News from academe

The Rapist in the Machine

Revered author and anti-Communist Arthur Koestler repeatedly abused women and committed at least one rape, alleges a new British biography serialized in the Daily Telegraph. The book, by Southampton University Professor David Cesarani, claims that in 1951 Koestler violently assaulted Jill Craigie, the wife of former Labor Party leader Michael Foot. (Craigie has since confirmed the story.) The furor over the book led to the removal of a bust of Koestler from Edinburgh University. Oblivious to the truism that all publicity is good, Cesarini wrote in the Times Higher Education Supplement that his work was distorted by the Telegraph’s sensationalistic presentation. His stated intent: to balance a candid assessment of Koestler’s unsavory personal life with a respectful consideration of the man’s achievements as a writer and political thinker.

Nobel Gas?

A book debunking Rigoberta Menchú, the winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, has reignited the domestic culture wars. Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans, by Middlebury College anthropologist David Stoll, documents numerous inaccuracies, fabrications, and shadings of the truth in Menehú’s ghostwritten 1987 autobiography. Conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza, who first ridiculed Menchú’s book in 1991, compared the lefty saint to Tawana Brawley in a recent op-ed, aligning her defenders with those who claimed that the truth of Brawley’s allegations didn’t matter. On the left, Alexander Cockburn declared that Menchú “survives [Stoll’s] scrutiny,” arguing that his revelations are trivial and that the flaws in Menchú’s account of her life are transcended by her success in bringing world attention to the plight of Guatemalan Indians. Meanwhile, Stoll’s book has accelerated debate among anthropologists and literary scholars over the reliability of individual testimony and the proper relationship between autobiographical narrative and literal truth.

Edward Said–D’oh!

Intellectual celebrity Edward Said has assumed the presidency of academia’s largest and most controversial professional organization, the Modern Language Association. The Columbia University literary scholar, music critic, and Palestinian activist is the best-known figure to represent the profession in years. The Nation hailed his inauguration as a victory for the left, a sentiment not shared by some inside the academy, who have noted Said’s increasingly critical views about the radical postcolonial scholars who have followed in his footsteps. Meanwhile, the New York Times apologized for the mysterious appearance of a Bart Simpson mask in a photograph of Palestinian demonstrators that accompanied an essay by Said in its Sunday magazine.

Retroaffirmative Action

California’s new governor, Democrat Gray Davis, has endorsed a diversity plan for the University of California system that would replace the programs swept away by a 1996 ballot initiative. Officials worried about falling minority enrollments and applications are proposing to guarantee admission to the University of California to any California high-school student who graduates in the top 4 percent of his high-school class. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Ward Connerly, the architect of the 1996 initiative, has extended cautious support to the plan. Connerly and his allies scored a recent victory in Washington state, which has begun to dismantle its affirmative action programs after voters passed a clone of the California initiative in November.

God Is an Environmentalist

Last October, more than 1,000 religious leaders from various faiths gathered with scholars at Harvard University for a conference on environmentalism. The Los Angeles Times described the conference as the most visible manifestation of a rapprochement between religion and environmentalism. Religious leaders, especially conservative Christians, have long been suspicious of environmentalism, seeing links between its exaltation of nature and pagan traditions. And environmentalists have on occasion attacked religion for promoting human domination over the natural world. “We still espouse a God-given right of human beings to use the environment for their benefit,” says Barrett Duke of the Southern Baptists. “Creation was not provided to us by God to consume it into oblivion.”

No! Wait! Sociology Lives!

Not long ago, Lingua Franca (and others) declared that “sociology is dead.” Once considered a model of social scientific method and a source of broad insights into the way people live, the discipline had become directionless, intellectually moribund, and hopelessly overspecialized, with departments across the country scaling back or disappearing altogether. But now Prospect, a British magazine that covers politics and ideas, asserts that “sociology is back.” The evidence? A renaissance of sociological research in the United Kingdom, as well as the fact that Prime Minister Tony Blair’s intellectual guru is sociologist and London School of Economics Dean Anthony Giddens. Prospect adds that the best sociological research is coming from independent think tanks and corporations, not from universities.

Serbia Turns Down American Express

Despite U.S. State Department intervention, Serbia denied visas to a delegation assigned by Human Rights Watch to investigate the suppression of academic freedom in that country. Those denied visas included philosopher Richard Rorty and several Nobel laureates, who were to participate in a conference with independent Serbian intellectuals. The Serbian government also contended that the delegation–which included Lingua Franca Managing Editor Laura Secor, who recently wrote for the magazine about the Serb government’s crackdown on universities–was part of a CIA plot.

Economic Star Power

The Economist’s survey of rising young stars in the economics profession found that this decade’s hot young economists are the same people it named to the list 10 years ago. “Where are the Paul Krugmans of yesteryear?” the magazine asked, wondering why so few junior members of the field have crossed over into the public sphere. The answer seems to be that the very youngest generation is doing work that is too technical and too mathematical to attract much attention or be applied to questions of policy.

Class Struggles

A labor stalemate between the University of California and its graduate students continues. Graduate students working as teaching assistants went on strike in December, demanding the right to collective bargaining for the 9,000 TAs who work for the eight school system. They then acceded to a “cooling off” period, which ended Jan. 21 without an agreement being reached. The students, affiliated with the United Auto Workers union, have had some success: The California Public Employment Relations Board ruled late last year in favor of their right to organize. The university appealed the decision, insisting that graduate students, even if they work as instructors, are students first and foremost. Union organizers have not yet said when the strike might resume.