Monthly Archives: April 2009

college presidents and the collapse of big finance

In the NY Times this morning I saw that Frank Rich had, as usual, beaten up on  Lawrence Summers, but the most interesting part of the piece was his focus on Summers’  failed term as president of Harvard, which featured as many conflicts of interest as it did public gaffes and unforgivable arrogance.  (Summers, it has recently been reported, had done consulting work for an outside hedge fund while still President, and while presumably still managing its huge endowment).   Rich, a Harvard alum, was annoyed that Summers’  hedge-fund freelancing coincided with his public criticism of  Cornel West for his extracurricular activities.    Rich rightly pointed out the blatant double standard practiced by Summers and his supporters at Harvard, in which West’s media appearances were cited as evidence of his neglect of his academic duties, while Summers himself was quietly networking with government agencies, non-profits, universities, and financial firms instead of protecting Harvard’s fortunes, in every sense of the word.

But Rich seems to have missed one important aspect of  Summers’ demise at Harvard, which explains a great deal about his arrogance towards faculty in non-quantitative or money-driven disciplines: the extent to which both private and public higher education have become absolutely dependent upon–if not intertwined with–the very same speculative  “culture of greed” that is now in a state of collapse all over the country.  Like so many other one-time Masters of the Universe, Summers, with his insider’s access to power and inflated consulting fees, could brag that he made the world that others (reporters, humanists, pension-holders) could only interpret, even if this world turned out to be entirely fraudulent.  What’s more, though the bubble has burst, colleges and universities may find that this dependence will not be easy  to fix, no matter how many catastrophes the Larry Summers of the world may cause, since many of the assumptions about the wisdom and benevolence of financiers and college presidents remain in place.

The widespread assumption, for example, that university presidents should focus on fund-raising, not day to day operations, has resulted in a wave of non-academic university presidents who seem indistinguishable from the politicians, corporate and finance people they chiefly interact with.  Summers’ dealings with those hedge funds weren’t seen as detracting from his job, because they were seen as qualifications for the job, under the new rules of the corporate-style college presidency.  And colleges and universities across the country, both public and private, are now discovering that their futures–in the form of their shrinking endowments–are more connected than they would like with the fates of people who invested in “Sir” Allen Stanford or Bernie Madoff.

So what can we do to extricate ourselves from the ruinous self-delusions of people like this?  In my view, the only recourse we have is better governance in both the universities and in the corporations that are providing the cues.  Academics are often stock- or pension-holders, if nothing else, and academic organizations like the MLA and the AAUP should be mindful of the link  between corporate and university governance, the need for more transparency on both sides of the divide, and the importance of removing toxic leadership before they destroy too much of the value of their organizations.  And governance-minded academics need to support the forms of self-regulation and -oversight that exist in their own world, namely the accreditation and reporting groups that provide an important national audience (another public sphere, for you Habermas fans) for the devious and self-seeking behavior of their local administrators.  Where the law ends, shame begins.

Summers seems determined to wreak upon Obama’s reputation the same sort of magic he delivered for Harvard, so screw him and the smarty-pants Obama people who thought he was so goddamned indispensable.  A more typical and pathetic example is Bob Kerrey, a big fat failure of a president still unaccountably employed by the New School, though he had to pepper-spray the students who keep occupying buildings and demanding he resign.  This one-time “visionary’s” response?  According to the NY Post, “The former Nebraska governor and senator said he would not leave unless his “quality” of life “deteriorates.””



leadership qualities

Successful committee-work, like successful teaching, is about knowing when to shut up, calm down, or absent yourself entirely if that’s what the situation demands.   It’s the art of not getting in the way, especially when you’re in the middle of a collective process that will move along perfectly well without you.  When I was speaking at this event, I briefly referred to the need for librarians and learning support folks to collaborate more.  The next day I found myself scheduled for a meeting with about 10 other people, including two people from my own department, to work on a supercharged annotated bibliography project.  Later that day, when I went to our end-of-the week wind-down session, we all realized that no one could name the director of the Leadership program at our college.  No one was that concerned.



Hi everyone, Toni Bowers and I are editing a collection of essays, and I wanted to share the CFP. If you have any questions, please drop me a line — and please also share this call with others who might be interested. Thanks much, Tita


CFP: Seduction and Sentiment in the Atlantic World, 1600-1800 

(essay collection edited by Toni Bowers and Tita Chico)


What relations pertained between seduction plots, sentimental narratives, and the economic, social, credal, and political imperatives of the Atlantic world in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? What could “seduction” and “sentiment” mean in relation to one another? When, how, and why were the two positioned in relation to each other, as versions of one another, or as antonyms?


This collection of essays considers how new exigencies that emerged in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Atlantic world reconfigured old and shaped possible new relations between seduction and sentiment.


The editors seek abstracts for essays to be completed by December 1,2009. Email 500-word abstracts to Toni Bowers (tbowers [at ] and Tita Chico (tchico [at] by May 1, 2009.


**Please cross-post**

ASECS 2009: “what is tacit cannot be reproduced”

I’m wrapping up my ASECS posts with this phrase, because it seemed to me to be an important subtext for a lot of the discussions I was having throughout the conference.  In fact, the phrase popped out during a very nice dinner I had with Laura R. and some others, and it was still floating in my head when I heard the panel mentioned earlier by Carrie S., “How long was the eighteenth century?”

Let me explain the connection: while we were having the usual “where the hell is the profession headed?” discussion Friday night, I talked about my frustration with the disconnect between senior scholars and the conditions everyone else is working in.  This was not news to anyone at the table, and everybody there had found ways to adapt their work to the new conditions: curricular work in digital humanities or performance and reception studies; interventions in assessment or accreditation efforts on-campus; initiatives in undergraduate research, and so forth.  So in that sense I am not at all worried about where the profession, or our specialization, is going.

My point, however, was that questions like Hans Gumbrecht’s “what is the future of literary studies?” (meaning, does literary studies even have a future?) are no longer “theoretical” questions about future innovations.  In other words, I am not simply talking about the usual mid-career anxieties of the tenured about missing out on the cool new stuff that others are doing.  Instead, questions about the future of literary studies have a different kind of urgency in the face of the “permatemped” conditions of the corporate university discussed by people like Marc Bousquet.  Can specialized studies in a humanities sub-field like the eighteenth century survive in any recognizable way in institutions like ours, which represent the spectrum of public higher education? And do senior scholars, by virtue of their privileged positions in more elite institutions, have an obligation to address audiences beyond their fellow specialists, and begin to take a stand on the steady de-professionalization of humanities teaching at their own universities and beyond?

My point was that some of the recent dismissals of cultural studies I’ve seen from more senior scholars seem to blame cultural studies, and not the very real economic and political forces identified by Bousquet, for the declining institutional role of humanities teaching and liberal arts education at most non-elite institutions.  So I think that any discussion of the future of literary studies, theoretical or otherwise, must acknowledge the very real and concrete concerns about how we might sustain and reproduce this field for future generations of scholars.  What kinds of jobs will those scholars have?  What kinds of research and teaching will they be expected to do?  What will their students look like, or be expected to do?  And I don’t expect the answers to these questions to resemble answers for previous generations of scholars, including myself.  And I get concerned when I see the most distinguished scholars of my own field nostalgic for a time when literary studies did not need to justify itself, when what the Humanities most urgently needs are intelligent and persuasive advocates to address its multiple publics and defend its practices, in all their diversity.  Under changing conditions, what is tacit cannot be defended, let alone reproduced, without some acknowledgment of what has changed.  So who will play this role of advocating for the humanities, when the future arrives?