Molly Ivins April 9
BOULDER, Colo. — The academic world is a perennial target for both brilliant satirists and know-nothings. Jane Smiley's book "Moo" and David Lodge's "Small World" are splendid recent additions to the satirical canon. The know-nothings, ever eager to point out that the liberal arts have yet to produce a single widget, are always with us. "Buncha pointy-heads who can't even park their bicycles straight," George Wallace used to say.
Watching an academic institution struggle to renew itself and become relevant — or insist on its right to remain irrelevant to the concerns of the marketplace — can be funny, touching and oddly magnificent. An academic institution with which I have been long associated — the annual, week-long World Affairs Conference at the University of Colorado — is in a renewal phase. We don't know yet what the results will be, but for the first time in a long time, the conference, which had become the plaything of a rather precious clique, is suddenly the talk of this campus. Students are excited about hearing a famously motley crew of experts talk about "Technology, Power and Change." And students, after all, are the academy's product.
I am impressed not only by the amount of work it has taken to revive the World Affairs Conference but by the breadth of the support needed to do so. Administration, faculty, student volunteers, town volunteers — the conference costs nothing, and it pays nothing; it is entirely the product of donations of work and donations of time. And just a dribble of money from UC.
I pay my own way to the conference, as do all the participants, because a) it's fun and b) I get to learn. And I love being reminded how much fun it is to learn.
An altogether less inspiring example of academic behavior comes from our own University of Texas, where Chancellor Bill Cunningham made $650,422 profit in one day by exercising his options on thousands of shares in some Freeport-McMoRan companies, according to the Austin American-Statesman. Freeport-McMoRan not only has been a notorious domestic polluter but is also accused of grave human-rights violations in Indonesia. Cunningham had accumulated the options while serving on the board of Freeport-McMoRan subsidiaries; Freeport will also pay any federal taxes due on Cunningham's profits.
Cunningham resigned from the Freeport board in December, one day after the company threatened to sue three UT professors for spreading what the company calls false allegations about the company's operations in Indonesia. This tactic, called a SLAPP suit (for "strategic lawsuits against public participation"), is commonly used by corporations to silence their critics.
Cunningham resigned from the wrong institution. His defenders claim that the university needs a businessman at its helm. Nonsense. What any university needs is a leader of probity, one whose life is dedicated not to profit but to learning.
Cunningham is not underpaid by UT to begin with. In 1994, he requested that a new molecular biology building be named after Jim Bob Moffett and his wife, Louise; Moffett is the head of Freeport-McMoRan and had donated $2 million for the $26 million building, according to the Austin newspaper. Cunningham's salary at the time for serving as a Freeport director was $40,000 a year.
As they say in the newspapers, "Cunningham denied any impropriety." If it waddles like an impropriety and it quacks like an impropriety and it waggles its tail like an impropriety, it's probably an impropriety.
Another school of Cunningham defenders holds that the UT chancellor should serve on boards of directors. Excuse me — why? He doesn't have enough to do running the university? Then perhaps we should eliminate his position entirely and save the taxpayers' money.
Do those running the academy need to be more involved in "the real world"? What for? Tell us how a friendship with Michael Milken or Donald Trump will enrich the university. With money, you say? But there are officers at the university who do nothing but chase money from wealthy alums. Is not a university in part a place to contemplate the possibility that there might be more to life than chasing money? Is gelt really God? Are wisdom and beauty and science and history to be considered trash because they cannot be sold in the marketplace? Are anthropology, psychology and sociology worthless because they are not on the New York Stock Exchange?
Years ago, a cynical Texan suggested that the motto on the UT tower, "The Truth Shall Make You Free" be replaced with "Money Talks." The least we can expect of a great university is truth in advertising.
Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
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