Mercenaries and higher ed

“Despite Brown’s proven capacity for doing the impossible, as for example starting a magazine about mercenaries, he has a boundless talent for mismanagement.”

Life With Bob: A Sordid But Instructive Interval At Soldier of Fortune Magazine, March 1984.

This is such a good line. I read it and re-read it, thinking about all the college presidents, provosts, and vice presidents, I have known for which it is an apt description. If you doubt me, just look at the last two weeks of InsideHigherEd or the Chronicle, especially if you include mismanagement of self and the spoken word. It has not been pretty.

Another useful comparison is Senator Laffer on the  series “Alpha House” on Amazon Prime. It’s an over-the-top show, and Laffer is taken to tongue-tied extremes with an inability to speak coherently off the cuff. It’s fun though. (The second season episode “Retreat” with a Ronald Reagan impressionist presenting Reagan quotes to Senate GOP members who have lost touch with the real Reagan is terribly fun.)

Of course, if one goes by the comments at either site, it seems pretty clear that higher ed is a mess. None of us can be trusted to speak or write without extensive coaching.

“If, as someone said, the intelligent man adapts himself to the world, but the genius adapts the world to himself, Bob is a genius, living in a world he has built to his own specs. A fantasy world, yes, but Bob knows where reality begins and usually stops short of getting into trouble.”

Does this describe the modern university?

I think it probably does. Institutions are still pretty insular, isolated from the local communities in many ways, despite decades of talking about “town and gown relationships.” I mean the concept that somehow it is appropriate for institutions to determine how to handle sexual assault and rape still floors me. I understand the issues. I have had long discussions with presidents and board members about the topic, and I think I understand their positions. I just disagree. Even if I separate out the issues of governance and whether or not it is appropriate for college administrators or committees to adjudicate rape, the fact that a college has so much discretion, and even control, over determining whether an event occurred that they know they have to report to the federal government and thence to the public, is just wrong.

If an administration knows that each rape must be reported annually, and doing so “casts the institution in a negative light,” for that reason alone, an institution has a vested interesting in saying it wasn’t rape.

This is wrong. It violates the concepts of transparency and accountability, and for that reason alone it should not be allowed.

And that’s clearly the least of the reasons that it is wrong.

The mystery is how anyone as inept as Bob can survive while doing the things he does. In the Special Forces, he was known as Boo-Boo Brown because he couldn’t get a drink of water without breaking his leg, losing his wallet, or setting off NORAD alarms. It’s hard being a deaf commando with no memory. Bob once left an open bag full of cash in an airport in Bangkok—just forgot it, the way normal people forget a paperback book. Many who know him think he really needs a mother, or a keeper, and the incident suggested that he may have an invisible cosmic sponsor: The money was still there when a traveling companion went back, which is impossible in Bangkok.

Sometimes I wonder how these institutions have survived so long. Yes, there are many good, very intelligent, well-intended people at the helm and throughout each, but somehow dumb stuff keeps being done. A $219,000 conference table that is justified because of its embedded technology – technology that will be thoroughly outdated in just a few years. (Since one of the commenters at the linked article has already made the Holy Grail connection, I will forego my own reference, other than mentioning the Round Table portrayed in Excalibur was a segmented ring, leaving the center open. A much more practical design.) Justification and rationalization is second nature. After all, if funders, a state legislature, governing/coordinating body, or the federal government directs that something be done, compliance is cheaper if one can rationalize that an existing activity meets that need. The justification for doing so is generally “we’ve got limited resources and can only do so much.”

Sexual assault is not a new problem on campus. It is time to seriously address it and stop making excuses. For those who find the event depicted in the Rolling Stone article fictitious because of the language used by the assailants (referring to the victim as “it”) as improbable, might wish to recall The Silence of the Lambs. Images and dialog often transcend generations and unless you hang out with a lot of young people in very informal circumstances, you may not have a freaking clue what is currently floating around.

In fact, you probably don’t have a clue anyway. There are always disconnects between generations.

3 thoughts on “Mercenaries and higher ed

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