were simply trying to balance your budget at the expense of what you believe to be weak, outdated and powerless departments. I think you will find, in time, that you made a Faustian bargain. Faust is the title character in a play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It was written around 1800 but still attracts the largest audiences of any play in Germany whenever it’s performed. Faust is the story of a scholar who makes a deal with the devil. The devil promises him anything he wants as long as he lives. In return, the devil will get – well, I’m sure you can guess how these sorts of deals usually go. If only you had a theater department – which now, of course, you don’t – you could ask them to perform the play so you could see what happens. It’s awfully relevant to your situation. You see, Goethe believed that it profits a man nothing to give up his soul for the whole world. That’s the whole world, President Philip, not just a balanced budget. Although, I guess, to be fair, you haven’t given up your soul. Just the soul of your institution.

Disrespectfully yours,
Gregory A. Petsko

* This article originally appeared in Genome Biology 11, 138.

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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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