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Anyone who has ever wondered why there is such a push for increased numbers of tenured minority and women faculty at Harvard should read A Tenured Professor. With insight some-what surprising from a University "insider," Warburg Professor of Economics John Kenneth Galbraith muses on tenure and other collegiate and national ills in this cynical, thoroughly engaging new novel.
The Tenured Professor
By John Kenneth Galbraith
Houghton Mifflin Company
$19.95; 197 pages
But while the book is a novel, and makes the traditional assertions as to its fictional basis, most of the background details about Harvard and the American economic and political scenes are true to life. This verisimultude is perhaps what makes the novel most enjoyable, and most frightening. Though none of the outrageous events charted in this book ever happened, the readers need take no leap of faith to imagine them actually occurring.
Not suprisingly, the touchstone for all the wild plot twists and hence, social commentary, is tenure.
"Tenure was originally invented to protect radical professors, those who challenged the accepted order," says fictional Professor of Psychometrics Angus M. McCrimmon to the young hero of the story, Marvin. But, he warns this academic errant:
...we don't have such people anymore at the universities, and the reason is tenure. When the time comes to grant it nowadays, the radicals get screened out. That's its principal function. It's a very good system, really--keeps academic life at a decent level of tranquility.
When Marvin suggests that aspiring professors hide their liberal tendencies until they are assured of tenure, the ever cynical McCrimmon responds, "That's the only sensible couse."
Galbraith, throughout the novel, seems to delight in tipping sacred cows. Actually, he accords tenure more respect than he does many other traditions that appear in the book. His satires, given his volumes of knowledge, are especially biting. And very little of the Harvard community escapes his eye. Neither the Corporation, nor the Faculty Club, nor Student activists are safe.
Galbraith, after all, is a thinly veiled narrator--he assumes a number of fictional personas throughout his book. The most obvious of them, the character most closely allied with Galbraith's own public persona, is the title character, Montgomery Marvin, a professor of economics.
The maverick Marvin is the strongest satiric vehicle, and the true center of action. He learns to index irrational investment expectations, and with the prodding of a liberal-minded wife, he finds over-optimistic companies. He borrows stock in them and then sells it. And when the company fails, the professor replaces the stock at its original prices, keeping the difference.
With the millions of dollars he makes, Marvin sets about treating some of the world's ills. He forces companies to acknowledge the number of female executives they have, and publish those numbers on their product labels and in their stock reports. He establishes Political Rectitude Committees (PRCs) which give matching funds to the opponents of political candidates supported by PACs. He establishes "peace professorships" at the various military colleges. He even buys Harvard's South Africa-related investments, and forces divestment.
But when Marvin buys a TV station, and suggests it give as much air-time to peace organizations as it does to military news, Marvin goes too far. This economics professor who invests against optimism and supports peace is suddenly and vigorously condemned as un-American.
Marvin's excesses, of course, are the result of years of shored-up liberalism, of years spent awaiting tenure. Galbraith might not be subtle, but he most certainly is clever, imaginative and funny.
But A Tenured Professor, despite its excesses and factual inaccuracies (Galbraith at one point has Harvard investing $200 million while Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu sits on its Board of Overseers), resonates with a feeling of reality. Galbraith, after all, realizes how things work--he understands America's economy; he perceives its societally-imposed norms; and he knows Harvard. This realistic overcast to the sage professor's satire is disturbing, because when all is said and done, his comedy is biting, and its tone is black.
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